Saturday, August 7, 2010

Hmm, what was I dong again?

I'm back in the states. That's part of why I haven't written. I'm no longer traveling on tips. So little of my blog and its title seem relevant right now.

But I never intended to quit writing once I quit traveling. And I suppose it's not really accurate to say I've quit traveling either. I still don't have a bed or an address of my own. I still never spend more than three days in a row in the same place. The biggest difference is that now I have more stuff I can't find.

Instead of my one big orange backpack, I have a variety of little bags stuffed with clothes and toiletries. I have my own toothbrush at four different houses. I have a job, or two, or a few.

But I'm more lost than ever. I just started my seventh week back in this country and I really thought I'd be more settled by now.

I almost had an apartment. It was awesome. Right in the neighborhood where I wanted to live. It was a little one-bedroom with windows on every side, wood floors and no neighbors above or on the sides. It was the upstairs of a carriage house. Tiny, but pleasant and in my price range. I was really excited about.

But the landlord never answered or returned any of my daily calls after I dropped off the deposit check for $850.

I left a stern message one day and said I needed to hear from him. He ended up saying he'd never gotten any of my messages. His phone must have been broken. But he suddenly wasn't sure he was comfortable having a tenant who was only marginally employed. He would have to think about it and get back to me, he said.

I thought about it myself and told him I was pretty sure I didn't want a landlord with a broken phone.

So I thought maybe I should try to buy a cheap condo. They were all pretty dismal.

Then I started applying for writing jobs that I felt sort of qualified for.

Now I haven't heard from any of them. Maybe what they say is true: The economy IS bad and there are a lot of people looking for work. Or maybe this just isn't what I'm supposed to be doing.

I joined a team a couple weeks ago. A special, elite team of mean problem solvers. It's the merchandising projects team at an electronics big box store. I travel to four different stores in the Denver area, setting up displays and signage in the early mornings. It's interesting work and pays enough to keep me in groceries but not quite enough enough.

I'm still homeless. I want to wait until the dust settles to pick a home base now. I feel things are too up in the air to be signing a lease. But this lack of connection and roots leaves me itchy. It's like a big red rash of uncertainty buried deep enough under the skin I can't get to it to scratch it.

I have applied and applied to jobs. It takes enough time it might as well be a job.

last week, I stopped applying for professional jobs. I've been freelancing for some Web sites and its going pretty well. I'm thinking again about waitressing and freelancing. That had been my plan all along. I don't know why I can't just pick a path and stick to it.

I keep expecting something to find me. And maybe it will or maybe it has and it just has to take hold.

At any rate, I should have tons of time to call all the people on my mind. I should have lots of time for sleep and seeing people. But somehow I always feel stressed and rushed.

This is a tough country to come home to.

I haven't taken advantage of the summer weather. I'm stuck inside of my head most days.

While all of this is pretty overwhelming sometimes, I do go back and forth between being terrified and terrifically excited about all of the possibilities.

Anything could happen. And it could be really awesome.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Adventures in northern Argentina

I crossed the border between Bolivia and Argentina on foot at dawn. It was confusing in its simplicity after my manic crossing from Bolivia in Peru. It seemed on this frontier that I could have walked across with little more than a wave, never alerting authorities of my presence or absence.

From the border, this was more than a week ago, I took a nice cushy Argentinean bus complete with heat, a bathroom in the back, reclining seats, and even a movie playing on the several TVs that hung from the high ceiling. It was a welcome comfort after spending the night on a Bolivian bus wrapped in the rug I bought for the apartment I hope to have after I move to Denver. The bus was cold and drove on a dirt path alongside a dirt road that was being “improved” and passengers had to pee in the grass behind the restaurant where we stopped for dinner because the toilets were overflowing.

I arrived around 1 p.m. in Tilcara, Argentina, a beautiful tiny little mountain town. Northwest Argentina is dry and colorful, filled with reds and browns much like the South West in the U.S. Tilcara boasted a funky hippy square filled with cool artisan goods and a 360-degree view of rolling hills and taller red peaks. The roads were dirt outside of the main square and the tourist information office was closed from 12:30 to 5 for siesta.

Having no map, I wasn’t sure where to go for a hostel and stood looking like a fool in the square for a few minutes before another tourist, one with a map, also came by looking like a lost idiot. He walked me to my hostel and then we jumped in a taxi to the top of one of the rust-colored hills nearby for a quick hike to a hidden waterfall. He had a bus to catch that afternoon. The drive and the walk were both lovely. It’s hot in the north of Argentina during the day and the sun is gloriously intense. It was so welcome.

After the hike, it turned out my new friend from Israel had missed his bus and could stay a bit longer so we went to check out the Pulcara ruins. It had been a fortress but without walls. It’s position at the top of a hill is what protected it. Many of the walls and houses were completely reconstructed in the 1930s and then the brilliant archeologists who discovered the place built a Turkish-style pyramid on the site to congratulate themselves. Nothing says important pre-Incan civilization like some random building from a different culture, time, and continent, eh?

There was just enough time to have a bite to eat and a bottle of wine before my new friend had to grab a bus. I stayed in a beautiful hostel in the woods and wished I could stay longer, but also took off for Salta the next morning.

It seems there is always a reason to celebrate in Latin America.. I’m pretty sure that I’ve had trouble finding open businesses at least one work day every week for the last six weeks because everywhere I’ve gone, they’ve had some sort of federal, provincial or regional holiday that has brought the masses out to parade and dance while they shuttered their office doors. Salta was no exception. They were celebrating 200 years as a city and hosted folk dances and historical demonstrations on the square constantly. It was wonderful to watch.

I did also get a chance to see a high-altitude mummy in the museum there. Archeologists, presumably the kind that don’t build foreign structures on historic sites, have found the perfectly preserved bodies of sacrificed children on six of the tallest peaks in the region. There were three on the Volcano Llullaillaco near the Chilean border in the north of Argentina. The children were left at the top of the 6,700 meter peak, where the cold maintained their skin, hair and clothes in perfect condition.

The museum displays one of its three mummies at a time. I stared at the six-year old boy until the other tourists left and the next group came and huddled around me and the boy. You can see his expression through the window between his bent elbow and where his forehead rests on his folded knees. His eyes are closed and squinted, but he looks somehow at peace. I don’t know how the mummies were sacrificed. How they were killed. It’s crazy that I don’t. I read absolutely everything in the museum, every board and every pamphlet. They just didn’t say. Were they poisoned? Were they just taken to the peak and arranged in these beautiful peaceful and meditative positions and then left to freeze to death? I wonder if Wikipedia might be able to tell me what the museum didn’t.

From Salta, I headed to Cafayate. Joe asked me what took me there. I told him, “wine.” Cafayate is Argentina’s second biggest wine region. It’s known for its Torrontes, a variety of sweet white wine. I’m not typically a big fan of sweet white wine, but I’d heard they made other varieties quite well too.

The thing about wine tasting, however, is that I didn’t really want to do it on my own. I’d heard that El Balcon was a nice hostel and a good place to meet people. When I got off the bus though, a fellow offered me a bed for $25 pesos a night in another place, about $6 US, and said they were having an asado. I went to El Balcon and they had conveniently sold out of the dorm beds for $30 and only had $40 beds. Plus, they weren’t having an asado. I walked down to the farthest reaches of the little town and joined the mixed group of Argentineans and Europeans socializing entirely in Spanish and poured myself a cup from the jug of red wine on the bar.

It was the dirtiest, most disgusting hostel I’ve actually stayed in (which doesn’t count the Scrum Hotel Illa and I avoided earlier in this journey). But the people were nice and we went for a fabulous 48-kilometer bike ride through the desert together the next day. The second day we wondered up a rocky canyon toward some waterfalls we never reached, built a campfire, drank wine and ate goat cheese together. I still hadn’t been to a single vineyard on the third day and made some quick rounds to the nearest ones before my bus.

The bus. The bus was about two blocks outside of town when I realized I’d left my passport and money belt buried under the towel I decided to discard. The driver agreed to wait for me as I frantically ran back toward the hostel, 10 blocks away, looking for a taxi. In the town square, the guy who ran our hostel loaned me his bike and I pedaled like the wind against traffic. I grabbed my moneybelt, remounted the and pedaled like the wind back toward the bus. About a block and a half behind the bus, I started trying to wave at the driver so he would know it was me.

Look mom, no hands!

And then I hit a sandy patch. The bike tire slipped sideways and I knew there was no fixing it. I should have been petrified. I was, after all, riding like the wind. I should have been afraid for my life and struggled to protect my fragile limbs. But I think I may have still been trying to wave at the bus driver even as I slid 10 feet along the sandy asphalt, scraping my bare skin against the dirt. I don’t think I ever took my eyes off the bus, where all of my worldly belongings were stored in the underbelly. The group of pre-teen boys drinking soda from three-liter plastic bottles along the side of the street made “whoa” sounds and dropped their jaws to watch me. Before I even slid to a complete stop I assessed the damage, decided it was only flesh wounds, stood and resolved to leave everything that had fallen from me behind. But the boys raced to hand me my sweater and water bottle. And I finished the ride to the bus.

There, the driver looked astonished and offered to divert the many passengers on his rout to the nearest hospital for me. I said I would be fine and took my seat in the very front next to an older lady where I began to cry and dab at my bloody elbows with coarse paper towels. She rolled her eyes and asked me where I was from, wanting to know what nationality the idiot who caused the delay was.

