Friday, April 30, 2010

Adventures in Visa-land, and Some Pretty Spectacular Falls

It’s 30C in the sunshine as I type this, on a perfect hot and humid day in the tropics of northeast Argentina. I’m still in Puerto Iguazú, but am catching a bus at 3:00 today back to Buenos Aires. I’ll spend another couple of days there, and probably take a side trip to Uruguay, before heading on to Mendoza and wine country.

I spent the last couple of days checking out the reason everyone comes to Iguazú: we all come to see the falls. There is a national park on both the Argentine and Brazilian sides of the falls, and they offer you different perspectives; from the Brazilian side, you get a panoramic overview of the falls, and in Argentina, you get up close and personal. So it’s a good balance when you visit both sides.

And I did visit both sides, despite the fact that I had to get a visa for Brazil. Canadians, Americans, Australians and a few other nationalities need visas to enter the country (for some reason, New Zealanders don’t), and pay handsomely for the privilege; I was thankful at least NOT to be American, as they’re charged double what the rest of us are. Europeans, by and large, pay nothing, so I’m on the lookout for a Euro passport-holder (gender and age not important) willing to marry me solely as a business arrangement so I can get the associated travel perks. Let me know if you know anyone.

They don’t make it particularly easy on you to get your Brazilian visa, but it is possible to do it in a morning here instead of waiting the 3-4 days it would take in Buenos Aires. I got up bright and early and headed to a photo place at 8 a.m. to get pictures (I look like a convict, but at the time didn’t care), then over to the Brazilian consulate. The officious man at the counter sent me packing to go get a form I needed to fill out, which I did once I found an internet place that would let me print it out (and after waiting in line for all the Aussies ahead of me who were doing the exact same thing). The internet guy even lent me a glue stick so I could stick my picture in the appropriate square.

Back at the consulate, my officious little friend then informed me that I had to have exact change to pay the fee. (He couldn’t have told me this the first time around?) I came up with 272.75 pesos – the fee is 273 – and scrounged around frantically in my bag for the missing 25 centavos. I tried to convince the consulate guy to take 274 pesos instead, and just keep the change, but he refused. Fortunately one of the Aussie girls gave me the missing 25-centavo coin and I handed over money and paperwork.

“Come back at 1 pm,” consulate guy told us all. It was about 10:30 by now. So we all went off in our separate directions and congregated back in the consulate office again a few hours later. Consulate guy tried to give me the wrong passport (an Aussie one), insisting it was me when he looked at the picture; I pulled the right one out of the pile (the lone Canadian passport in the bunch) and took it away with the precious visa inside. I discovered upon looking at it that my picture showed up on the visa, too; if I`d known that when I got the pictures taken, I might`ve been more concerned about it looking like a mug shot.

Then it was onwards to Brazil. I changed 100 Argentine pesos for 45 Brazilian rials (a bad exchange rate, but there was only one place in town to do it), and caught a bus to the border. The bus driver waited as I got the necessary Argentine exit stamps, but he left me behind at the Brazilian entry post, after giving me a ticket to get on the next bus without having to pay again. 2 minutes later, I was officially stamped into Brazil, and waited another half an hour for the next bus.

It duly arrived, and took me into the town of Foz de Iguaçu, where I had to switch to another bus (and pay another 2.2 rials) to get to the national park and the falls. Eventually, we pulled up at the gates of the national park, and 2 hours after leaving the bus station on the Argentine side, I was there.

Prices to enter the park had almost doubled from my Lonely Planet guide information; it’s been pretty good on Argentine prices (costs have gone up a bit but nothing too dramatic) but inflation is apparently running more rampant in Brazil. (Or they’ve just decided that there’s more money to be gouged out of tourists and hiked up prices accordingly.) Cost of an entrance ticket varies depending on where you’re from: for complete foreigners (e.g. me), it’s 37 rials (about $20), less if you’re from South America, even less if you’re from Brazil, and the least if you’re a retired person living in this particular province (they pay only 5 rials).

Another bus takes you into the park, with stops at various activities like rafting (cost of which is in addition to your entrance ticket, so I declined – plus I didn’t have time). There’s a path of about 1 km that you can walk along the Brazilian side of the falls, giving you some stunning panoramas of waterfall after waterfall after waterfall: Iguazu is not one cataract, but many, and collectively they cover a vast area and range in size dramatically. The sound of roaring water is deafening, and by the end of the trail you’re standing right next to the largest waterfall of all: the Garganta del Diablo, or Devil’s Throat. I stood in the mist and spray of this enormous rush of water and marvelled at the sheer force.

