Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas in Another Country

Happy holidays to everybody! I was going to go make some surprise phone calls, but of course I then realized everything is closed on Christmas day. I also should probably have at least mailed some postcards, but didn't think of that either. Fail.

It is a rainy Christmas morning on Chiloe. So rainy, in fact, that I am doing nothing but lurking in the hostel and lurking my way around the internet. Here is a picture of the hostel. Surprisingly enough, it's the building that says "Hostel" on the side. (You might have to click on it to link out and see the whole picture).

And here is a picture from this morning of a view from the hostel patio. I am at this very moment just inside off of the patio. Very wet and rainy out.

Last night I went to part of a midnight mass at the largest of the several Unesco World Heritage Site wooden churches on Chiloe. It was a big dose of culture, and was very cool. The service was much more modernized than I expected, from a children's choir (which might be normal, I don't know), to people wearing soccer jerseys, to strings of blinking lights behind the altar.

While doing my internet lurking this morning, I also finally uploaded some pictures. They include Santiago, Valparaiso, Isla Negra, Pucon, Valdivia, Ancud, Castro, a lot of things I should have been uploading before. Here is a link. Yet again I can't get google's blasted automatic link embedder thing to work, so it will have to be a copy/paste affair.

Last night (Christmas Eve), the owner of the hostel had a very nice semi-catered dinner for those of us staying in the hostel. He was trucking around in the kitchen in a Santa hat, pouring us Carmenere. Peter came up with a pretty funny thing. "Britney, Paris, Madonna." When asked for clarification: "ho ho ho."

Esoteric family details ahead: There have been a lot of pictures coming my way of holiday festivities both in Longview and in Walla Walla, which has been very fun to see. I can imagine all the pampering Ethan must be receiving for his first Christmas. Also lots of pounce, mahjong, and playboy cocktails.

I hope everyone is having fun and indulging in a little guilt-free materialism. Happy Solstice, Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 21, 2009


Been quite a while since the last post, my apologies. I'm still alive, and things are going well. This is going to be a short post, because I'm a little short on time.

When I was sill in Santiago the Australian couple put me in contact with an author they had met at one of their fancy parties. He was in Santiago but was going to be leaving for southern Chile to return a rental car, and, never having met me, offered me a spot so I could tag along. He was leaving on the 19th, which meant I would be spending more time in Santiago than I'd planned to. This was too good an opportunity to pass up, so I spent even more time in Santiago. I saw some more museums, went on a trip to Valparaiso and Isla Negra to see Pablo Neruda's other two houses, swam in the pool, and drank coctkails with the Australians.

Neruda's Isla Negra house was full of figureheads he collected off of ships which he had installed around the living room, and which looked very cool. There was one that had inlaid porcelain eyes, and, supposedly, when he lit a fire in the room, moisture collected behind the eyes and it would appear to cry.

I also needed to mail back some souvenir stuff I had bought, so I went to the post office on Monday. It turned out I needed a customs form to mail some of the craft stuff back, and I had to get the form at the museum. The museum was a 15 minute walk away, and was closed on Monday. I had to come back between 10 and 1 on the next day. So I went back on Tuesday at 12:15. Eventually I found the woman I needed. She was in the basement, behind a desk, looking like a stereotypically cranky medieval librarian. I tried to explain that I was trying to mail some things, and she said to come back the next day between 10 and 1. My Spanish isn't great, but I pointed out that it was between 10 and 1 now, it being NOON, and that I wanted to mail the stuff. She said she just couldn't do it, she was too busy; come back tomorrow in the morning. Getting pretty damn pissed off, but knowing I might be misunderstanding her, I asked if she said she was too busy today. She said yes. I said "so I have to come back tomorrow?" She said yes. Barely containing my disgust, I turned to leave, lingered wondering if you could bribe librarians, and sulked off.

My bag of goodies was getting pretty beaten up from getting lugged back and forth on buses and trains. The hostel I had been staying at the week before was nearby, so I bought the guy at the desk a pack of cigarettes so I could leave it there. The next day I came back as close to 10 as I could manage, picked up the stuff, went back to the museum, and made my way down to the basement lair of the vile woman. She saw me, told me to wait. Eventually I sat down. She had me fill out the necessary form, and told me that I could submit the form today, but that the director of the museum would have to sign it that night and I would need to pick it up the next morning. She said that was what she told me the day before, and when I left she assumed it wouldn't work for me. Non. Sense. Now she was having a good old laugh, wasn't it funny that we hadn't understood each other. She was officially my least favorite person in South America. It's entirely likely that she DID tell that to me, and that I misunderstood. But she answered my questions that yes she was too busy, that I had to come back tomorrow (apparently to get the form), but what the hell. At the least, you'd think that when I left without filling out the form and said "see you tomorrow," she'd know something didn't make sense. Ugh. The next day I came back, got the signed completed customs form, and got it mailed. That was on Thursday, and I'd started the process on Monday. Ridiculous.

