Saturday, February 28, 2009

Un Mensage para mis Amigos Hispanohablantes

EDIT FOR ANGLOPHONES: Sorry, I should have explained this when I first posted it. This is just a note for the people I've met in Latin America who've been reading my blog, thanking them and asking for a little help practicing my Spanish while I'm not in Spanish speaking countries.

Lamentablemente, no tengo bastante tiempo para traducir todo de lo que he escrito acá en Ingles a Castellano, pero sé que hay unos de ustedes que todavía están leyendo mi blog. Solo quiero decir que he disfrutado mis experiencias en el mundo hispanohablante mas que yo pudiera imaginar. La pequeña que he visto de la América Latina fue pura mágica. Y mientras la tierra y arte y todo que se puede ver es magnífico, la cosa más magnifico todavía es el gente. No tengo palabras para describir todo que he aprendido y visto de su cultura, cuentas, generosidad, y pasión. Muchísimas gracias para todo que ustedes me han mostrado y compartido.

Dos cosas. El primero es un sugerencia. Yo creo que todos de ustedes deben conocer un otra parte de sudamericana o centroamericana que no han visto. Hay tantos tesoros naturales y culturales distintas por todos lados en el mundo latino. En mi opinión es un necesidad conocerlos.

El segundo es un petición. He salido de el mundo hispanohablante para un buen rato-- pero no quiero perder mi español. Sé que es muy fácil olvidar un idioma cuando no se la usa. Si ustedes puedan escribirme para ayudarme mantener mi técnico con Castellano, le agradezca mucho. También, si tienes alguno sitios de web o otras cosas que puedo leer en mis viajes fuera del mundo hispanohablante, esta me ayudaría mucho también.

Una vez más, imuchas gracias a todos de ustedes, un abrazo para todos! Cuando vienen a los EEUU o otra parte del mundo, o de verdad cuando necesitan cualquier cosa, me escriban.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Biggest Party in the World

I wasn't originally planning on doing this. I thought I´d be in Asia by now. I didn't think Brazil would be accessible, with the two weeks waiting for a visa and the hefty fee and everything that went with it. But that was before finding the consulate that can do visas in hours instead of days (Puerto Iguazu) and being invited over specifically to stay in Rio by some great friends, after meeting them in a certain episode involving stuffing my fleece in a speaker of a Bolivian bus.

And that's how I got to see this: a chunk of the Sambodromo-- the headline event of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Where all the local samba schools come out and compete in the parade all other parades I had ever seen wish they could hope to be half of when they grew up. Ranks up ranks of singing, dancing costumes of amazing colors and huge feathers, wire, paint, and who knows what else pouring out of giant opening pyramids, spinning on moving forests with fairies, and floating by giant seahorses on Segways. But if you had come to Carnaval and only bought tickets and come to the Sambodromo, you'd have missed the point. The rest of the city had been itching for this party all year. The bloco street parades were all over the city, all day and all night for days and days leading up to the official start on Friday.

The blocos surprised me. Mostly what they consisted of was a group of drummers and a car with speakers, having someone singing what sounded to me like various Portuguese versions of "this is the song that never ends" and playing a ukulele. But they had hundreds upon thousands of people following them, wearing all the costumes you'd expect at a college costume party, singing along at the top of their lungs and packing the entire street for blocks upon blocks, dancing the fast-foot samba shuffle and inching their way forwards. People from all over the world came to this city to see it do what it does best.

The sights of the city itself are breathtaking. My guidebooks often try to spruce up the image of a city by describing it as "set spectacularly" among a surrounding of mountains and sea. But this place really is. There are green spires shooting up out of the ground at random intervals and ridiculous heights for their base size, opposite sandy beaches and blue seas with islands dotting the view. Just taking the highway up from the western neighborhoods downtown is a treat. A very very fast, slightly gut-wrenching treat, as the buses are the most reckless city buses I've ever seen, but a treat nonetheless.