About 5:00, I realized I’d better start heading back, as the last bus across the border to Argentina was at 7 p.m. I made it back to town in time for a 6:45 bus, and went back to the border; once again I was left behind at the Brazilian side and told to catch the next bus. I waited ... and waited ... and waited ... and after an hour I was pretty sure that the bus that carried on without me was the last one of the night. Just as I was about to give up and go beg a customs guard for a ride to the Argentine side of the border, a bus pulled up; it was a different company than the one that dropped me off, but I was willing to pay the 5 pesos again for the peace of mind of knowing I wouldn’t have to sleep at the border crossing that night!

So it was quite late, and I was a little stressed, by the time I got back to the hostel. My American roommate cracked open 1-litre bottles of Quilmes (Argentine beer) and we ended up chatting all night to an eclectic mix of people; at one point, there were about 12 countries represented around the table. Wine and beer flowed freely, and a very intense Israeli guy, fresh out of the army, produced a joint at some point. (Yes, I inhaled. Oh, hush to anyone who has a problem with this, I’m not going to turn into a crack-smoking junkie and I wouldn’t smoke pot in, say, Thailand, where they’d throw me in jail for a really long time. Argentina’s pretty relaxed about such things.)

Walking under the falls at Iguazu (Argentine side)
Getting to the Argentine side of the falls was much easier, and I spent all of yesterday there. There are many more trails than the Brazilian side: there’s a pretty 2-hour hiking trail through the rainforest that takes you to a little waterfall and swimming hole, monkeys chattering at you all the while; there is an ‘Upper Circuit’ of the falls, with walkways that take you right over top, watching the rushing water beneath your feet; and there’s a ‘Lower Circuit’ that takes you in, around, up to and under the falls. I got drenched on the last trail (see right), but it was worth it for the close-up view.

Today, I’m sitting in the sun as I upload pictures, send some emails, and of course write this for you, dear reader. I am back on the bus at 3 pm today, another “super cama” ride back to Buenos Aires. It’s not going to be nearly so warm there, so I’m going to soak up the tropical sunshine while I can (suitably slathered in expensive Argentine sunscreen) ... on that note, I need to shut down my computer, go find a book and a sunny patch of grass. Ah, it’s a rough life.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bus Travel, Argentine Style

This country has bus travel down to a science. Unlike Guatemala or Honduras or Nicaragua, there is not a chicken bus in sight. I just got off the bus from Buenos Aires to Iguazu, and I don’t think I could have improved upon one thing to make it a better ride. I opted to travel “super cama” this time (also variously called “tutto letto” or “cama suite”), which is the most expensive option – but my 18-hour bus ride still only cost me about $80 Canadian. And I got to ride up top, which amuses me immensely for some reason.

What made it so good, you say? Let’s start with the seat – it folded down completely and utterly flat, and a leg/footrest anchored on the wall in front could be levered up to create an actual bed. It was at least as wide as a business class plane seat. Dividers between rows meant you had complete privacy, as did curtains that could be drawn between side-by-side seats. I had a row of 2 to myself, so I had acres of room.

Each seat had an individual LCD screen attached to the divider in front, with an individual set of headphones, so you could choose to watch/listen to the movie or not, as you choose. Soft fuzzy blankets were at least as big as those you’d put on a twin bed, and pillows were firm and comfortable. Windows all had curtains that could be drawn at night to shut out any glare from streetlights or passing traffic .

Food was very good, and (unusually for Argentina) came with an adequate amount of vegetables. (They’re big on the meat and starches here, but often skimp on the green stuff. My sister Shelley would be horrified by the lack of broccoli – even grocery stores often don’t have it.) Dessert was sinfully rich but not so large that I felt like a glutton. Your choice of beverages was provided, including wine if you wanted it; naturally I opted for the Argentine malbec. Champagne or whiskey was served after dinner; actually, they’d probably give you both if you wanted.

A charming and handsome young attendant served us at our seats, and he even thoughtfully switched on the English subtitles of the movies just for me. I should always live my life with handsome young men to dance attendance on me; any ideas as to how I could arrange this?