On Friday I took a taxi to another affluent district of Santiago and met the writer, who was staying with a lawyer friend. His name is Peter Allison, and he's written two books on the outdoors and Africa, where he was a safari guide. Before Jane Goodall's new book came out, he had the top wildlife book on Amazon. He is a great guy, and you should all buy his book to put Jane back in her place. (Joking). Before coming to Santiago he was working at a wildlife rehab center in Bolivia running through the jungle tied to a cougar, where he actually met Jane Goodall.

He got a contract to write a book about South America, and is traveling around to see the continent. After leaving from Santiago, we drove to Pucon. The next day to Valdivia, where we walked three kilometers to a brewery, then three kilometers back to town in the dark. I could finally see the southern hemisphere stars. Orion was upside down, but I did see the southern cross, which was very cool. Yesterday we returned the rental car in Puerto Montt, and took a bus and ferry to the island of Chiloe, where we are staying in Ancud.

It is a very pretty island. There are a lot of wooden churches that somehow collectively make up part of a World Heritage Site. I'll probably end up staying somewhere on the island for Christmas, partly because the weather can be both chilly and hot, so I can get the best of both worlds. I don't know how far south I'm going to go, but this might be a good opportunity to see Torres del Paine. I've resigned myself to the fact that I'm probably not going to be able to see Ecuador and Colombia on this trip. From the south I'm going to either fly or bus to northern Chile, where I think I'll cross into Bolivia like I had been planning to last week.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Diplomatic Life

I got into Santiago some days ago. The bus ride across the Andes was incredible, and often found us freakily close to the edge of sharp drops over cliffs. I think I posted at least one picture, but it's hard to convey the "oh my god he's not going to turn in time and they don't have guardrails why don't they have guardrails oh my god we're all going to die" panic of it with a picture.

The first few nights I stayed in the city center in a hostel. I was coming back one night late for a free hostel dinner and the metro was on rush hour schedule, which meant that it skipped my stop. I got off at the next stop, ran up the stairs and found myself in a little piece of heaven. It was a humongous plaza, which was exciting enough, but all around me were people playing chess. I couldn't believe my luck, and I ended up watching them for an hour and going back each day that I was in the city. It would have been fun to play, but they were way above my level, not to mention that they would often grab the clock and scream at each other in Spanish while the other person would snatch the clock back and they would struggle over it, cursing (I think) at each other.

I also went to see Pablo Neruda's Santiago house with two girls I met on the bus that are studying abroad from Pennsylvania. It was a very pretty house with lots of neat things. His salt and pepper shakers said "Morphine" and "Marijuana." The girls were staying with a friend's Chilean grandmother. The grandmother loves a Chilean reality TV show that sounds kind of like Survivor. In the subway station we saw the guy that had been voted off the night before. He was supposedly a warrior from Easter Island. One of the girls couldn't contain herself and started kind of stuttering, chasing after him, thinking better of it, coming back, starting to talk then tearing off again. She finally came back and said to no one in particular: "What's the matter with me. I'm not myself." Pretty funny.

I've now moved out of the hostel and am staying in a house. It is the house of the parents of one of Kate's students. Lots of thanks to Kate for orchestrating it for me, and lots of thanks to Fernando Zegers and Sharon Matthews, whose house it is.

The first night it was just me in the house, so I did some reading and tried a beer I got at the supermarket. The bottle was pretty big, and the trashcan was already pretty full, and I didn't want to cram it in. So the next morning when I went to look for a place with coffee and wifi I took the bottle with me to throw away. The only place I could find was a McCafe, which is in a McDonald's and has coffee. I sat on the patio and stashed the bottle under my chair to throw away later. As I was reading, a McDonald's staffer came by, took the bottle, and asked if it was mine, if I was done with it so she could throw it away. It was about 10:30 in the morning and I had an empty liter of beer under my chair on a porch at a McDonald's. I considered trying to explain that it was indeed mine, but it was from last night, and I took it with me because I didn't want to use the trashcan at the house where I was staying. This would be a difficult situation to explain even in English, so I just told her yes, it was mine, I was done with it, gracias.