The other tourists in the back of the bus gave me a two-liter bottle of soda water to carry to the bathroom with me. I cleaned my wounds and resolved to spend my last night in a rented bed in luxury. I found the nicest looking hotel in Tafi Del Valle and took a 45-minute shower before laying in my king size bed.

The next day the lady at the front desk in the hotel, the guy at the pharmacy and even the lady who sold me the bus ticket all said, “why don’t you go to the hospital?” as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do even for injuries so superficial they didn’t need Band-Aids. I had time and I was curious and figured I could also ask about my enduring cough.

I went and it took 30 minutes for them to clean my wounds, listen to my lungs and give me advice. All they wanted from me was my name, age and nationality. That’s how healthcare should be.

In keeping with my luxurious conclusion to this trip, I rode in a suite class bus with my own TV screen and a seat that folded flat to Buenos Aires. I’m staying with a family friend of sorts, Robin who lives in Argentina and usually works crazy hours at Bloomberg. We cheered Argentina on in their game yesterday at a bar called Loco por Football and I’m happy I’ll get to see Argentina play one last time before I go on Sunday.

I love World Cup Soccer in Argentina. The people are so passionate and so patriotic. I wish we could have that kind of unity.

I’m looking ahead a lot to my homecoming and I’m really excited about it. I will miss this carefree lifestyle, but it will be nice to have an income again, assuming I eventually have a job, and I can’t wait to have a home and a bed.

I’m taking a couple hours of classes now and I know I’ve achieved my goal of improving my Spanish. I hope I’ll be able to use it when I’m home.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A vivid country

The ironic thing about not writing recently is that I’ve been in the ideal place for writing. I’m staying in a fabulous little room with a twin bed on the top floor of an immaculate white house in Sucre, Bolivia. My room overlooks the white city and surrounding mountains, granting me a glimpse of the most romantic scenery that exists in South America. I imagine it’s what Paris was before it became a big noisy city full of tourists.

I walk past a square and a lovely white church after climbing a steep hill with a view many townspeople and tourists cherish then turn down a sweet narrow cobblestone street to the house. To say it’s charming or elegant or romantic or beautiful would be an understatement.

When I go to my Spanish classes in a cold dark classroom in the city center, I long for my room in this little house. I want nothing more than to sit on the sun deck and read or at my desk in front of my own splendid window and write a novel. I want to cook big meals with the fresh vegetables and pasta from the hectic market and drink wine with the other guests -- three couples.

I so often am thinking of home and missing it and getting ready to go back. I am ready. I have just a little more than two weeks left now. And I’m eager to start up my life there. I look forward to seeing my friends and my family and I’m making plans and even applying for jobs. But this little place.

I find myself wishing for more time here. If I could go back to the beginning of my trip, I might change it all so I could have a greater piece of time here.

It’s peaceful, comfortable and clean. There’s no Internet, which has been a struggle. I haven’t been in contact with my loved ones as much as I would like. But it’s also woken me up a bit. I’m drumming up more ideas and the creative juices are flowing. This place seems to have that effect. My friends Deborah and Lee are also at work on some grand business ideas born here in this magical place.

I imagine one day having a book to write and coming here for a couple months to do it. I told Tonya, the owner of this little guesthouse, that and she said there was a woman who came here once. She was going to stay three days and stayed a month instead, writing a novel in German.

This place, its quiet and peace, is particularly phenomenal when contrasted with the vibrancy of Bolivia.

Someone just gave me a copy of Tom Robbins’ Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates. Robbins’ character describes South America as “vivid.” He illustrates what he means by describing a scene he witnessed: a naked parrot matching the weak steps of his hunched old lady owner.

I have also witnessed some vivid scenes here in Bolivia. It’s an amazing place full of sharp colors, memorable scenes and distinctive odors. There are always festivals or protests in Bolivia. I have run into a few big processions and celebrations in the streets of Bolivia and I’ve only been here two weeks. But when they aren’t celebrating, they’re protesting. The streets here are busy.

I went to the silver mine in Potosi the day Ronaldo left for Uyuni. I guess I should say it used to be a silver mine. Today, miners, about 4,000 of them struggle in the depths of this mountain to recover slivers of Zink, which have sunk in costs since the advent of lithium batteries, my guide told me.

He took me first to a store where I bought $30 bolivianos worth of coca leaves, coca leaf cigarettes, a small plastic bottle of 96 percent alcohol, a bag full of diesel-soaked pellets and a stick of plastic explosive. Gifts for the miners. The conversion of dollars to bolivianos is 7 to 1.

Then Daniel and I slithered into the mine, through an entry soaked in dried llama blood from a recent sacrifice, down a dark dusty hole to pay tribute to the Devil and his rather over-sized penis. The Devil is not, in fact, a devil or el Diablo. They call him Tio, which means uncle in Spanish. But these miners don’t all speak Spanish. Those who never went to school or didn’t finish probably never learned Spanish. They speak Quechua. When the Spanish came and explained god, or dios, to the people of Bolivia, the people had trouble pronouncing the “d” and called the diety instead Tio. The Spanish told the Bolivians that they had to work in the mine or the devil would kill them, the devil is the keeper of the underworld.

The religion evolved. And now the miners are permitted to believe what they want outside of the mine. Nearly all of them are catholic and attend mass regularly, praying to the Spanish god. But when they are in the mine, they worship the Tio. Every mine has a sculpture of a devil-like creature with red eyes and a large erect and flexible penis. The miners, upon entering the mine, offer the tio coca leaves, dropping them on his shoulders, head, at his feet and, of course, his engorged genitals. Then they offer the devil the alcohol and drink a bit themselves. They offer the tio a puff of their cigarette if not a whole one. And then they go into the darkness to work, hoping the tio will have mercy on them.

The mine is old. Bolivians began toiling here, extracting tons of silver for the Spanish, in the 16th century. It’s now 12 levels deep, reaching something around 150 degrees at the deepest level. The town of Potosi is almost 13,000 feet in elevation. Only recent years have they had air pumped into the mines. Before that a miner’s life expectancy was less than 10 years from the day he started working. That’s a pretty tough figure when you hear that most start at age 12 or 14. Only men, of course.

Life expectancies are still low. There’s a lot of dust, few mechanized operations, lots of accidents and collapses. And now they let little tourists like me go in and watch! Crazy, eh?

The mine was incredible but I was eager to get out of Potosi. I took a bus. I was the only tourist. The smell is strong on buses here. The strongest was my trip with Lee and Deborah to Tarabuco, a traditional village about an hour from Sucre. We were stuffed with 12 other passengers into a minivan meant to hold far fewer. I rode backwards, but sat next to the window. I could see the smells on Lee and Deborah’s faces. It was quite a ride.

In the village, we were greeted with an array of amazing colors. Tarabuco is known for its textiles. And the colors were indeed “vivid.” It was a lively marketplace full of women and some men selling the weavings they’d slaved over for months, begging tourists to buy them.

This is an incredible place, Bolivia and especially Chuquisaka, this province of the country.

I almost didn’t make it to Bolivia on this trip because US citizens now need visas thanks to strained international relations. Gracias a Ronaldo, I’m here. And I am so happy I’ve been able to see these places and visit this part of the world.

Next I’m heading to the north of Argentina and the Cafayate wine region before a last week of classes in Buenos Aires.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Another two-week bite

I got into a rhythm on this trip. I got used to taking quick two-week journeys with friends and I haven't been able to change the beat. I went to visit Ronaldo in Sao Paulo after Illa left. I had a visa and a friend to stay with, so I figured, "why not?"

Then Ronaldo suggested traveling to Peru and Bolivia together. He's never been and didn't want to go alone. Again, why not? So we flew the 5.5 hours from Sao Paulo, close to the Pacific coast, to Lima, on the Atlantic coast. The long flight was a reminder that South America is a vast continent.

I met Ronaldo at Spanish school in Buenos Aires. He's about 5 feet 9 inches with perfectly coiffed brown hair. He spent over $800 pesos on hair products while we were in BA. He likes to walk arm in arm down the street so he can squeeze my hand when a "cutie" walks by, usually an attractive guy with blond hair and blue eyes.

I skipped Lima the last time I was in South America because I heard it was dirty and dangerous. Ronaldo, coming from Brazil, has always expected teh rest of South America to be a bit backwards--dirty and and dangerous.

We were both surprised and amazed in Lima. It was clean with fresh new roads, beautiful gardens and parks. The security guards outside the government palace even approached us to give us information usually provided by tour guides. They are proud and know what they're protecting.

We went paragliding over the Atantic and Lima. It was an amazing feeling, just like flying. My guide said he had the best office in town.

From Lima, we flew to Cuzco and jumped immediately in a van headed toward Macchu Pichu. The train has been out of commission since the floods a few months ago. The van took us to where the train started again and we road the rails for the last hour or so of the jouney, arriving in time to enjoy the thermal pools above the town.

We befriended two cousins from Sanfrancisco, Reena and Krina, and enjoyed dinner with them.