Quite delightful, all in all. If you come to Argentina for no other reason, come just to take an overnight bus ride somewhere, and go for the top class. You won’t be sorry. 

There are other choices, of course, if you don’t want to pay the extra $8-10 that this class costs. It’s a little complicated to figure out, as bus companies seem to call the same class by different names, but there are basically these choices:
  • Común: cheapest class, no frills. Seat doesn’t recline, usually no food provided.
  • Común con aire: as above, plus air-conditioning. The usual option for short trips (in this country, “short” means anything less than overnight, it seems).
  • Semi-cama: meets certain specifications about distance between seats and angle at which seats recline. May be “con” or “sin” servicio; that is, there will be food available, but it won’t necessarily be served at your seat (you may have to help yourself from a minibar). May also be called “Dorado” (gold).
  • Cama: meets certain specifications about distance between seats and angle of recline (more stringent than for semi-cama, so your seat will go back farther and it’ll be easier to sleep). 3 seats per row instead of 4 as the seats are wider. Food and beverages are usually (but not always) served at your seat but do not necessarily include wine. There is a range of comfort in this class from “cama economico” to “cama ejecutivo” (the latter term may also be used to refer to the next, top class of travel).
  • Super cama: the most comfortable (and most expensive) way to travel. Seats recline completely flat, and other amenities available as described above. May also be called “cama ejecutivo” or “cama suite” or “tutto letto” (the last referring to the seat that folds down flat).
I haven`t tried them all yet (still have to take a ‘semi-cama` somewhere) but even the basic service has been pretty good – at least as comfortable as travelling Greyhound, anyway.

I have a feeling, though, that I might be in for a rude shock when I cross the Bolivian border; I might be back to chicken buses again. So I`d better enjoy travelling the Argentine way while I can.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Don't Cry for Me, Argentina

You knew it was inevitable. I had to start singing Evita at some point, being in Argentina. I’ve been walking around humming since yesterday. Occasionally I actually break into song before I realize it, but people look at me strangely when I do.

But there’s a particular reason why I’m singing it now – I spent yesterday wandering around the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Recoleta, where the rich and famous live, love, laugh and are buried. María Eva Duarte de Perón is one of those; she is, of course, more commonly known (to North Americans at least) as Evita. She died very young in 1952 (aged only 33) and is still beloved by Argentinos – her grave is easy to find, as it’s the one covered in flowers and surrounded by people with cameras.

The cementary in Recoleta is fascinating, even apart from the famous Evita; it’s like a miniature city with pathways, a plaza and mausoleums that look like churches or temples or scaled-down mansions. Apparently even after death, Buenos Aires’ elite want to reside in style. Some of the mausoleums had ‘basements’, so perhaps that’s where the black sheep of the family are relegated. The resident cats in the graveyard have little reverence for the famous dead and lounge around in the sunshine, or stroll around making friends with the tourists.
Recoleta neighbourhood, Buenos Aires

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around Recoleta, and I understand better now why the “Paris of the South” image of Buenos Aires exists. Some of the buildings did look like they belonged on the other side of the Atlantic – take a look here:

There’s an intriguing fountain in the neighbourhood, donated by an Argentine artist to the city of Buenos Aires. It’s a massive steel flower called “Floralis Genérica”, and its enormous petals open in the morning and close at night as if it were really alive. And there´s a lovely art museum filled with the likes of Picasso, Rodin, Monet, Rothko, Henry Moore and a lot of apparently famous South American artists of whom I´ve never heard (my art history education was very Euro-centric, it seems). 

But perhaps my favourite part of the neighbourhood was the bookstore El Ateneo, housed in a converted movie theatre – one of those grand old theatres with elaborate decorations and balconies, and filled to the rafters with enough literature to keep a bookworm happy for years (well, a Spanish-speaking bookworm, anyway).

The day before, I’d met up with a friend from Toronto and headed to the little town of Tigre by train. Sharon is now retired (and it obviously agrees with her!) but she and I worked together when I first started my job at Education; she had the equivalent job for the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities that I had for Education.

Tigre is just over an hour outside Buenos Aires, and it’s an interesting blend of grand Venetian canals, Muskoka cottage country and Louisiana bayou. In its heyday in the 1930’s, it was the playground for Buenos Aires’ beautiful people, and you can still see elements of its faded glory in the magnificent former social club (now converted to an art museum). We took a boat ride around the canals for an hour or so, and there are innumerable little side canals and streams leading away from the main waterways; I’d love to go back some day and spend some time kayaking to explore all those lost little channels.