There is an incredibly nice Australian couple staying in the house as well. The man is the former commissioner of Victoria (a state in Australia) to North and South America. Over the weekend they went to stay with the former Chilean Consulate General, and next week are having the current Consulate General over for dinner. He is also responsible for bringing Victoria Bitter beer to San Francisco and bringing Costco to Australia. I mentioned that I had met the Costco CEO when I was speaking at a regents meeting, and he said "oh! Jim. No, Jeff. What is his last name..." and pulled out his blackberry to look it up. Whoah.

Sharing the house with them means that my schedule is amazing. I wake up, get coffee, read a book, read some Neruda, walk around a little in the city, eat lunch, lie in the sun with a book until I get too hot, then go for a swim. Then a little more reading, and then I join the Australians for cocktails and appetizers, then we eat dinner and have two bottles of red wine. Then he goes into his room and works on Australia's alternative energy policy, which the government apparently asked him to write a draft of.

They have also told me what they say are three important tips to being successful: 1) Be gutsy, walk into places other people don't, and once you're there don't take no for an answer. 2) Charm the secretaries. 3) Once you get the CEO secretary's number, call before business hours, because the CEO will usually be there and answer his own line.

They were ALSO kind enough to offer me a place to stay when I am in Australia, and have offered to show me the University of Melbourne. She also mentioned that one of their Australian friends, the governor of Victoria, has a throne room in his house, since they are part of the commonwealth of the queen. A THRONE room. He doesn't let anyone sit in it, although he does permit pictures to be taken of you next to it.

I'm in Santiago until the 10th, because my passport is with the Brazilian embassy getting a visa. It is going to hurt to leave, however, because the Australian couple is so amazing and because of the generosity of the family letting me stay in their house. Lots of thanks again to the Zegers, and to Kate for setting it up!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Sad News from the Front (only a little)

I brought only three pairs of boxers with me on my eight month venture. Every night, washing clothes in the sink. One pair is now officially MIA, lost in the hostel washing service. It was 20 pesos for that laundry service, too. My go-to pair of shorts was also temporarily unaccounted for, but I found them still hanging on the line outside, ignored but not forgotten. I didn't account for attrition in my packing.

I'm currently in Mendoza, Argentina, staying in the downtown area. Tonight I set out to replace the lost boxers, but it's a very posh downtown, and the only thing I could find were designer stores selling designer man thongs. So gross. After much asking around, I found out the only place selling non-designer items was in fact an Argentinian version of Victoria's Secret, which, way, way in the back, past all the judging eyes and cold stares, has a very small men's section. My Spanish isn't good enough to simply ask for what I wanted, so there was a lot of purposeful gesturing at my underwear. The whole thing was a lesson in humility.

Back to the good news. Mendoza is famous for its wine. I went on a winery tour today that included three wineries, three tastings, and finished with a huge lunch (The tour started at 9:30. Is it ever too early for wine?) at a restaurant. They served us at one big table, which was set to the rim with cheeses, meats, spreads, fruit, lentils, salad, many delicious things. Also cold blood sausage, which was scary but actually tasted pretty good. They told us this spread was only the appetizer, and one by one they brought out empanadas, rice with chicken, and spaghetti. We also had bottomless wine. Argentinians eat slowly, which means we ended up drinking a lot of wine. Only one spilled glass, though, and I'm proud to say it wasn't me.

I got to Mendoza by way of a two day bus ride from a town called El Calafate. Said bus ride started on Thanksgiving day. On the bus they gave us crackers, a cookie, instant coffee, and a disgusting hard candy. In order to make up for this, my first night in Mendoza I went to an all you can eat buffet, which was also very delicious. The sushi was suspect, however, but I expected that going in. A female chef made desserts to order, and I got a crepe that was sort of a la bananas foster, stuffed with bananas and dulce de leche, drizzled with chocolate, and then she set it on fire. I went with a guy from South Carolina that I met at the hostel, and it turned out that he splices different pop songs together in an attempt at what he termed “unconventional creativity.” Halfway through the meal he started singing them to me, clearly very proud. And it was all splicing, don't forget, so you would have things like rap transitioning into female pop vocals. He was an extremely nice guy, but the buffet was very classy, packed to the brim, and included a wedding reception. I was glad most people around didn't likely speak English, but in reality I think that kind of shame transcends language barriers.

El Calafate was a windswept touristy town in Patagonia. I stayed there three days, and went to the Perito Moreno glacier. You can get very close to the glacier on a system of boardwalks they have set up, which was cool. I had brought some Argentine whiskey and some plastic cups. I found a beach where ice had washed ashore, and had whiskey on the glacier rocks with some people I'd met on the bus. You could hear great big cannon crashes as chunks of ice calved off and crashed into the lake. Right before we left to go back to town, a huge tower of ice cracked off and came crashing into the water. It was extremely impressive, but we couldn't hear it. Earlier, basketball-sized pieces would sound like gunshots, but it was so windy when the tower fell that we couldn't hear anything over the wind. It was like watching it on TV with the sound off, and was slightly surreal.