The next morning we got up at 3:30 a.m. to wait in line for the bus to Macchu Pichu. It was worth it, because we had it to ourselves when we arrived. Though I'd been there before, it was still a magical and spiritual experience. It was a lot more casual this time. And arriving with friends made me a little more realistic and a little less dreamy about the place than I remembered being the last time. None the less, I'm glad I got to see it again and would go yet again if the chance came up.

I have a bit of a cold and convinced Ronaldo to stay a day in Cuzco instead of getting up early for a third day in a row to travel to Lake Titikaka. We wandered around the city and Ronaldo took many pictures of the colonial architecture. We also had a rather sentimental tour guide who whispered in reverey when telling us, very emotionally, about the Incan ruins. Since the tour was in Spanish, I had little patience for his weepy style and we ditched the tour half way through.

The next day, we were on an early bus through the Andes and incredible mountain scenery to Puno, Peru on the shore of Lake Titikakka.

This is why I love letting the trip decide for me where to go. This is why I was so happy to tag along with Ronaldo. We went to see the Uros, a group of 60 man-made floating islands in the highest navigable lake in the world. It was amazing.

They have to move their homes every six months to stack fresh reeds underneath them. The island we visited was 11 years old, but the islands themselves have existed since before the Incas. They were constructed so that the people who lived on them could pull up the anchors and float away if there were any threats.

The people on the island showed us how they create the islands using porous roots and reeds. It was the most amazing thing and I'm so happy I got to see it.

From Puno, we bussed to La Paz and discovered that we once again were arriving just in time for a big celebration. El Gran Poder is one of South America's biggest festivals. The parade went on all day and all night. It was amazing. The costumes were rich and elegant. The music was impressive. The people peeing in the street were innumerable.

La Paz is a dirty city. It has a smell. And the altitude is killer. At about 12,000 feet above sea level, it's the highest city in the world. The altitude has been punishing for us. We crawl up the hills here and Ronaldo had a bout of altitude sickness the day we left for Bolivia. Coca tea was his savior.

La Paz is an amazing city though. Planted in a valley, surrounded by mountains, it's beauty is unmatched. The people wear traditional dress and the streets are filled with people selling things ranging from underwear and light bulbs to plastic washers for your sink and dried llama carcasses.

It's been amazing trip so far. Today, we're off by plane to Sucre. Ronaldo and I will part in a few days and I'll go back to Spanish school.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

La lingua

Today, I went with Ronaldo to the Portuguese language museum in a beautiful train station near downtown.

The museum was amazing and modern and a wet dream for grammar nerds. It features interactive exhibits about accents, common phrases, cliches, grammar and the evolution of the language. There's also a phenomenal video presentation in a room where the video surrounds visitors on all sides.

I couldn't understand all of the poetry and only a fraction of the exhibits I saw, but it was impressive all the same. I found the exhibit about the evolution of the language especially interesting.

It's crazy to me that this is a completely separate language and that when I hear it without listening to it, it almost sounds Asian, yet I'm able to understand so much of it. It's not just a cousin, but more like a brother to Spanish.

Before the museum, Ronaldo and I went to the Sao Paulo governor's palace and had a tour. Our guide took us and a Colombian man through the marble halls. She spoke only Portuguese, yet the Colombian man never seemed to have trouble following what she told us and I only had to ask Ronaldo for clarification a few times.

So many of the words are the same, though many are different. The way they're said, however, is different enough to make me feel like I'm on the other side of a mirror trying to make sense of backward Spanish.

I usually turn into a seemingly stupid mute any time I think I might be asked to communicate here.

When I was in Santiago, I had a week of incredibly interesting Spanish classes with Hernan, who talked to me about the evolution of language. He explained that the emperor of the territory that would later be known as Spain gave Portugal to his younger son as a wedding gift in 1100. The older son maintained control of the rest of the territory. That physical division, Hernan told me, would solidify the division in the language. He added that Spain is actually home to several different languages and you can't call it Spanish there without getting in trouble. It's Castellano, he said.

The museum today didn't argue that Spanish and Portuguese are any more closely related than Spanish and French.

I've enjoyed my time in Sao Paulo and I've seen it from angles I don't think most people do. Ronaldo took me around by car, by subway and by foot. He's seen several places during my visit that he'd never been to before. It's a huge, huge, sprawling city.

The food is great. I've had coxinha, a batter and fried chicken in soft dough, and pao de quejo, cheese bread. They are two of my favorites, along with acai (ah-say-ee), a sorbet made from a sort of dusty-tasting red fruit that Ronaldo said he's never seen in fruit form.

We leave early tomorrow morning on a flight to Lima, Peru with plans to see Machu Picchu and Bolivia. Yet another two-week bite out of this adventure.

I've loved my time here and my Portuguese experiment, but I do so look forward to again feeling competent and intelligent in a place where I can speak the language with relative confidence.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Off the beaten path

I have spent the last week going where few backpackers do.

Illa and I began her visit to South America with three days in one of the continent's most popular and awe-inspiring destinations -- Iguazu Falls. And then we left all of the other tourists in our dust.

We took a 10-hour overnight bus to Resestincia, Argentina, where Lonely Planet promised we would see hundreds of brilliant statutes nestled into a tiny little town and where we would be able to travel to a national park and ride horses through the marshlands to see caimans and colorful birds.

But alas, our faith in Lonely Planet should have waned the moment we drove into the city, which was not a tiny little town at all. We went to one of the hotels suggested in the book. It had changed its name to the Hotel Scrum. Again, we should have known better. We checked in, filling in our passport numbers at the hotel desk. Then we were taken up a dark stairwell with peeling paint and handed the keys to a dark little room with two bunk beds that took up so much of the space we couldn't really both be in the room at the same time unless one of us was in bed.

Just as Illa was about to take her clothes off for a shower, I looked over and spotted what looked like a herd of dead bugs laying on the white sheets. I had my shoes back on and tied before I'd finished saying we had to leave. I explained that I thought they were probably bed bugs and that we would look like lepers if we stayed. Illa agreed and we started readying our things. But then the complacent Americans in us said, "oh maybe they're not bed bugs. Maybe it's just dirt." There's something in us that hates to make a stink.

We examined the pile of bugs on my sheets then pulled back the covers on Illa's top bunk. As she squished something into the covers and said she wasn't sure if it was a dead bug or just dirt, something crawled past. But it was "just" a spider. "I think this is a bug," she said, smearing the dusty carcass of an insect into the sheet, "but I'm not sure if it's a bed bug."

Finally, we took a breath and realized that we were crazy. It didn't really matter what the nasty dirt/dead bugs were or if it was "just" a spider crawling through the bed, the place was terrible. The lady at the front desk didn't even protest when I told her we couldn't stay because of the bugs.

We showered under a dribble of hot water at our next hotel before setting out to see the sculptures. There are over 500 in the city, they told us at tourist information. They have a competition every four years where sculptors come from around the world to create works, which then stay in the city.

There's a red line we could follow through the city center for about two hours and see 150 statues. The line, however, faded in and out and we got lost here and there. Some of the sculptures were impressive and many were very artistic and interesting. Several depicted the beloved dog, Fernando.

Fernando, the dog, is credited as being one of the founding fathers of the town. He attended all of the most important events and meetings during the development of the area and was adored by all.

The city shuttered its windows and locked its doors every day from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. when everyone settled in for a siesta.

We got up before the sun on our second day in town because we wanted to explore the Chaco National Park, known, according to Lonely Planet, for its wildlife. The bus ride took about an hour longer than expected -- three in total. When we arrived, the man at the park administration building said there were no horses at all allowed in the park and that the only way to get to the isolated place was to walk another 5 kilometers or hire a taxi. Since we'd bought bus tickets to another town for that night, it turned out there was only one bus we could take back to town and it would leave two hours after we arrived.

We went across the street to a tiny grocery store where we bought the only premade thing they had, a roll filled half with ham and cheese and half with dulce de leche.

So we took a taxi (a 1980-something black car that shook while sitting still driven by a teenage boy)and walked around the longest trail in the park, which took 45 minutes. Before we set out, we opened the roll we bought at the store. It turned out to be a foam-like roll of dough without any of the filling pictured on the wrapper or listed in what turned out to be ingredients for recipes. Then we got back in the "taxi" and waited for the bus.

The same driver who dropped us off, picked us up again.

We finished the day with milanesa and ice cream before boarding a bus to Mercedes, Argentina in the state of Corrientes. We arrived to a hostel at about 11 p.m. We made arrangements with Graciela the next morning to take a trip into the Esteros del Iberá, a provincial park known for its exotic wildlife. Few travelers have ever heard of the park, which was created only 20 years ago.

We took a long rocky bus ride down a dirt road at 1 p.m. and arrived in the tiny town of Carlos Pelegrini. The roads through the town and around the edges of its central square were a soft red sand, giving the impression that one might be able to rub out the border of the park with a strong breeze.

We settled into one of the rooms at a house turned hotel, stuffed with five beds, and then set out on our first sightseeing excursion in the park. Ricardo guided a German girl named Theresa, Illa and me through the marshlands shortly before sunset.

It was an amazing boat ride. Ricardo slowed once we reached the grassy banks of one of the area's floating islands and pointed out a big black caiman. Once she knew what she was looking for, Illa pointed out dozens of others soaking up the sunlight and sitting still, just waiting for prey to pass within snapping distance. They conserve energy in the winter, moving little, Ricardo explained.