The smells are not a highlight. Picture any of the parties you had back in college and how they smelled and what the apartment looked like the next morning. Now invite the 7+ million population of a major city, plus roughly 700,000 visitors, and have them go at that for about a month straight. There are admirable attempts to clean the place up each night, but that is one of the hardest cleanup jobs in the world. One of the smart moves was to pay people refunds for empty beer cans, leading to lots and lots of people running around with giant plastic bags picking up all the cans they can find. But don't touch the walls below waist level-- the men aren't keen on waiting in line for urinals.

Crime is also a bit of an issue. This is why I have relatively few pictures, I wanted to make sure my camera didn't get stolen (don't worry, there are a tone online, just search "Carnaval Rio 2009"). I emptied out my wallet of all cash and essentials just in case it was pickpocketed out of the zippered pocket of my shorts. Sure enough, it was. I lost my International Student ID and Hostelling International Membership card, plus a paper card that a friend of mine gave me in college, which I was sort of attached to. But then again, it led to what might be my favorite facebook status update: "Joel just lost his Get Out of Hell Free card in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval."

Everything is no-holds barred. At first glance, you'll see the parties on the streets are filled with couples. They're not couples. The guy just grabbed the girl (or in some rare cases, the other way around) and now they are making out with more tongue than you've ever seen in your life. I was given strict instructions by my host in Rio: "If you see a girl you like, smile, and kiss her. No talking." (A word of warning for the single gentlemen at home who just got very excited-- the guys generally outnumber the girls at least three to one, and a good number of those are actually taken. Look for hand holding. Keep in mind who won't be taken already and why).

So, as you can tell, it's one of the most intense experiences you can find. Whatever you think about whether it's the best party you've ever been to, you can't deny that it's the biggest. If you are at all into samba, this will be the ultimate samba experience for you. Otherwise, just ask yourself if you like partying. If you do, you will love it out here. A huge Thank you to Antonio and co. for hosting me in Rio and showing me around your town. It wouldn't have worked without you-- once again let me know the next time you're on the road.

So, you might notice my latest location isn't Rio. I stayed up the last night through the sunrise, and then spent a collective sixteen hours on planes (including a 13 hour nonstop flight across the pacific from Buenos Aires) sleeping it off. I woke up in Auckland, New Zealand.

And that's how we're starting the adventures of continent number four: with a two-island nation slightly bigger than the UK, with 4.3 million citizens and an estimated 40 million sheep. Expect glowworm caves, Tasman beaches, mountains, forests, and maybe a shot at something I wouldn't advise you to try at home (not sure what yet, but after inventing the bungee jump, this is billed as the extreme sport capital of the world).

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Friday, February 20, 2009

"Some Very, Very Big Waterfalls"

This picture is kind of how I always figured heaven would look like. You're looking at the view facing the falls of Iguazu, just in front of the headliner waterfall El Garganta del Diablo-- The Throat of the Devil. It's a semicircular drop with water pouring down into white mist oblivion covered by rainbows.

Most waterfalls I've seen have been streams running off a ledge, maybe the occasional river running off a cliff. Iguazu looks like a sea running off a twisting, curving, canyon wall. Waterfall follows waterfall after waterfall all around you, surrounded by butterflies and rainbows. I'm not making this up. You half expect a unicorn to wander out of the subtropical rainforest instead of the spiders, coatil, and occasional monkey.

I was there on a very hot, very pretty day. At the hottest part of the day, I hopped onto a boat and decided to take a closer look. If I hadn't been warned a few minutes beforehand, I wouldn't have realized how just close a look it would be.

We pulled away from the dock, took pictures, video cameras rolling on all sides. Then we took a peek up to el Garganta, then back around to the other side. This is when I put my camera away in the provided waterproof sack. Also, after thinking a sec, my shoes and socks. We found one of the bigger waterfalls and started getting closer. And closer. Spray started flying everywhere. We didn't stop. White mist reared up twenty feet dead ahead. We didn't stop. We went straight into the waterfall.

Everything was white. Everything was very very loud. And everything was very, very, very wet. It was halfway between a shower and swimming in midair. On that 90+ degree day, that was exactly what I wanted.