It's proving more difficult to find reading material here than I thought it would. I've finished the books I brought, and thankfully found a copy of Moby Dick, which I am working on, but by and large the English sections of bookstores here are a testament to natural selection. Most of the books are used, and people only trade in the books they don't want to keep. And then the even remotely good ones get bought, and, over time, you're left with the worst of the worst. Shelves of untouchables. Even when you think you see something good, “Oh! Faulkner!” you realize it's a weird biography written by someone with a name that sounds made up. I tried to remember some of the authors and titles to prove my point, but they're so imminently forgettable that they didn't stay in my mind the two blocks back to the hostel.

Here is a link to some Mendoza pics, but you'll have to copy and paste. You can also click on the “My Photos” link at the top of the page to see some of the other albums. I haven't figured out how to make that obvious yet.

Tomorrow I'm checking out of my hostel, hoping that there are bus tickets available to Chile, and moving on to Santiago.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

End of the Road

I'm in a bus station in the town of Rio Gallegos on my way to El Calafate. Yesterday was an adventure.

The national park outside of Ushuaia is a 15 minute drive, but you have to pay 50 pesos to get there via a bus service. The "bus" was in fact a van, and the 50 pesos included drop off at the park and pickup at set times throughout the day.

I paid the fee and made it into the park. There was a post office with a pirate flag at the start of a gorgeous hike along the coast. Along the trail were wild horses, an old well that was the only thing remaining of an old homestead, and lots of birds. When I stopped for lunch I dropped a piece of salami. A chimango, Argentina's ubiquitous raptor, flew down 10 feet away and looked at me. Knowing I shouldn't feed it, I threw it the piece of meat. It grabbed it greedily and flew away, crying as it rounded the coast.

Packing up my things, I made my way down the beach. As I stopped to take a rock out of my shoe, I heard a fluttering of wings. On a low branch 10 feet behind me was the chimango. He'd been following me.

Treading carefully to avoid the mud, I hiked in from the coast and past wetlands, back to the main road. The main road was Ruta 3, which winds its way through the park to where it ends, as far south as roads go. I followed it, walking past the "Laguna Negra," a nascent peat bog, and past beaver damns. I saw one beaver, but he was sly, so I only saw him for a second.

At the end of the road was a parking lot full of tour buses and two signs: one a map saying where you were, and one saying end of the road, 17,800km to Alaska. My pickup van wasn't going to be there for an hour, so I started talking to people. There was one guy leaning against a motorcycle covered with UK stickers. He had a coat covered with patches of most of the countries in north, central, and south America. His name was as British as you could hope for: Graham Styles.

Graham Styles had bought his motorcycle in California, ridden it to northern Canada, and then made the long drive south to the end of Ruta 3. I happened to get there on the same day he did. His camera battery was dead, so he couldn't take any pictures of himself. I offered to take some to send to him. He was thrilled. He also had a video camera that he was using to record a video journal. He set it up and started to record. I walked slowly away to try and give him some privacy. Across the gravel parking lot the wind carried his voice in gusts. "After 19 months and 30,000 kilometers, here I am at the end of the road." He was recording it several times, trying to get it perfect. I kicked at some gravel and looked for my ride.

"After 19 months and 30,000 kilometers, here I am at the end of the road."

It started to rain slightly. Mountains surrounded the bay, and I looked up at the nearest one. Its top was obscured by gray clouds. The wind picked up.

"After 19 months and 30,000 kilometers, here I am..."

I looked back at the bay. A rainbow had formed, ending back on the coastal trail I had hiked two hours earlier. The rain got heavier, as did the wind and the cold.

"After 19 months and 30,000 kilometers..."

It was 5:30, and my ride was supposed to be there at 5. Whether it was absent because it was a shady company or because I misunderstood the instructions, I don't know. The rain was coming down hard now, and I made my way back towards Graham, who was putting away his equipment. He said he could give me a ride, so I tucked my pants into my socks, put on my sunglasses, turned my collar to the cold and damp, and generally bundled up.

The ride out of the park was amazing. That far south Ruta 3 is just a narrow dirt road, but Graham was boldly passing cars and deftly dodging potholes. The wind whipped my face around my hood and sunglasses. In the side mirror I watched my face turn red and felt it go numb. My lips barely responded when I clumsily tried to answer Graham's questions shouted over the engine. Leaving the park on a motorcycle was a completely different experience than entering the park in a van. You could feel the light break through the clouds and hear the horses clip-clop their way out of the road. We drove past mountains and valleys where light illuminated snow, trees, and shadow, over bridges over rivers, through rain, dust, cold, and smells, back to Ushuaia.