A few minutes later, we came upon a marsh deer moving smoothly through the grass in perfect late afternoon light. And just when we thought it couldn't get any better, we found a family of capybaras, the world's largest rodents. They're like rats twice the size of large dogs.

As we sped back toward shore, we all took turns snapping each others pictures in front of the brilliant purple sunset.

Ricardo explained that the town and the park hadn't been prepared for tourists. It was just a dusty little town in the middle of the blank planes of northeastern Argentina. There was nothing around for miles and miles and miles. But people had hunted the animals to near extinction and a group decided the area needed to be preserved and established a provincial park. It's Corrientes' only state park. Slowly, tourists have trickled in. Every year there are more and more people, Ricardo said.

The state sent tourism professionals and instructors to the town to train the 600 people living there to be guides and hotel owners and chefs and waiters, Ricardo said.

That night we walked up the sand street to another house turned restaurant and ordered from the oldest son/waiter. His mother prepared the food for us, we paid and went back to our room to read and go to bed early.

The next day, David took us on a walking tour through the jungle area, pointing out monkeys in the trees. There are 12 different types of monkeys in the area, he said.

And, at last we got to ride horses. Illa and I trotted through the grass lands outside of the town, looking at colorful birds and giant ant hills. Our guide, Carlos, said the ants dig up the earth to get to the nutrient rich soil below, serving as natural rototillers. The field was once used to grow rice, which is what his father did for a living--worked in the rice fields outside of town. Carlos had worked there too. But there hadn't been much rice production in the area in recent years because prices were too low.

But prices have risen and he said the people will probably plant new rice fields again this year. In the meantime, the town had changed. He is only 24, but remembers that since he started working there was no work for women in the town. And now that the tourists are coming, there's more work for women than there is for men.

After our horse ride, we showered and then loaded into Hugo's truck. Hugo provides transportation for tourists and had taken us all over town already. Now he carried Maider from California, Illa and me two and a half hours down dirt roads to Virasoro where we would catch a night bus back to Iguazu.

We had to arrive before 8 p.m. to get our tickets though the bus didn't leave until 1:30 a.m. We wandered around the town and stopped at the cultural center. We asked if there was anything interesting there for tourists and Maria walked us down the street and opened the town's little history museum just for us. She gave a us a private tour of the tiny space, showing us relics from the Guarani people. She opened a glass case, picked up a hatchet and handed it to us to hold. It came from about 1100 BC, she said.

The Guarani are the only prehistoric civilization still thriving. There are many Guarani in northern Argentina and Paraguay.

We finished our long layover with an exquisite Argentinian barbecue.

I left Illa at the airport in Iguazu and boarded a bus to Sao Paulo, Brazil. I was the only backpacker on the bus.

Now I'm exploring this city with my friend Ronaldo who lives here. We met in Buenos Aires and he invited me. It's an incredibly huge city with buildings and buildings as far as the eye can see. But it's still not a common tourist destination.

We're off to Peru together on Friday.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The power of water

Today I was quite literally blown away.

I am in Iguazu Falls with my friend Illa, who I went to high school with. I met her in Sau Paulo, Brazil two days ago and went with her for our first peak at the world's largest waterfalls on the Brazilian side of the River Iguazu yesterday.

When we arrived, the falls looked so far away. Neither of us said anything but we both admitted later that we were hiding mild feelings of disappointment. We'd heard these monsters were born to impress the pants off tourists.

As we walked slowly along the pathway, letting massive groups of tourists come and go as we leisurely snapped hundreds of photos, the falls grew in majesty. After a few hours of walking, we arrived at a path that took us out in front of one of the biggest among the seemingly hundreds of vast waterfalls here in this chain. The wind created by the movement of the water was enough to blow a small child to Kansas from this remote corner of South America.

More than the wind, we noticed the water.

The water coming off the fall flew with extreme force, much the way I would expect the rain of a hurricane. We were drenched to our underpants.

We followed the visit to the falls up with a trip to the bird park, which featured hundreds of exotic birds, many flying freely where we could reach out and touch them. Illa and I have photos of ourselves petting a Toucan!

Today was even more impressive. After a casual 45-minute wait for the bus that "forgot" to pick up our two new friends from England the day before we arrived at the falls.

If the Brazilian side was impressive, this side was awe-inspiring. We have a million photos a piece of the amazing beauties from every angle possible. We were also blessed with a sunny day, which made the scene with the cameras even more embarrassing than it normally would have been.

We went to the top of the falls and stared for a straight hour into the Garganta del Diablo (Throat of the Devil). The water in one of the falls looked constantly like it was growing larger and coming toward us. I was so convinced at one point that it would overtake the the platform we were standing on that I staggered backward and yelped, "don't you see that, it's coming."

When I realized it was just a super-natural trick on my eyes, much like 3-D movies play, I felt like I'd woken from a short previously unnoticed nap in history class shouting, "I didn't have sex with him!"

I've noted a trend on this trip. I've been able to see water in its various and most amazing forms. First: Ice. The glacier water in Patagonia moves so slowly that it can wait thousands of years to be water again. Second: Iguazu. The water rushing toward these waterfall moves so fast it makes its own wind.

The river is running 8 meters higher than usual, our hostel staff told us. It's so high they're not offering rafting trips and some of the tourist boat ramps along the river have closed. There's no way to reach an island between Brazil and Argentina that's covered with walkways and paths because the beach where bosts usually land is submerged deep below the surface of the water.

It's been a wonderful trip so far. Illa got wet today. I took her picture. Tomorrow we're going back for more.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Eating my way through South America

When I returned from my last great adventure in South America, I returned lighter and thinner and with $1,200 left in my bank account.

The same will not happen this time around. I am about to dip into those special reserve funds meant to sustain me through my golden years in order to carry on traveling the way I have been – as if it’s entirely for the food.

This journey has been rich with decadent meals and fine wines, pisco sours and flavors to remember forever.

I have long believed that eating is a huge part of the travel experience, that tasting the food is the easiest (and typically most rewarding) way to get a taste of the culture in a place. And, man, have I been immersing myself in the culture.

I have been eating well all along. Well, not so much the first week. I tried very hard to spend less than $30 a day including my lodging then and so I ate a nice lunch of something cheap like milanesa (thin breaded steak or chicken), a café in the afternoon and a couple empanadas for dinner until I met my friend Peng from China. He made me curries in the hostel, which were not at all Argentine, but were quite delicious.

Then I stayed with Mara in Bariloche, known the world over for her fine cooking. I would eat a cheap lunch: pizza or churrypan (chorizo sausage on a hotdog bun with salsa). But for dinner we had fresh vegetables, pastas, meat and always a brilliant salad prepared with oil, lemon juice, vinegar and a little soy sauce.

When Joe came, the real culinary adventure started. We traveled to more expensive places and so had to rein ourselves in sometimes. But mostly, we threw caution to the wind and ordered appetizers, main dishes and postres until our stomachs bulged. I had a bife de lomo (a tenderloin steak) at a restaurant around the corner from our fancy hotel in Recoleta one night. It was served with French fries. I can still taste and feel the meat in my mouth. I didn’t so much chew it as let it melt there. It was the most amazing steak I’ve ever had in my life. It came with no sauce and little seasoning.

In Ushuaia, the southern-most city in the world, we at king crab. The meat was ripped out of the crab claws and separated like string cheese. We had a ceviche filled with buttery crab meat, onions, garlic and cured in lemon. The flavor and the texture is one of the best I’ve ever experienced in any food.

In Buenos Aires, I spent most of my time with my new vegetarian friend Ronaldo. I took advantage of the opportunity to eat something other than meat in Argentina and went to sushi with him twice. It wasn’t the best sushi I’ve ever had, but sometimes it’s good to see how other countries make the food you’re accustomed to eating a certain way at home. Most of the sushi in Argentina is made with salmon, because that’s what they can get fresh.

In the vein of trying ordinary things in extraordinary places, Brooke and I shared a cheeseburger and each had dulce de leche ice cream cones at the McDonald’s in Mendoza. The hamburger bun was the same one McDonalds’s uses in the US. But we both agreed the burger tasted like it was made from real meat and had probably not been sprayed with ammonia. The dulce de leche ice cream was to die for and the cone itself was something like a freshly-made waffle cone. The security guard did yell at Brooke for trying to take a photo inside McDonald’s.

Brooke and I did not eat regularly at McDonald’s, however. We stayed in hostel dorms to save money and spent what we saved on fancy meals (and, as previously stated, wine).

I would sometimes say to her that I thought we’d only had amazing meals on our journey and she would quickly correct me and remind me of the one night we had lasagna and cannelloni from the deli counter at the super market and that other night when we just had salad because we were too full from lunch. (McDonald's was just a snack).

Restaurants here don’t open until 8 or 9 p.m. and it’s not at all strange to show up asking for a table at 11:30 p.m. We did it several times, just polishing off our plates around 1 a.m. sometimes, well after our coach should have turned into a pumpkin.

We had an asado at our hostel, Reina Madre, in Buenos Aires. The meat was cooked over charcoal and had so much flavor and was so tender. We were full, but couldn’t stop eating. It was after 2 a.m. when the food was finally polished off.