The story for this post really is in the pictures. So, a shorter entry that normal this time, but that's because where I'm going next is my last stop in South America, and if lives up to its reputation, it's going to be the ultimate sendoff:

Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Back to the Summer

That is Tango in the street. This is Buenos Aires. Get an idea of why I came back in such a hurry? I wasted no time in hopping a 3-day bus route back up the other way to the capital city, forgoing Argentine gems like El Califate and Puerto Madryn to get to Buenos Aires for a weekend. I'm sorry to miss everything I'm missing, but if I stayed in every country to explore as long as the country deserved, I'd still be in the first one I visited.

So that’s how I went from Antarctica to a city where it stays above 80 degrees at midnight. The kind of heat where you feel sweaty and gross, take a shower, and then feel exactly the same way about ten minutes later. So even while people online were IMing me to tell me how dumb I was to swim in Antarctic waters, I found myself wishing I could do it again.

Instead, I went to the neighborhood of San Telmo since it was closer. That’s how I found the San Telmo Sunday fair. And that’s where I took this photograph. Art everywhere, music everywhere, and the odd couple tangoing around the food salesmen, mimes, orange juice stands and the obligatory twenty-somethings with the cardboard signs that say “Free Hugs.” The crowds, acts, and sights shifted so much that I walked a two or three block radius for about two hours and hardly saw the same thing twice. I spent a chunk of my afternoon with a massive pumpkin, corn, and cheese pan relleno following drum bands, jumping ahead of them past the Charlie Chaplain impersonator to a three man jazz combo playing a block away from the four-accordion(bandolin), four-violin traditional tango orchestra with piano, cello and bass backup. This was after I'd gone past the didgeridoo (yes I had to look up how to spell it) and chatted up the local painter who had painted abstract portraits of her suburb based of of home video stills, adding things she felt were there but weren't in real life. Just like politics, she said when I told her my major in college, it's there in people's minds, but it's not really there.

Before that though, I had to fulfill a goal I’d been working on for longer than it should’ve taken me: seeing theater in Spanish. I quickly figured out that the equivalent of Broadway was Ave Corrientes, featuring a Spanish musical of Othello, Phantom of the Opera, and Pinter play, among others. I even saw a sign for Shakespeare’s famous “Mucho Ruido, Pocos Nueces,” which took me a second to actually identify since I couldn’t recall ever seeing a play called “Lots of Noise, Few Nuts” in the collected works (I had to switch “Lots of” to the more literal “Much” before I got Much Ado About Nothing out of that one). I was surprised to see how much of the stuff was originally English. I’d written off the preponderance of American movies in Latin America to the relative budgets and sheer numbers of movies the US puts out. But really the theater scene shouldn’t have surprised me that much. There are, after all, lots of plays that go up in the US all the time that are originally written in other languages. Just think of Checkov or Ibsen.

I found a small theater off the beaten track that was putting on El Duelo. It wasn’t until I got in the space and read the program that I realized it wasn’t originally Spanish either—it was an adapted version of Checkov’s one act, The Brute. Good too. The only time I had trouble with the Spanish was when both actors onstage were talking at once. Then I was even more lost than most of the people around me. Still had a great time, especially hearing the actors warm up from outside the house. That was what really brought it all back for me...

But I’m not done moving. I stayed in town long enough for the play, the fair, exploring some massive parks, making a few travel arrangements for the next two real big ticket items (details coming soon, I promise), and collecting on the offer of a private piano lesson from a professor I’d gotten into a debate with about politics and philosophy in Ushuaia. Now if only I had an easy way to practice the stuff on the road.

As for the bus out, I nabbed a discount through my HI membership and upgraded to “cama” or bed class for 5 pesos. Definitely worth it. Much comfier seats, full meals, wine included (airplane quality food of course) and I found one thing backpackers had been telling me about ever since Colombia: they give you a glass of champagne. Somehow I don’t see that happening on Greyhound back at home.

The bus has dropped me in Puerto Iguazu. Tomorrow I’m going on a boat trip through some waterfalls.