Friday, November 20, 2009

"It's good to be at the end of the world, no?"

Ushuaia is awesome. It feels like Juneau. Yesterday I hiked through the town and into the forest towards a glacier with yet another friendly German, this one named Cedric. He had some great quotes, including "everywhere you go, you find a German guy." I agree with him. About the view, which pictures can't do justice, looking out over the Beagle Channel, he said what I've appropriated as the title of this post, as well as "the''s so...if I was a girl? I would cry."

Initially I was only going to stay two nights, but it's grown to four. My hostel is extremely nice, including heated tile floors, in the lounge a 360 degree view of the mountains and the water (not actually 360...180 plus 180--windows on both sides of the room), and another pool table. The lampshades in the dining area are decorated with what I think are maple leaves, but could be something else. I'm leaning towards something else, as the guy that checked me in has dreadlocks and says "call me Rasta, mon." Just why he speaks with a Jamaican accent is beyond me, as he is from Argentina.

When I first arrived and asked for two nights, "Rasta" said if I added another night he would give me the best room and a free beer. He wouldn't move on the price, though. For some reason that didn't tempt me at the time, so I turned it down. He walked me to the room, gave me a hug and said "welcome to our family." The next day when I went to the desk to add time I asked if I could get a free beer for TWO more nights in the not as good room. He asked what the hell I was talking about. I explained. He denied that he'd ever say something like that. I said no, it was you, less than 24 hours ago. He said "I was high, mon," glancing sideways with an approving smirk as two girls he'd been flirting with giggled under lowered eyelashes. He started clicking on the computer adding the days, and then said I hadn't paid for the first two nights and needed to pay. Au contraire. I most certainly had, but apparently he was too blitzed out of his mind and was going to make me pay twice. No way was that going to happen. He started looking through his receipt book trying to find proof that I'd paid. By now the girls were gone, and so was his rasta accent. After a few seconds he told me "If you could find the receipt, man, that would help me a lot. A lot a lot." I ended up convincing him that I'd paid and reserved two extra nights, but I wound up being irritated instead of having a free beer.

Tomorrow I'm going to try to go to the end of the Panamerican Highway. There is a sign that says the distance to Alaska, and it is in a national park. There are also a ton of beavers, non-native little guys that are wreaking havoc on the ecosystem.

This afternoon I tried to buy my next bus ticket, but everything closes for two hours in the afternoon and then reopens. To kill time I went to a cafe, got a coffee and read my book, but they were still closed. At the end of the street I found a place called the Invisible Pub. I ordered an Argentinian whiskey, "The Breeder's Choice," and waited. Afterwards I ate a piece of gum to take the bite of the whiskey off my breath and bought a ticket to El Calafate.

It leaves at 5 a.m. on Sunday morning. Back out of Argentina, into Chile, then out of Chile, into Argentina, and on to El Calafate.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

30 Hours to the End of the World

I'm about to catch a bus to Ushuaia, a city which calls itself something like the city on the edge of the world. It's about a 30 hour bus ride, assuming I make my connecting bus at 5am tomorrow morning. Hopefully it's an hour or two late so I don't have to wait a long time in the bus station, but not so late that I miss it.

Puerto Madryn was amazing. I spent more money than I should have on tours. One was to Punta Tombo, biggest penguin colony in South America. Penguins as far as the eye can see. SO many penguins. Then I got peer pressured into paying for a boat trip to see the smallest dolphin in the world, the "delfino oscuro," which looked to me like the porpoises we have in the northwest. Supposedly there were orcas in the area, which eat porpoises, so the porpoises were making themselves scarce. We saw some, but it was kind of unimpressive.

Yesterday I went to the Peninsula Valdez, which was awesome. The roads were all gravel and posted at 40kph, and our guide was tearing down them at 120. We went whale watching, and at first we didn't see anything. Then there were a lot of whales a long ways away. Then a whale and her calf got RIGHT next to the boat and stayed there. Then my camera battery died. (Fortunately I was able to turn the display off and go old school using the view finder, and then it worked for the rest of the day.) The mother drifted next to the boat, with her calf staying a little further back, inquisitive but cautious. The mother would surface, blow air and water on us, kind of drift down under water so you could see her, then come back up. At one point she went under and blew water up making a huge plume of bubbles, and it seemed that she was doing it all for our sake. The whole thing was very moving.