We ate decadent meals in Buenos Aires but the most memorable ones weren’t there. The day we rolled into Mendoza, after a 14-hour bus journey (during which the waiter proposed marriage to me), we asked the guy at the tourist information center for a good place to eat. He suggested La Patrona and showed us on one of the seven maps he’d given us how to get there.

The place was cozy inside with just a few tables, warm lighting and a chalk board that featured a quote from a famous Spanish writer who spoke of the merits of sharing wine. The prices were reasonable and the food was amazing. I had Ozobuco, beef slow roasted in red wine with vegetables. It was so tender it fell apart on my fork and so flavorful I didn’t want to take a drink for fear of washing away the taste. As good as my dish was, I liked Brooke’s even more. It was pork roast bathed in mustard seed and rosemary and cooked with fresh pears.

On our last day in Argentina we toured wine vineyards by bike. The idea sounded a lot better than it turned out to be in practice. Our map of the area was not to scale and those who gave us directions seemed to be a bit off their rockers because everything seemed much farther than they said it would be. This wasn’t helped by the fact that we road about 4 kilometers with our bikes in the lowest gear thinking they were just broken. This is especially shameful, given that I logged over 800 miles of commuter biking in Jackson Hole last summer.

But after giving up on one of our scheduled vineyard tours, we arrived at Norton winery for lunch at about 1:30 p.m. Our friends sent Brooke about $250 Argentine Pesos they had leftover and told us to enjoy a bottle of wine or something along those lines. We put their money to good use and ordered a five-course wine-paired lunch. While this was the most expensive meal we had on our trip at $140 pesos a person, it still seemed a bargain. That’s about $35 US each. Big thanks to the Balmoses.

The meal was incredible. It started with fabulous champagne to accompany a potato wrapped in smoked salmon. Next we had a pasta filled with fresh buffalo mozzarella, tomato and basil, complimented by a nice rosé. Our first main course was a fish filet on a bed of cheesy risotto and served with a chardonnay. Then we topped it off with three cuts of Argentinean beef and a Malbec Reserva. By this time our tour group had left without us and the waiter continued to serve us and ask us not to fret as he delivered an apple tart and the smoothest white desert wine I’ve ever had. Neither Brooke nor I are especially fond of sweet desert wines. But we both bought small bottles of this one.

We ended up getting the royal treatment at the vineyard and had a private tour with Hugo, who rented us the bikes. Our guide took the three of us through each stage of the wine making process and let us taste the good stuff from the fermenting tanks, the oak barrels and finally from the bottle.

The eating didn’t stop in Argentina. We dined like kings in Chile as well. Zarita and my cousin-in-law, Marisol, are turning their hostel into a Peruvian restaurant. Our first day in Santiago, Brooke and I bought fish and octopus at the central fish market and helped Zarita make ceviche with it that night. Her ceviche is still the standard by which I measure all other ceviches and none have ever come close to it in the four years since I first made it with her. She makes it with fresh white fish, though you can make it with all types of seafood. The fish is cut into small bite-size cubes and bathed in lemon juice and spices for 20 minutes or more. The acid from the lemon juice cures the fish so it doesn’t need to be cooked.

Brooke and I took our appetites to the cost and ate in a few very empty establishments in Valparaso. This is the low season and tourism is especially slow after the earthquakes. Marisol suggested a restaurant near where we ended up staying – Pasta e Vino. It ended up being the only restaurant in town that had any customers at all and it was so busy we needed reservations, which we didn’t have.

We went instead to two other wonderful places. Brooke had a chicken dish at the first that she said rivaled her Mendoza pork. The next night though, we had an appetizer that I’m still dreaming about. If I were staying in Valparaiso, I would have been back to eat it every day. It was a cannelloni stuffed with goat brie and drenched in a rich and smooth goat cheese sauce.

In Santiago, I’d like to recommend the Boulevard Lavaud to anyone who comes here. It’s the restaurant Marisol’s husband founded. It’s in a historical building that used to be a barber shop. The front corner of the building hosts a renovated and functioning barber shop. It’s in the Barrio Youngay, which is the most historical part of the city. Marisol and her husband are working to slowly transform this part of the city. They plan to open an antique shop and a neighborhood grocery stand. That along with Zarita, the new Peruvian restaurant slated to open two blocks away, will add a lot to the area, which boasts hundreds of beautiful historical buildings but still struggles to keep them free of grafiti.

The Boulevard Lavaud is the restaurant of my dreams. I have spent the last four years thinking about it and wish there could be a place like it wherever I end up living. The walls are covered with old paintings and magazine covers and relics from the neighborhood. Rather than matching tables, guests sit at a mix of school desks, antique tables, marble-topped tables and in a mix of seats ranging from standard wooden chairs to plush leather benches and antique smoking chairs. You enter the ladies room through a mirrored antique armoire.

They make delicious pisco sours and serve fabulous fish, rabbit and meat.

This journey is not over. I expect I’ll learn to make something new every day from Zarita. Today, we went to the market together and bought bags and bags of produce and made fabulous fried chicken with the most delicious roasted garlic sauce.

Happy dining.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


The previous entry on contained an error.

I reported that Brooke Barbee and had consumed wine all but one or two days of her two-week visit.

After a careful day-by-day review, we discovered that we, in fact, have consumed wine every day of the last two weeks. Without exception.

I apologize for the error.

Viaje de vinos

At night, before I go to bed sometimes, I hear a voice. This voice says, "Amanda, you should post in your blog more often. It doesn't always have to be a work of art."

This voice belongs to one Brooke Barbee.

As she sits reading a guidebook for South America in our hostel in Valparaiso, Chile, I've decided to try writing a short, less-involved post.

It's been a fabulous two weeks. Joe wrote me an e-mail at the beginning referring to it as vino viaje, wine journey. And that is what it has been. I'm not sure, maybe we missed one day, two at the most. Otherwise, we've had wine every day. I feel we're doing something good for the Argentinian and Chilean economies as well as for our bodies. The guides keep reminding us, as if we needed reminding, that red wine is good for your heart.

Brooke and I have secured a healthy supply of the nutritious stuff. Aside from the many litres we're carrying home in our blood streams(as Brooke says), 17 bottles made their way through customs at the Chilean border high in the Andes. These bottles will make an even bigger journey in the spare rolling bag Brooke bought last week in Mendoza, Argentina.

I don't think we realized at the time just how many bottles we were buying, but every time we went to a new vineyard and tasted its divine fermented grape juice, we couldn't help ourselves. It was especially hard to say no when all of this fabulous wine was selling for what we would normally be willing to pay for far-inferior wines at our hometown liquor stores. We got a bottle of incredible Malbec from 1998 for about $12 at one winery. That's about $1 for every year it was aged.

She leaves tomorrow, rolling two suitcases and our prized wines with her. I'll miss her. And I'll miss the wine.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Small bites

It seems the plan we make at the start of something, or rather the
plan we make before we start something, ends up a relic before we’re
half way through.

Just as a teacher can tell you of her childhood dream to become a
veterinarian without regretting her adult life, I can talk about this
funny little idea I had to wait tables in South America without
regretting the way my trip has evolved into a series of two-week adventures.

As you all know, since I’m sure you’ve deeply sensed it’s absence,
I’ve been very bad at updating this blog lately. There are plenty of
excuses for that. None of them include my long waitressing shifts.

I am taking this viaje in many manageable two-week bites. It’s almost
like a series of vacations or as if I’m taking vacations from my
vacation. It’s strange. It’s not what I expected I would be doing. And
I would no doubt be doing things differently if I had the whole four
months straight to myself. But there’s something so awesome about not
being 100 percent free and whimsical. I feel like less of a doush-bag
travel bum this way and I’m experiencing things I wouldn’t normally.

My first two weeks started the way a solo travel mission would. I was
on my own. I spent a few days at a crummy party hostel stuffed with
22-year-old Australians on their way back to University after
celebrating Carnival in Brazil. The experience has grown more bleak in
my memory than I allowed my self to believe it was at the time. The
whole thing reaffirmed my distaste for cities.

Then I spent a week by myself on the beach, getting used to being on
my own. I made a friend. I saw and did some cool things. It was
overall a very relaxing time, but not quite hard-core traveling.

Then I went to Bariloche, my old home away from home in South America,
the place that made me fall for Argentina four years ago. I had my
language classes
four hours a day and dinners with my Argentine family. But the days
were long when the sun didn’t set until almost 10 p.m. and it seems I
had more time then.

Then Joe came for two weeks. And that’s when I stopped writing the
blog. This trip has been like a symphony with constantly changing
rhythms and beats. Joe’s arrival started off slow and relaxed. We
spent three days in Buenos Aires, sleeping in and casually exploring
the city. We focused most of our energy on eating REALY well. If you
didn’t know, Argentina is renowned for it’s beef. The cows don’t eat
corn here. They eat grass, which makes sense, right? They also live in
fields instead of feed lots.

Argentina is also known for it’s wine, especially my favorite – Malbec.
Everything is much more expensive than it was four years ago when I was here.
Prices have doubled. I’m not exaggerating. There’s a lot of discussion
and worry in Argentina about the rapid inflation. The worries are only
half-heartedly assuaged by those who say the inflation is just a
recovery from the 2001 economic collapse. Before the collapse,
Argentina was the most expensive country in South America and the peso
had the same value as the dollar (artificially). I imagine it might
have been even more expensive here than in most parts of the U.S.