Some very, very big waterfalls.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Gee, it's kinda cold here in Antarctica

Sunset in AntarcticaI expected Antarctica to be a barren wasteland of ice and rock. I didn’t expect that barren wasteland to be so photogenic. This picture is from my very first night in Antarctica, surrounded by Gentoo Penguins and Elephant Seals. I have five more shots almost exactly like this one and still can’t bear to delete any one of them. Same with the pictures of icebergs and seals and whales and birds. Let’s not even mention the pictures of penguins.

The summer temperature is slightly warmer than Chicago’s winters. The key difference is that in Chicago, there are enough buildings, cars, buses, and trains to guarantee that you’ll never be out much more than a few minutes, maybe an hour, without a chance to step in, warm up, and get dry. Unless you’re at one of the base stations, Antarctica doesn’t really have that. You’re out there, and you’re cold. Later, you’ll still be out there, and you’ll still be cold. And if you’ve come in on a boat and gotten wet, you’ll still be out there, you’ll still be wet, and you’ll still be very, very cold.

This is part of how the ship’s doctor certified me as having temporarily lost any common sense. I mean that literally. I have a green certificate, signed by the doctor, that says I “temporarily lost any common sense [I] might have had”. It was the only conclusion she could possibly reach after I did what I did.

First, a little background. Every year, my aunt in Chicago goes swimming with friends. Often she’ll invite me, but I’ve always turned her down. I like swimming, but not in the middle of Lake Michigan on New Years day. I have enough trouble with lukewarm showers and swimming in 60 degree F river water, let alone water that should almost be ice according to the nearest thermometer.

But when someone challenged me to take a “polar plunge” so near one of the actual poles, I decided I had my family honor to uphold. I accepted. So if any of you happen to see pictures of me on Facebook running into water and running out of it again with the most horrific expression you’ve ever seen on my face, that’s how and why. Four friends and I decided to swim in waters that had been recorded that morning at 31 degrees Fahrenheit, kept liquid only by its salt content. In about sixty years, somebody will complain about being cold (possibly me) and I will follow it up with “but not as cold as when I…” which will in turn be followed by small voices yelling “Aw man, Grandpa’s telling the stupid story again!”

I kept telling myself before I went in that it wasn’t cold water, it was something else, and it was going to give me a strange sensation that might not be pleasant but that would be quite healthy. So when I hit the water and plunged entirely under the surface, I didn’t feel cold. Cold didn’t register. In fact, I don’t think anything registered, except that I was suddenly submerged in a liquid bath of numb. The cold part came when I got out of the water wearing only my wet swimsuit, rubbing myself off with what was suddenly the coarsest towel in the world and finding my body involuntarily shaking like an electric toothbrush. The wind didn’t help.

And that’s how I went swimming in the oceans of Antarctica. These are the things people do almost entirely for the bragging rights. It seems to be a common theme in this part of the world. Just look at the history of the place. I don’t mean just people like Capt. Cook and Shackleton, I mean people like Capt. Charcot out of France who came down here twice, the second time being on a ship whose name translates from French to mean “Why Not” to hold things like Antarctica’s first Mardis Gras celebration and also hold the first-ever Antarctic Picnic Day (I’m not entirely sure there was ever a second).

One thing should be clarified for anyone else who wants to come down here. The main thing you will be visiting is not the mainland continent. You will spend the vast majority of your time on the islands nearby because that’s where all the wildlife (read: penguins) live. If you look at guidebooks or photo books of Antarctica you will find almost everything captioned as being some part of an island somewhere. Nobody goes to the mainland much, which makes sense given the place’s protected status and lack of things like, say, roads.

I was kind of disappointed about this. I realized that the continent itself doesn’t have as much “interesting” stuff on it, but I wanted to experience it anyway. I did get to step out onto the peninsula, so I can say I’ve walked on mainland Antarctica, but after about five steps or so, I was yelled at by the local patrol working at the Argentine research station just up the coast and kicked off back onto our zodiac boat. Not much for experience, but then again, now I can say I’ve been kicked off a continent by the local authorities. I suggest that anyone who wants to play “Never Have I Ever” with me should probably take notes.