Pictures can be seen here:

We also saw elephant seals, more penguins, including a baby. Along the road were mara, a Patagonian rabbit sort of thing that isn't actually a rabbit, rhea, more guanacos, including a baby, a skunk or grison or something, an armadillo, a cuis, and a huge tarantula.

Per Nat's suggestion I've been keeping a bird list, although I've only been listing the ones I'm positive about. This means I've been relying on the guides a lot. For some reason, as I was packing in Seattle at 4:30 in the morning to catch my plane, I decided I didn't need the extra weight of my binoculars and so didn't bring them. Very stupid. Anyways, here is the list for interested parties. It's embarrassingly short and imminently listable: Nandu (lesser rhea), Chilean flamingo, turkey vulture, white-tailed hawk, caracara, aplomado falcon, southern lapwing, patagonian mockingbird, elegant crested tinamou, sharp billed canastero.

Lastly, I'm trying to decide whether or not to go to the park Torres del Paine in Chile. It looks similar to US parks, and I'm wondering if it's worth a trip or if I could see the same thing in Yosemite. I wouldn't be able to do any serious trekking, it would be a day or two at the most of simple day trips. I might prefer to save it for a time when I could do real hiking. Has anyone been there to tell me if it's worth a trip?

Now to the bus.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Puerto Madryn

I am on the bus to Puerto Madryn. My last day in Buenos Aires was ominously Friday the 13th, and I started the 20 hour bus journey during a thunder storm complete with lightning and torrential downpours. It's day two of the journey and the bus is actually quite comfortable. There are televisions, and they played some strange but very cool DVD that was a medley of hit music videos from the 80s that went on for about an hour. Then they played a movie that I think was called Fracture, which was better than expected.

I slept pretty well, although I feel about as greasy as I've ever been. The landscape out the window looks kind of like eastern Washington without the backdrop of mountains.

Now, before I forget. As a rule of thumb, at least for people who have recently reverted on five years of vegetarianism, or for some other group of people that I am very much a part of: You should never, EVER, eat 60 pesos worth of steak in two days. Enough said.

At lunch today they played another DVD medley, but this was a strange era that I couldn't identify. I recognized some of the songs, but I really have no idea what the common theme was. I'm going to guess that it was songs written in the 80s that sound like the 70s. Overall weird.

There was a scary moment at what I think was a border crossing between provinces where they stopped the bus and the national police got on board. I had fallen asleep, and woke up with uniformed military men on the bus with a dog and a guy asking me for my passport. Thankfully I had it at the ready. Three girls in front of me, apparently high school graduates from Israel, got it much worse. Five guards crowded around them and went through every single thing in their bags, one by one, for about 10 minutes.

I'm now in Puerto Madryn, which is a jumping off point for the very cool park of the Peninsula Valdez. Tomorrow I'm going to go see the biggest penguin colony in South America, and the day after that to see sea lions and ride in a boat for whale watching. The town feels to me like Cannon Beach. It's certainly much more chilly than I was thinking it would be, and wish that I had a windstopper coat. But that would have been way too hot for Buenos Aires and most of where I'll be, so I'll just have to do a better job layering next time I go out.

After I showered I walked to the beach and looked around, then bought four empanadas, brought them back to the hostel, and bought a liter bottle of beer to eat them with. The beer looks almost comically big, especially next to my tiny little netbook. There's an episcopalean youth group sitting in a circle in the common space, which with the giant bottle makes me feel slightly cool, slightly judged, slightly buzzed. There's also a pool table, which is both unexpected and awesome, but I don't want to play with the youth group doing their circle thing. Maybe once I've worked my way through the beer I won't mind disturbing them.

My plan is to stay here for three nights. Then I have to decide if I want to go farther south, all the way to Ushuaia, the most southern city in the world, or just cut straight to the more northerly parks of Patagonia.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Alive and Well

I think that eight days is too long to go without a post, as I've gotten a number of "are you alive?" emails. I am indeed. As proof, I've posted some more pictures, which can be found here. I can't get the embedded link function to work, so you might have to copy/paste. Sorry.

Most are from Buenos Aires, but there are some from San Antonio de Areco as well. Areco is a little town in the pampas (Argentine grasslands) that is a two hour bus ride out of town. The reason I chose to depart for South America when I did was so I would be able to catch the country's biggest gaucho festival, which takes place every year in Areco on November 10th. Or rather, that's the date that all my guidebooks and internet resources told me that it took place.