Four years ago, Lonely Planet correctly guessed you could travel here
on $15 to $25 a day , the same budget it projected for Bolivia. A
beautiful steak dinner with wine, appetizers and desert would cost me
about $12 then. Now it’s about $30, which is still a pretty good deal,
but not a luxury I can afford myself often as a backpacker.

Anyway, after our luxurious three days in Buenos Aires, Joe and I
picked up the tempo. It was a fever pitch. We were up before the sun
and out late every night. We were exhausted, but couldn’t stop moving.
We went to Ushuaaia, the southern-most city in the world. We saw Tierra
Del Fuego National Park in the morning and went on a cruise through
the Beagle Channel in the afternoon. We road a train in the park and
saw Cormorants, birds that looked suspiciously like penguins but flew,
sea lions and PENGUINS. They were so cute. The boat stopped for about
20 minutes on the shore, so we could get pictures and videos of them
waddling around and yapping with each other. There were two species
there. I’ll have to add their names later. The smaller black and white
one was more predominate. But there were a few of the bigger species,
the third-largest type of penguin in the world, with orange beak and
feet. It was
definitely cool.

I wrote a blog for my cousin who owns a tourism agency and she helped
us plan this whirl-wind tour of the south. Thank god for her help.
There’s no way we would have been able to do all we did if we’d been
left to our own devises.

The morning after our trip to the park and our trip to see penguins,
we were on a bus across the Magellan Straight to Punta Arenas. We
spent the night there, got up, road a bus to Puerto Natales, rented a
car and drove into Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine. Did I mention we
were in Chile at this point?

It was cloudy and a little rainy when we entered the park, but you
could still see how absolutely amazing the views were. Amazing. We
landed at the hotel my cousin arranged for us, the Hotel Lago Gray,
which literally sits at the foot of an amazing glacier and looks out
a lake where icebergs that dropped off the face of the glacier are
melting into beautiful ever-changing sculptures.

Each day we were in the park, which was three days, the clouds broke
up a little more and the sun came out and we saw more and more of the
most amazing mountain scenery, some say, in the world. It was
incredible. It was also empty. In about 9 hours of hiking, we never
saw another soul. That was a shock because other travelers had
complained to me it was too crowded. The earthquakes scared people

From the park we returned to Puerto Natales and caught a bus the next
day to El Calafate, back in Argentina. The town was buzzing with tourists
and every storefront was either a tour agency, a restaurant or a
chocolate shop.

We did see the highlight of the Parque Nacional de Los Glacieres, the
Perito Moreno Glacier. We took a tour, again arranged by my cousin.
We road a boat to the base of this monmouth thing that stretches more
than 60 meters high. It’s part of the third-largest ice field in the
world and is one of the only ones that’s not actually shrinking.
That’s because it’s constantly snowing and compacting deep in the
Andes. We learned that glaciers, the part we see at the front is
actually just snow that’s been waiting more than 400 years to be water
again. So interesting and amazing. There are boardwalks in front of
the ice wall where you can watch chunks fall off and crash like bombs
into the water.

Joe did a minitrek on the glacier and got to see it up close. Since it
takes six months for my ACL to fully heal, I didn’t think it prudent
to tromp up and down ice hills. But he did fill my water bottle
with fresh glacier water. Yumm.

Back in Buenos Aires, we spent a day in La Boca and watched a nice
tango show during our lunch there.

I was pretty sad after Joe left. It was strange after two weeks of
almost never being alone, to be always alone again. My second two-week
bite out of this journey was spent in Buenos Aires. I’m still in this
chapter of the adventure. I would have probably headed north without
staying long in Buenos Aires if it weren’t for my friend Brooke who is
coming tomorrow. I decided it made more sense to stay here and take
language classes. And I’m glad I did. I feel like I’ve bonded with
this city.

I found an apartment with an amazing woman named Tati. She’s 68. We
eat meals together a few nights a week (in my two weeks). I went to
bed early last night and woke to find a Tortilla—potato omelet—on the
table for me that she’d made me last night for dinner. So sweet.

It’s interesting to talk with her about politics because she’s
politically conservative and my teacher is liberal so I get to hear
about issues from both sides. I just listen.

I’ve also made a fabulous new friend, Ronaldo from Brazil. He and I
have gone to movies and tango shows and dinners, also drag queen shows
and gay bars. My Spanish is coming along.
We were talking with Ronaldo´s friend Mauricio one night and Ronaldo
said, “she speaks well doesn’t she?” and Maurico said, “she speaks.”
Apparently I have a terrible
American accent.

But the other night I got to do something I’ve always wanted to do. I
joined a conversation in which we were all speaking a second language.
In a noisy bar, Ronaldo and I had a conversation with an Italian guy
in Spanish.

Anyway, this chapter comes to a close tomorrow. My last Spanish class
is today and Brooke arrives in the morning. I’m so excited! I can’t
wait to explore and drink wine with her. We counted last night and I
think these will be the 11th and 12th countries we will visit together. She
flies home from Chile. It will definitely be more fun to visit wine
country with a friend. Nobody likes to drink alone.

After Brooke leaves, I have a week to get to Iguazu Falls in Brazil to
meet Illa. I never would have gone to Brazil if she hadn´t
accidentally bought her plane ticket into there. I got my visa
yesterday. It’s the first one with a picture.
I’m psyched.

My trajectory on this trip isn’t the most geographically logical. But
I´m happy to be exploring with friends.

While I´m not waiting tables, I am still traveling on tips and will
surely be earning them again when I return to the U.S.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


I had an argument with an American guy about immigration and Mexicans today. That’s not so out of the ordinary. I get pretty fired up when people parrot what they hear on Fox News about the Mexicans not paying taxes and abusing public services.

However, the argument was refereed by our instructor and conducted entirely in Spanish, which was something new. I felt like I was in a Spanish debate class.
Surprisingly, the adrenalin improved my Spanish and I found myself speaking more fluidly and logically and even poetically than ever before.

I am learning the subjunctivo this week. It’s a whole new set of conjugations in present, future and one of the various forms of the past. It exists in parallel to the conjugations I’ve already learned, but it refers to a world that we don’t really live in. It refers to a parallel existence where certain things “could” happen, but might not.

The two time lines Fatima, our instructor, drew on the white board, made me think of the “choose your own ending” books and the movie “Sliding Doors,” where a slight change of fortune can result in a completely different life. It’s really romantic. Literally. It’s a tense that exists only in the Romance languages.

“This is when you start really thinking in Spanish,” Fatima told us.

I use this conjugation often just because it’s what I hear and how I know I am supposed to say certain things. But I love now knowing that the conjugations are different because they refer to something foggy and steamy that you can sense but not touch.

“Espero que tengas un buen noche.” I hope you have a good night. But it’s impossible for me to know if you will or not. Using these words allows me to create a perfect world where you will have a good night. It’s up to you to go there.

Anyway, that’s what’s happening in class. My Spanish is improving. I understand about 90 percent of what I hear straight up and about 98 with context, but I can’t be sure if that’s because people speak more clearly here in Bariloche or if it’s the first Spanish I ever really heard or if it’s because a magic switch went off. I guess I’ll find out when I leave this weekend.

I am in the same school I went to almost four years ago and am staying with the same fabulous woman, Mara. She and I spent the weekend together, having a picnic at a remote lake, riding bikes and eating fresh home-made cakes at a small farm where she bought vegetables. I have to admit all the Spanish wore me out and I didn’t always have the energy to understand everything, but it was a beautiful weekend.

I love the other people staying with Mara. There’s something so great about travelers who have an interest in learning the language. Nick is a doctor from New Zealand, Ivonne is a massage therapist from California. John, AKA Juansito, and Nicole are a wonderful couple from England who are traveling together for more than a year. They left last weekend to volunteer on a farm outside the hippie village of El Bolson.

Bariloche is a beautiful place. It makes me miss Jackson Hole. The mountains and lakes are stunning and there are always outdoors activities. It’s still summer here, approaching fall. The sun stays out until 9 p.m. We eat dinner at 9:30 around the family dinner table.

As great as it is here and as much as I’m learning, I so look forward to Joe coming this weekend. I will take a 20-hour bus ride with Nick on Friday after class to Buenos Aires and should arrive at the same time Joe does at our hotel in Recoletta. We’ll stay a few days there before exploring Patagonia.
I expect we’re going to get to walk on a glacier!!

We will be going into Chile and Torres Del Paine national park.
The southern part of Chile has remained unaffected by the earthquakes and the seemingly never-ending aftershocks. Replicas are what they’re called here. I passively heard on the radio that Chile suffered a 7.7 quake during the inauguration of its new president. There was another big quake this morning and three others over a 6 yesterday.

I feel so badly for the people in Chile. I am definitely hearing a lot more about the quakes now that I am here on the border. People in Bariloche talk about their own fears that a quake will strike here. They console themselves, saying that the town has required new construction to build to antiseismic codes and the buildings are strong. And the earthquakes are not common on this side of the Andes. But it’s still a nagging fear in the back of people’s minds, I think. That, and all of the volcanoes in the southern part of Chile that could be awakened by the quakes.