It was refreshing to spend some time with someone from home; while you can meet lots of interesting people on the road, you do tend to have the same conversation over and over: “So where are you from? How long are you travelling for? Where did you come from/where are you going next?” It can get lonely, at times, with fleeting and superficial friendships for only a day or two while you’re both in the same town. So it was a very nice change to talk to someone I already knew! I was very happy too to see that she’s doing well – and, of course, very jealous that she (unlike me) doesn’t have to go back to work eventually, but I’m trying my best to forget that at some point I’ll have to start earning a living again.

Well, I’m off to Iguazú Falls tonight on another night bus, and have the day to wander around BA so I think I’ll sign off and get back out there. By noon tomorrow, I’ll be in the tropics! I’ll come back to BA again after Iguazú, as there’s no other really logical way to get to Montevideo or over to Mendoza other than to come back through BA anyway. So I’ll spend a bit longer next time and learn a little more about the city – but I like what I’ve seen so far.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Not Nearly Stylish Enough for the Porteños

They dress well, these people of Buenos Aires. Just walking down the street I saw more pairs of designer footwear than the shoe department at Holt's. Perhaps it's not just the architecture that gives Buenos Aires its nickname of "Paris of South America"; las Porteñas (female residents of BA) could give Parisiennes a run for their haute-couture money.

If I go out here one night, I have a feelling I'll be the scruffiest person in the crowd. Pity, really, when I have all the style I could desire (in footwear at least) packed up in my closet back home. But it would've been difficult travelling with a pair of Jimmy Choos, so perhaps I`ll just arrange to go out with other backpackers who are even more scruffy than me. It`s all about who you compare yourself too.

I got to BA today about 1:30 in the afternoon, after an 18-hour bus ride from Puerto Madryn. Bus travel is another thing Argentinos do in style, and comfort: if you`re North American and reading this, forget about anything you think you know about bus travel based on your experiences there. This is a whole different ball game.

I wasn`t as comfortable the few times I`ve flown business class as I was on the bus last night. Huge, plush, comfy seat; dinner, breafast and lunch served at my seat; flat screen TV on which to watch movies (and an attendant who kindly put on the English subtitles for me); ever-changing landscape to gaze at through my window on the top deck of the bus. This beats flying any day.

And there`s no way I`d ever get behind the wheel of a car here, because Argentine drivers are a little bit -- no, make that a LOT -- nuts. Crossing streets in Buenos Aires is a little intimidating, with 8 lanes of traffic waiting for the light to change -- at which point drivers will gun their engines and leap forward, heedless of any pedestrians who haven`t quite made it to the other side. Fortunately, that hasn`t been me (I walk fast), but I`ve seen a few people leaping frantically for the curb.

But I think I might like it here, crazy drivers or not. I was a little apprehensive coming here, having heard a few horror stories about people being mugged in broad daylight, but those reports appear to have been greatly exaggerated. I went for a walk around in the afternoon after checking to my hostel, and I didn`t feel any less safe than any other big city I`ve been too, and considerably safer than I did in a few (Guatemala City, or Tegucigalpa, say).

It`s a big of a shock to the system, though, to be back in a city this size; there are about 13 million people in Buenos Aires, and the biggest place I`ve been before that was Bariloche, at about 100,000 residents. From somewhere not even as big as my little hometown of Barrie ... to a metropolitan centre the size of London. I can do this -- I`ve spent most of my adult life in big cities -- but I`ll need a bit of time to acclimatize.

I did manage to get myself from the bus station to the hostel on the subway, though -- for the grand price of 1.10 pesos (about 30 cents) you can get anywhere in the city on the subte (short for subterraneo). It was so easy that I couldn't figure out why I was the only backpacker on there -- why take a cab when this is so simple and cheap?

I don`t think I`m going to stay more than a couple of days this stop, as I`ll have to pass back through here on my way back from Montevideo in Uruguay and Iguazu Falls in northern Argentina (unless I feel like going through Paraguay, which I don`t). So I might head up to Iguazu on Sunday night or Monday, then spend more time in BA after I`ve chilled out at the falls for a few days. We`ll see -- that`s what I love about having all this time, I get to make things up as I go along and don`t have to have it all planned out ahead of time!