The bus had lots of Americans and other tourists excited to see the gauchos, but was only half full, which I found slightly suspicious for the biggest gaucho festival in the country. As we rolled into town the place looked dead, and the tourist office I saw was closed up. Also suspicious. Everyone from the bus kind of sauntered through town as a group, slowly making our way to the festival grounds. Asking around, it turned out that the festival was over. It had taken place over the weekend. The tourist offices had festival schedules posted outside that detailed events for the 10th. One girl from California had looked at this online when she convinced her entire family to make the trip and visit her in Argentina. (She seemed especially irritated.) Again asking around town, with a lot of "gaucho? gaucho?" we discovered that these events, although scheduled and given a definite start time, were meant only for the townspeople to hang around and eat with their "paisanos" (countrymen), and meant nothing for tourists. Our little group of disbelievers got smaller and smaller as people came to accept that they missed it and then slowly drifted off to do their own thing.

I found a restaurant on a plaza and had the best steak I've ever eaten. I got a big bottle of beer, a delicious steak, french fries, bread, a generous tip, and a lovely place to sit, read, and write on the street on the edge of the plaza, all for US$13. I felt very Hemingway-esque, which was pretty sweet, and felt like I should order a liqueur or something to complete the illusion, but decided that it was one in the afternoon and anything in a shot glass would have made me feel like a drunk.

In general I've been keeping very busy. I've seen the symphony, the park, art parks, art museums, experimental music performances, theater, drank delicious coffee, figured out the bus system.

Either today tomorrow or Saturday is my last day in Buenos Aires. I need to check. From here I'm headed south, but I need to find a travel agent somewhere here to investigate prices. I'm also wondering if I'm going to need to buy more warm clothes for Patagonia, but I shall see.

Three guys showed up in the hostel dorm yesterday speaking an especially strange language. They threw down their backpacks, opened three redbulls and a fifth of vodka and started drinking. There are vodka bottles strewn about the floor. They were also really noisy last night, not caring if anyone was sleeping, and now one of them is walking around at 9 in the morning with his shirt off drinking from a half empty fifth of tequila. Makes me feel pretty darn good about my own drinking habits. Maybe I should have gotten that liqueur.

The mosquitoes here are vicious. One left a huge bump on my arm that got bigger and bigger and started to look like an egg. It didn't itch. There are warning signs for dengue fever all over the city, and I spent a little nervous time on WebMD looking at symptoms before the bump finally disappeared. The mosquitoes themselves are big, and if you swat one you can't just brush it off your hand like I'm used to. It's more wet, and you have to use a tissue or something; it's vile. In the countryside I must have killed 20 on my calves. After a while I started leaving their soggy little bodies on my legs as warnings for their paisanos, but it was no use.

In a tale of midly amusing things that can befall travelers, my friend here was supposed to fly out last night, on 11/11. When she picked up her luggage from the hostel they told her that her mom had called the embassy and the embassy was looking for her. Strange, we thought. As she was getting in the taxi to the airport she checked her ticket and saw that the flight was on 11/10. I looked at my watch for the date. 11/11. That couldn't be right. Looked back at the ticket: 11/10. That couldn't be right. But it was. Her flight was the night before, and she'd missed it. She bought a single cigarette and called her mother.

The radio just played one of my favorite Roxy Music songs, which has a great video, worth watching if you like the 80s.

Today I need to: investigate the prices of bus or plane tickets for the next leg of my journey, get a new band for my watch, find a pharmacy and hope my wisdom teeth aren't infected again, and buy some more bottled water.

All for now.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Day 3: Ellos dieron una calabaza a mi. (grammar?)

Heard today: Prince, Cake, Robbie Williams, Toto, Greenday, Survivor, Earth Wind and Fire, The Verve, A-ha, Wang Chung, Billy Joel, Lenny Kravitz, Paul Simon, Laura Branigan, Marvin Gaye (you know which song), Vanilla Ice, The Beatles, The Cure

Trick learned today: An incredibly dense, very weird looking gourd, called a calabaza, can be slipped into your produce bag to add weight and increase the price. The gourd is often not discovered until you get back to the hostel and wonder where it came from.

Fact learned today: Even with the surprising weight of a calabaza, 20 pesos buys you a lot of produce.

Highlight of the day: My Spanish dictionary telling me that "to give someone a calabaza" is a saying that means to brush someone off or jilt them.

Things you take for granted as the same all over the world that are in fact very different: Keys and keyholes.

Revelation of the day: The guy at the luggage store in Portland who told me outlets in Argentina are the same shape as in the US is not to be trusted.

Drink of the day: Quilmes Cerveza--the self-proclaimed preferred beer of Argentina

Most irritating thing of the day: Two girls coming back to the dorm at 3am, giggling, sending text messages, giggling, letting their phones ring amidst twitters of even more giggling.