But what can you do? It’s one of those things you can only talk about in the fuzzy subjunctivo.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Alone at the beach

It rained here on the Argentine coast most of the night and into the morning. The weather is still gray and wet. There’s not a lot going on in a beach town when it rains. I guess there’s not a lot going on in a beach town ever, but that’s because everyone is at the beach.

Well, I’ve been in South America for a full week now. Today is my eighth day. I can’t say I’ve done a whole lot. And I can’t say that bothers me either. But I am getting restless. It’s hard to adjust to being a traveler again. I got so accustomed to being busy when I was in Colorado. There was constantly something happening and I always felt like I was going to be late.

Now, here I am, with all the time in the world. I’m not exaggerating. All I have is time. I couldn’t imagine, just a few weeks ago, not knowing what to do with myself. But every morning the time stretches out in front of me like the longest road through a flat stretch of farm land. The days are long here because it’s summer. They seem so very much longer coming straight from 4:30 p.m. sunsets in Colorado.

The vastness of my time comes mostly from a lack of people to fill it with. In Colorado, I felt so rushed and pressed because I had so many people to see and spend time with. I complained that I was never alone except when I was driving or in the bathroom. Here, I am alone.

I spent my first three nights on the beach at an old inn along the shore called the Hotel Hispania. There was a very nice man running the place, Hugo Rodriguez. He rented me a room to myself with two twin beds and a shower head in the private bathroom for 80 pesos a night. My budget for a day is 100 pesos.

I ate fruit for lunch and empanadas, like tiny calzones, for dinner. I still demolished my budget. But I enjoyed the time to myself for a bit. I fell asleep at 8:30 one night. The sun was still setting.

Hugo spent some time chatting with me one afternoon. He had read in a 1961 Reader’s Digest that General Lee had had to think on whether or not to lead the Confederate Army. Hugo asked me where General Lee was born. I said I thought it was Virginia, but we could check. I looked it up on Google for him and he was so grateful, he transcribed a famous poem about a woman in a green dress for me. I was wearing a green dress. All of this was in Spanish and I have decided I only genuinely understand about 45 percent of what people say to me. In context, I understand about 80 percent and the other 20 is just lost. The numbers go down the longer I’m speaking and the more tired I become.

I thought I would have to leave my quaint little beach town in order to find a hostel where I could spend less money and where I could meet other young people. But then, wandering around aimlessly one afternoon, I found a hostel. It’s 40 pesos a night, plus 5 more if I want breakfast and get up in time. Much better.

I had a nice coffee that same day and the waiter was so intrigued to meet a foreigner that he invited me out the next day. I met Daniel at 11 a.m. and he took me to the forest along the beach on his scooter. I told him about my boyfriend over lunch and he still paid. We walked around a bit and decided to meet up the next morning to ride bikes. I waited for him about 20 minutes. I kinda think all the time I spent telling him about my boyfriend may have dissuaded him from showing.

But I have made a new friend in the hostel. His name is Peng and he’s from China. I’m afraid to say his name. I’m afraid I’ll say it wrong and it will be offensive. I don’t know why. He's told me a lot about Chinese culture though and now I am thinking about taking a trip there one day. We rented bikes yesterday and rode all day. We went into the Bosque Energetico. It’s an amazing cluster of pine trees, growing so tightly together that the sun can’t come through and nothing grows on the ground below them. The trees themselves seem to be dying from the bottom up, though they are very much alive and green at the top. The branches rub together as if the trees are talking to each other and whispering secrets.

It’s so strange how lonely the forest looks with nothing growing on its floor and how decidedly not lonely the forest seems for the closeness of its trees.

People believe there’s an energy in the forest. And certainly there has to be, because the forest has survived this long in strangling closeness. Apparently NASA conducted a study here some years ago. Some people believe the forest is a center for extraterrestrials. Deep in the forest, they say it’s as dark as night and the tangles are so tight, no one can get through. Daniel told me there aren’t even any animals living in the forest.

Peng and I didn’t go that deep into the woods because we had our bikes. We rode through tall willow bushes and pushed the bikes up sand dunes to the beach, where an eerie fog covered the water.

It was an awesome day. We planned to finish it off with Parilla – as much Argentine meat as we could eat. We rode out to the suggested place. But it’s closed now that the off-season has started. We went to another spot in the heart of the city. It was 40 pesos a person and we decided to splurge. But they don’t even open until 8:30 p.m.
The people who eat at 8:30 in Argentina are the same ones who eat at 5 p.m. in the U.S. They are senior citizens and families with young children and the occasional people who missed lunch. The crowds don’t start showing up until 10 p.m.

The Parilla restaurant was basically a buffet. But it was a buffet where all of the vegetable dishes seemed freshly prepared with fresh produce and where the meat came straight off the grill and onto your plate and the fish was cooked in small sauce pans moments before being served. It was delicious and absolutely worth the $12 it cost.

Oh, I bought strawberries at a fruit stand yesterday that were the size of berries—the way they were in the US before we “improved” them. They were delicious.

Tomorrow I will take an overnight bus to Bariloche, where I will stay with the same family I stayed with four years ago and will go to the same language school where I first learned Spanish. I look forward to having a built-in purpose and a built-in social network. I also hope that I can get up to 60 percent or so of genuine understanding and maybe lose less than 20 percent.

There’s little talk here about the earthquake in Chile. I wonder if they will need help. I may see about going over there in a month or so. I feel, right now, that I would be getting in the way. That, and I want to speak better Spanish before I insert myself into what I imagine is such a fragile environment.

That’s it for now. Forgive the length of this entry. It’s a rainy day.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


I haven’t been gone long, though it already feels like forever.

I left late Sunday, early Monday after having my friends and family gather at a brew pub in downtown Denver for one last hurrah. My parents met my boyfriend’s parents for the first time and I think it went rather well.

Once I arrived in Atlanta, the baggage people thankfully agreed to store my giant backpack for the day and I set out into the great city that hosted the 2000 Olympic Games. The public transportation was simple, cheap and fast. I was pleased.

Having no watch and having relinquished my cell phone in Denver, I knew only that it was early when I disembarked the MARTA train at the CNN center. I walked through the darkened center, where people sat quietly eating Chic-Fill-A breakfasts in a massive food court, watching a massive TV in one of the most confused building interiors I’ve ever seen. Hotel rooms from the Omni hotel gazed down on the food court filled with Burger Kings, McDonalds and Starbucks while newsrooms and CNN office spaces were labeled in big neon lighting. I knew TV news was commercial, but it seemed disconcerting to see all that together.

I walked into the city center in dreary fog and found a bazaar diner with multiple levels and a mix of night club and 50s diner décor. Since it seemed certain it would rain, I decided early on to forego the Segway tour. I figured I’d go to the puppetry museum after my CNN tour.

I shared my tour with a gigantic group of fifth graders, which has its benefits and downfalls. Fifth graders are a curious bunch and they ask a lot of interesting questions that I enjoyed hearing our guide, AJ, answer. However, fifth graders are a curious bunch and they ask a lot of questions.

During the tour, AJ, pointed out that there were no dividers between the desks in the newsroom.

“Back when newspapers were big, that’s how they did it,” he told our group. “They did it that way so people could talk to each other in the newsroom. That was before IM and facebook were big; people don’t really need to talk so much anymore.”
Not joking. CNN’s newsroom is organized in homage to its ancestor, the newspaper. It’s sort of like how humans were made in the image of Apes, you know?

We also got to take a look at the Headline News offices. It’s now going by the nickname HLN, AJ explained. I imagined a tour in a few years where the guide asks a group of fifth graders what HLN stands for and no one knows. “Headlines,” the guide will explain were what people called the title of an article in a newspaper. An article is like a story on the TV news, but written. So the headline told people in a few words what the story was about.”

Anyway. It was an interesting tour. I like CNN. I wish I could have come away from there feeling like they actually cared about news.

It probably didn’t help that I was so tired I just wanted to lean my head against the window of the newsroom and take a nap. By the end, I could hardly hold my head up and decided I had to go back to the airport and look for a place to sleep. I checked in six hours early for my flight and found an empty section of waiting area with two chairs connected by a table where there were no armrests, curled up and slept for almost three hours.

It was almost as early when I got to my hostel in Buenos Aires. I left my clothes, took a shower and wondered the city until I couldn’t stand it anymore. The sun was out, the weather was warm. It was a great day. I had a Napolitano pizza. I swear. I’ve had pizza in Italy and I’ve had pizza in Argentina and I’m not really sure which is better. The pizza here is so amazing and so ubiquitous. It’s on every single corner. Probably more popular than Starbucks in California or New York. The Napolitano has thick layers of fresh Mozzarella with fresh slices of tomato, visible chopped garlic, oozing olive oil and a couple green olives just for color. Yummm. I’ve had a few already.

Then I took a four-hour nap and sat around trying to decide what I, as a traveler, was supposed to do that night. I wandered up to the rooftop deck hoping to make a quick friend. I hung out with a couple Australian guys and more and more people joined us until we were playing drinking games and planning a big night out at the clubs.

The alcohol seemed to have a dulled effect on me, thanks, I’m sure, to coming from altitude. I was definitely glad later that night/morning when my bunk mates wandered into the room at about 6 a.m. after a night at the club and I’d been cozy in bed for hours.

I walked around town the next day and visited the famous Reccoletta Cemetery where Evita Peron is “buried.” I didn’t get to see her tomb. There was funeral in progress that day and I suspect the services were near where she is. But I know I’ll have plenty of chances to go back.