Our expedition did get two landings and/or zodiac cruises each day we were there, and we saw tons. Elephant seals engaged each other in shouting matches, while fur seals sparred in the waves behind them. Humpback and Minke whales surfaced and sometimes even breached themselves—taking their entire body above water and smacking down on the surface for nature’s ultimate cannonball splash. Gentoo penguin chicks chased their parents up and down the snow and rocks for an extra snack, causing many passengers serious cases of Penguin Fever* which they suffered from day one and still haven’t recovered from.

But one of the coolest (…ha) moments of this trip, and possibly of my life, came as we crossed the Lemaire channel. I got to stand alone, right on the prow of the boat, far from the engine noise, as we navigated ice and fog with icy mountains just yards from either side of the boat. I could hear the icebergs crackling and popping beneath us before they scraped against our hull and the splash of penguins jumping out of the water like dolphins. That's how it is on an Antarctic expedition ship headed for actual uncharted waters. This is my life.

Some of the people on board made the expedition particularly interesting. I met scientists making significant discoveries about Orcas for NOAA (based out of the Seattle office by sheer coincidence) and talk to a BBC assistant producer and cameraman working on their next section of their show, Planet Earth: Frozen Planet. And during our voyage, our on-board biologist got to be the first scientist ever to record this one new “higher species” of plant naturally occurring on the Antarctic. This would be plant species number three. That means that, if his findings are approved by the British Antarctic Survey, he will have increased the number of higher plants known to be naturally occurring on the continent by a full 50%.

The vast majority of the passengers on board though were tourists and travelers like myself. This often worked out in our favor as we got treated to things like performances by the Russian crew, hot chocolate being whisked out to us and we cruised between massive blue-shadowed icebergs (with a little rum for those who asked), and even an Antarctic BBQ out on deck one night. Just to say we did it. There was a movie projector and DVD player too, so we got to watch both March of the Penguins and Happy Feet, just for kicks.

I want to especially thank everyone who donated to my blog and travels for this trip—if it weren’t for your generous support, I would not have gotten to Antarctica at all. All the bits added up to something very, very big, thanks to you. Thank you all, very much.

As I write, we’re headed back to port in Ushuaia. Back from this trip’s third continent to its second, just in time for me to work on getting to its fourth. Originally I figured I’d be well on my way to Asia by this point, but it’s turning out to be taking a bit longer than I expected. Everyone I talk to in person on my travels says that I am blazing through everywhere I go at lightning pace. Everyone I talk to at home says I must really like it since I’m taking my time and going so slowly. I’m coming to accept that if I keep moving like this, the trip will likely take a good deal more than the year I had planned—I’ve been gone four and a half months already and only just touched on continent number three. I’m betting Australia, Asia, Africa, and Europe are going to take a lot more time still.

I have been getting more offers lately from people who want to join me for different legs. If anyone feels so inspired, I plan to be in New Zealand before the month is out. Australia follows that, and then I head for South East Asia. By now you’ve seen a bit of how I travel and what I’m interested in. I stick to a minimal budget, so the most you’ll have to worry about are transport expenses, and I can give you tips on those. In many of the places I’m going it costs a good deal less to live day-to-day traveling than it does to live in the USA, Canada, or the UK. Between Guatemala and Bolivia I averaged around US$15 each day, and only a bit more than that in places like Mexico and Argentina. If you want more details, and might want to join me for a bit, (or if you just want to do a little travel on your own and want advice) just let me know.

*Penguin Fever is a disease common to the Antarctic and Sub Antarctic Islands. It is characterized by symptoms of squealing, pointing, and excessive photography. Serious cases can lead to maxing out multi-gigabyte memory cards, bruises from irritated guides, family, and friends who can’t stand the noises you’re making, and possible hypothermia from missing the last boat out from the penguin colony. The only known treatment involves lack of tread/balance and copious penguin guano, and is generally regarded as worse than the condition it (sometimes) cures.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Week in the "End of the World"

Tierra del Fuego National Park-- Cerro Guanaco By the time I cross the tree line, I need a break. The sign behind me says I have climbed 614 meters. That means about 230 or so to go. But not until I have some water. So I turn around and take in the view of Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel, while sipping out of a leaky Nalgene imitation covered in plastic bags.