Missing today: Girls that aren't gigglers. =)

Days 1 and 2

I got to my hostel in Buenos Aires Tuesday at...noonish I think, BA time. My flight left Seattle at 7:18am on Monday, got into Dulles/DC at 2pm, and left again for South America at 10pm.

Amazingly, walking around killing eight hours at Dulles, I ran into Henry Shue, who is a philosopher at Oxford. Somehow I recognized him from a talk he gave at UW three or four years ago on the ethics of climate change and torture (kind of a two topic talk). He was on his way back to Oxford, and we talked for a little while about a lecture he gave on torture in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Philosophical details aside, the long and short of it is that even the middle class people in Sao Paulo have fences around their houses, and that you never, ever, want to end up in a prison in Brazil.

On the flight to BA I sat next to a girl who was coming to visit her friend. Her ride from the airport fell through, so we decided to share a cab. I'd heard that 80-90 pesos is the max you're supposed to spend on a cab, and the official airport taxi service was charging 120. The shuttle I was going to take originally was 40 pesos, but it would involve some walking downtown, I had a backpack, would be splitting a cost for what I thought would be at most 10 pesos more than I would on the shuttle, so the cab seemed like a great idea. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

We went outside to look for a cab, which my guidebook suggested you do to find cheaper fares. We found a guy who took us to his car and passed what looked like an obvious exit in favor of a long, winding route through parking lots and multiple gates to get us out of the airport. Already suspicious. On the freeway, the meter was screaming fast and any thoughts of saving money quickly disappeared. When we finally got there, he took one of the girl's hundred bills and quickly swapped it for a two peso bill and claimed to be shortchanged. We didn't stand for it, and he got a little irritated but didn't overcharge us beyond the already high price. When we got to my stop he took BOTH of my bills and deftly changed them for twos. I don't know how he possibly thought I wouldn't be watching. He again eventually begrudgingly made change for the correct amount. Asking around at the hostel, it turns out I paid just over twice what the maximum was that I should have paid for a taxi trip, so with the girl's fare as well the guy probably is taking the rest of the week off. On the other hand, a German guy who took the shuttle I was considering paid only 30 pesos and it dropped him off right at the door.

At one point on the ride the crooked cabby took a cell phone call and talked too fast for me to understand, but I heard "chico," or "boy," a couple of times, which was probably something along the lines of: "Hey amigo, I have the stupidest chico in the car, you wouldn't believe it. Hohoho, stupid chico." Suspecting as much, I asked him who was on the phone. He said the coffee machine at the airport was broken, and that you put in your money, but no coffee. I was listening closely to the conversation, and I'm almost positive the word for coffee wasn't mentioned once. On what I'm sure was an extremely scenic route of downtown Buenos Aires, full of switchbacks and unnecessary turns, he pointed out a number of prostitute bars. According to him, prostitutes are called "cats" in BA. "You go there, have a drink, say 'I love you for you,' you know? Then dinero. You understand?" He was a funny guy.

We heard a lot about the cabby's family on the ride, and I really don't mind financing what will probably be a lavish weekend, raising their glasses to stupid tourists. The ride was only a little bit more than what it costs for a taxi to SeaTac. It was worth it to see such shenanigans in person (although it wouldn't be worth it a second time). However, everyone should root hard against Independiente, which is his favorite soccer team. I personally am hoping for crushing defeats at the hands of merciless foes for the rest of the season, then for a franchise relocation to Oklahoma City. He also recommended a restaurant for carne asada.

Yesterday I walked around Buenos Aires with a very nice German guy named Toby. I really like the city. Mullets are definitely cool here, and I've heard mostly American/UK music everywhere I've been. Lots of Rolling Stones and lots of Prince. I heard purple rain twice just yesterday, which is of course fine by me. Can't get enough Prince. Lots of 80s music in general, which with the mullets and all the smoking makes the place seem very 80s.

We also went to Recoleta Cemetery, which is a very cool sort of city of the dead with little alleyways between mausoleums. There were also lots of cats (of the kitty cat, not the strumpet, variety). We also went to a very cool bar called Olsen, where we had a very strong Argentinian drink called a Fernet Cola, which was weird tasting but good. The subway was closed, so we then walked back, which took forever. See picture below.

View Larger Map

That might be it for now...I can't think of too much else to report. I'm going to get a picasa account going for pictures, as it's kind of a hassle to embed a lot right in the body of the blog.

Here's a link. Some are pretty lo-res, but I've got better versions saved. I'm concerned about running out of space.

All for now.