I went to a fancy dinner with Miah, my new Israeli friend, one of the Australian guys from the night before and an audacious American Army guy. They drank and wrestled after dinner while planning for a big night out. I chatted with a Dutch computer genius and convinced him to answer an online personal ad.

Deciding that I don’t quite have my travel legs yet and need a little time on my own before exposing myself to hardened backpackers with alcoholic tendencies, I asked the travel guide at our hostel for a tranquil beach recommendation. She suggested Miramar, which is not in my Lonely Planet guide.

I was almost the only person on the bus and nearly got off in Mar del Plata, a bigger and more popular destination, out of fear that there wouldn’t be a place to stay or that it would all be too expensive or dodgy. But I decided that if it was no good I would still have time to get a bus back to Mar del Plata. And if I didn’t go to Miramar, I could be missing out on not only a great experience, but the experience I was actually seeking.

I found a nice female taxi driver who put me at ease immediately and told her I was looking for cheap hotel near the beach. She said she knew one. The first place was absolutely charming, but they had no rooms. We stopped at two others, one with no vacancies and one that cost $50 a night. Then we stopped at a place called the Hotel Hispania. It’s not the nicest hotel in the world. It costs about $23 a night. I have my own bathroom. Breakfast is included and the older gentlemen who run it are wonderful.

I burned myself on the beach today and found the cutest downtown ever this afternoon. I will stay one more day. This hotel is a bit rich for my blood. I’m trying to spend no more than $30 a day. But I’m so grateful to the travel agent for recommending Miramar. I’m not sure I’ve been any place that wasn’t in a guidebook except for San Simeon in Mexico. And there I had my own personal guide.

Here, I am a rarity. Nearly everyone is a tourist. But I am the only foreigner I’ve seen and I get a lot of glances because I suspect I’m the only woman traveling by herself that most people have seen around here.

That’s all for now. Hasta luego

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Gateway to the Universe

I have always loved the airport. It's a magical gateway to the universe. On long layovers, I like to walk up and down the concourses looking at the names of exotic destinations like Akron/Canton and Omaha. I look at the people waiting to board planes to Los Angeles and compare their fashion to those waiting for flights to Dallas or Detroit.

I often found myself surprised by how much alike those going to London Heathrow seemed to those going to Indianapolis. I would look at the names of the destinations above the gates on my way to Chicago or Denver and wish I could shift gears and jump undetected onto a plane headed for San Jose, Costa Rica instead.

I've always taken mishaps in travel in stride because I've never minded long waits in airports. There's no better place on earth for people watching, I thought. And the airport was always so much more diverse than my typical surroundings, especially in small mountain towns where the number of people representing most minority groups didn't even reach into the double digits. There were people with accents and different colors of skin, wild fashion, bad fashion, no fashion and new fashion in the airport.

Now that I am spending more and more time in the airport and examining the people who travel through it carefully to measure the likelihood they will part with their personal information in exchange for a fuzzy blanket with penguins on it and the dim hope of a free flight in the future, I'm rethinking the way I look at airports.

They're not nearly as diverse as I once thought they were. I work on the Frontier wing and nearly every Frontier flight in the country comes through Denver. The concourse also hosts a number of international flights from carriers like Continental and Lufthansa. With travelers from all over the country and all over the world, you would expect to hear more languages and see more colors. It struck me recently that the population in the airport is not at all representative of our overall population. It's not a whole lot better than the little mountain towns where I have lived. And there are definitely fewer Latinos in the airport than there were in Jackson Hole.

I know travel is a privilege and especially air travel. It's not something everyone can afford. It's not something everyone can even imagine doing. I've talked to hundreds of people on their first flights ever or their first flights in more than a decade. They never sign up for a mileage card. Never. It's as sure a sign they won't fork over their social security number as a sweet tea request was a guarantee of a bad tip when I worked in the restaurant. But they are interesting people to talk with. They're usually traveling for really big, life-changing reasons. A lot of people are hoping for a new job and a fresh start. Some are coming back from weddings or funerals or honeymoons.

The bank tells us we have a 90 percent approval rating for our credit card. I don't believe it. That's simply unbelievable in these times of limited credit. I told a woman who was applying about our hard-to-believe approval rating. She and her fiance were on their way home from Costa Rica. She agreed that the number seemed outrageous.
"But then it could have to do with the type of people who fly," she said.

This has certainly been an interesting job. I walk through security some days and imagine I'm there for my flight to Buenos Aires. I leave on bad nights wishing it was on my plane. I'm anxious to get going when I'm there yet a little reluctant when I'm in my real life with my friends and family. Four months seems like a long time. I went for four months the last time I traveled. But I'm older now. I wonder if I'll be able to make friends in the hostels the way I did four years ago. I wonder if I'll be able to tolerate dorms and long bus rides the way I did the last time I traveled. I hope my money will hold out.

Regardless, I'm looking forward to seeing the airport as a gateway to the universe again this Sunday night. Working there has made it a bit more like an ugly limbo world between worlds, a place where my coworkers and I make inexplicable money getting people to sign up for credit cards, a place where angry travelers vent their hostility at me. I believe in mileage credit cards. I use mine and fly free all the time. I think I typically get more from them than they get from me. But the bank has to be making major dollars off most of the people we sign up or it wouldn't pay us so generously to do it.

Well, this was a little scattered. But this is what's going on. I'll write again before I board my flight.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


I am going to South America. I know I’ve already told you that. But now I have proof – a confirmation e-mail from Delta Airlines.

Since I’m sort of long on time and short on money, I opted to save $250 by purchasing a ticket that forces a 14-hour layover in Atlanta. I will arrive there at 6 a.m. and depart for Buenos Aires at 7:45 p.m. Rather than dreading a long boring wait in an airport, I’ve decided to welcome this as an extra leg of my adventure. I’ve never been to Atlanta before.

I’d love advice from those of you who know the town. For those of you who don’t, did you know that Atlanta is home to the world’s biggest puppetry museum? A quick visit to Atlanta’s Web site has given me 50 fun ideas for a day in the phoenix city. If I can squeeze it all in, I’m thinking I’ll do a Segway tour of the city, visit CNN and, of course, the puppetry museum. A Segway tour, that’s right. I know you’re jealous.

I do need to be careful not to spend the $250 I saved by getting the cheaper ticket. So I’d still love some help planning my big day in Atlanta.

I waited quite a while to buy the ticket for a few reasons – I wanted to make it possible for a friend to join me when she gets out of school in June. I wanted to give my knee a little extra time to heal and the medical bills time to arrive. I also wanted to spend some good quality time with my family, friends and that boyfriend I mentioned before. I’ve also frivolously planned a couple domestic vacations.

Delaying my departure has had a few side effects. Because I’m leaving later, I’m still in this country. This country is significantly more expensive than the ones in South America. That means the savings I built up to sustain me during four months in South America was at risk of dwindling rapidly.

So I have this job to keep the whittling to a minimum. I’m not waiting tables, but there are a lot of similarities between waitressing and getting people to sign up for Frontier Airlines Master Cards at the Denver Airport.

As in waitressing, there are good sections and bad sections and everyone wants the good section. There are also those people you work with who always make more money than you. It’s inexplicable. When you’re waiting tables with them, you wonder if they just turn their tables faster, talk sweeter, flirt more or trick their customers. You wonder what magic potion they’re taking. And how you can get your hands on it. The same is true in the credit card biz. There are those stand-out people who get twice as many people to sign up as I do and I don’t know why or how they’re doing it. I’m charming. I would sign up with me.

The airport, like a restaurant, is full of interesting people who are a delight to talk with. There are also a few rude folks. At least in the airport, the rude ones just walk past in a flurry instead of sitting in your section and complaining endlessly before stiffing you.

The feeling of working at the airport is also similar to that of working in a restaurant. I start the night worrying that I won’t make any money at all, that I’m wasting my time. I get to a certain point and know that I’m Ok, but still worry I won’t make enough to really make it worth it. Then I reach that magic number and start to wonder if I could leave at the end of my shift with a fortune, but usually end up falling a little short .

The biggest difference is that people go to restaurants because they want food. They don’t go to the airport looking for a credit card. That makes it a bit of a tough sell. Good thing I can handle rejection. Thousands of people walk past me shaking their heads every day. Only a few say yes. It makes me LOVE those people who say yes.

Another side effect of my late departure is that I’m homeless a lot longer. One of the most confusing questions people ask me right now is, “where do you live?” Nowhere, everywhere. In my car, maybe. At least when you’re traveling in a foreign country no one asks you such complicated questions. I spend a few nights on an air mattress in my friend’s house in Denver, another with a friend in Littleton, a few with Joe in Colorado Springs and some days with my parents. It’s exhausting.

I’m almost never alone except when I’m driving or taking a shower. And I know that when I’m traveling it won’t be much different. I will be in a different bed every few nights and on the road every few days, constantly moving. Though I will likely never be alone, I’m sure my chances of getting lonely will be a lot higher as I’ll be among strangers most of the time.

By the time I come back and try to settle down, I will have been without a regular life, without regular work or a regular place to live for eight months. Eight months. That’s a long time.

I’m not complaining though. Even though it’s exhausting, I’m loving this irregularity.