After a good rest, I get up and notice that there's another sign near the altitude one that has broken and fallen on its face. That's interesting. I lift it up, dust it off, and read: "Final de sendero señalizado." End of Marked trail. I look up at the steep slope of loose shale and moss. That's very interesting. There is an obvious choice here, one of the choices is sensible. Now which one do you think I picked?

Ten minutes later, almost to the top, I find an eagle hovering over the summit. I get envious-- lucky bird doesn't deal with sliding rock at 85 degree angles. But when I hit the summit marked by two sticks and massive gusts of wind, I felt I'd earned it.

Three hours later, I was sitting in the "microcine" underneath the city cultural center with the first piano I'd played in four months, learning tricks for playing tango music.

This has been my week.

There were two important things that happened in Ushuaia. First, I snagged a deal for an Antarctic cruise in such a way that by the end of it my travel agent was telling me all about her family, giving me tips on the best local trails, and offering me a free tent and sleeping bag to borrow ("They're my ex-husband's-- he's not gonna be using them in Costa Rica"). The second was finding a chunk of the local arts scene in a basement after following some outdated signs advertising tango lessons.

It started with music. There's a program in Ushuaia called "Hacelo Sonar," where people bring musical instruments and play them. The first time I came in and started playing piano, a boy about 8 years old came over just to watch. He refused to play until I finally got him hooked on a simple C-blues scale. One of the guys running the program came over, and between the two of us, we taught the kid basic blues progressions and a couple basic songs (including Heart and Soul-- may all those near him when there's a piano around forgive us).

Afterwards, I talked with the duo running the program for a while. And I do mean duo, Damien plays the Piano, Luisina plays guitar and sings. Together, they're Duo Huella sobre Huella-- they have some of their stuff online. They asked me if I'd heard typical Argentine music, then gave me a masterful private performance of sambas, tangos, and gatos. Haunting music, and I mean that in the very best way. The singing still goes through my head, along with the rhythmic tapping on the side of the guitar-- they use those whole instrument, not just the strings and frets. They taught me a couple basic rhythms and, as we walked out on the streets and they told me all about the town, they invited me to an advanced tango music session. It was kind of above my level, especially since in Spanish they teach music using Do Re Mi Fa etc. instead of C D E F etc.. But it did inspire me to grab the hostel guitar and spend some quality hours teaching myself how to play chords properly.

Then there were the other tango lessons, the ones that brought me to the little microcine in the first place. Dance lessons. I was a little surprised at the ages-- I'm guessing the girls' average age was about 16 and the guy's average age almost twice that-- but I learned a lot. Most impressive though was watching my teachers dance after our lesson. Argentine tango is legendary, and so different from anything I'd done or seen. It's all in the legs and the abrazo stance (literally "embrace"). The girl's forehead leaned against the guy's cheek, the girl seemingly losing balance against the guy until they turn, regain, and glide to the other side of the room. Everything is in the tension you feel between the two, like something just happened or is just about to happen, until with a flourish, it does, then back to the expectancy. It was privilege to watch that.

I've moved from my hostel to the hotel the the cruise company has put us in. In my room I found a offer for a free souvenir from HStern, and a list of services offered by the hotel's spa, including a "Sedative massage applied with chocolate and kelp cream" for about the price of three nights at my previous hostel. My immediate reaction was "where the hell am I and who stays here?" Later, I sat at one of the three free flat screen internet terminals. At the others, one very made-up fifty-something year old user asked the other, in English, what to do at the login screen of Windows XP, and the other looked over his bifocals and told her confidently "oh that's where you can do anything, search in Google there" (pointing at the text box for the password). Question answered.

The strangest part was when I was waiting to check in. An English-speaking couple in front of me asked where they could rent a car, and I after I helped translate a couple questions, the attendant told them that taking a taxi was better because walking outside was not safe. This is in Ushuaia. I was just told by Luisina and Damien that, six months ago, nobody locked their doors here. "Not safe"? Welcome to the tourist bubble.

Still, this is the bubble that's floating me across the Drake Passage, so I really shouldn't complain.

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