I`m meeting up with a friend from Toronto tomorrow, who`s in Argentina on vacation and happens to be in BA at the same time as me. So we`re probably going to Tigre for the day, a riverfront suburb of BA that`s quite affluent and is suppoed to be very beautiful. Nearly two months after I leave home to wander at will through South America, with no set plan or agenda, and I end up in the same city at the same time as someone who lives just the other side of downtown Toronto in Parkdale - small world, isn`t it?

All right, practical stuff is waiting to be done -- making dinner, washing clothes and other exciting things -- so I must dash. Anyone who invents travel clothes that do not need to be washed will make an absolute fortune -- I love travelling light (especially since I am carrying it all around on my back), but I get tired of laundry.

Maybe I`ll just change my standards of cleanliness instead ... until someone invents those self-cleaning clothes.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tea and Wildlife in Welsh Patagonia

I’m having a lazy day in Puerto Madryn today, catching up on uploading pictures and, of course, writing here. I’m off on a night bus to Bueno Aires at 7 pm; this time I’m travelling “cama ejecutivo” so am looking forward to it. I hear it’s very good, and at any rate it’s got to be an improvement on North American buses! Have you ever travelled by night bus in Canada or the U.S.? I did, once, from Toronto to New York (12 hours and $100); I don’t recommend the experience.

I spent the past couple of days exploring the area. Tuesday, I headed off to Peninsula Valdés, which is a protected wildlife area. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry flew around the area as the postal manager from 1929 to 1931, and there’s an island off the Peninsula that inspired his description of a “snake swallowing an elephant” in The Little Prince. (I’ll have to re-read it – it’s been a while since Grade 10 French class!). Interesting note: did you know that The Little Prince was one of the books banned under Argentina’s former dictatorship?

The Peninsula is chock full of interesting wildlife. I was too early for whale season – that starts in about June – but some of the Magellanic penguins were still hanging around. I didn’t get to wander among them as I did in Antarctica, but they’re still pretty funny to watch. These penguins carve out burrows for their nests in the side of the hill, working away industriously with those little webbed feet. Sea lions and elephant seals were also hanging around; any time I’ve seen these creatures, they’re pretty much just lying on the beach snoozing, so I don’t think it’s a terribly difficult life.

Well, other than the ever-present risk of being dinner for an orca, anyway. I also saw a few of those lean, mean killing machines cruising around near the beach, one swimming close to shore as if to check out the seal and sea lion snacks on offer, and the others further out to go after any animals that might get past the first one. We didn’t get to see any orca hunting, though, as they seemed content to just watch; I felt a little bloodthirsty wishing for a sea lion pup to be captured, but it would have been an awesome display. I’d have felt bad for the cute little pup, though.

One sea lion pup almost got snagged as he followed his mother into the water; Mom made it out again safely and looked around for the pup, who was no longer right behind her. You could almost see the panic on her face as she looked around the beach; she plunged back into the water, heedless of the lurking orca menace nearby. Mom and baby both made it out safely on the second attempt, and wisely shuttled much further away from the water.

Land animals were out in force, too. I didn`t see any pumas, but I think I saw everything else that lives around there, including some sheep being chivvied along by a border collie and his authentic gaucho handler on the horse behind. Guanocos, alpaca-like creatures with reddish-brown fur, liked to hang out by the side of the highway, only moving when the van came too near and leaping effortlessly over the high fence to get away. Speedy little maras (also called the Patagonia cavy or Patagonian hare) also lurked by the roadside, taking off at high speed when we approached; they`re odd little creatures about the size of a beagle that look like a cross between a kangaroo, a deer and a rabbit, that leap like `roos on their spindly little deer-like legs. I can`t show you what they look like though, as they moved too fast for me to snap a picture; you`ll just have to google them yourself.

Our very friendly guide Hugo also introduced us – two Australians, two Brits and a lone Canadian – to the Argentinian mate (pronounced `MAH-tay`) ritual. Argentinos are addicted to this bitter herb, which is brewed something like tea into a hot drink. There`s a special mate cup from which you drink it (they`d think you were loco if you used a regular mug), and it`s usually shared.
They drink this in preference to coffee, as it`s a mild stimulant like caffeine; I think I understand now why there is usually only instant coffee on offer everywhere I`ve stayed! I`ve just been looking for the wrong drink, that`s all. Mate`s pretty good, actually, so I might see if I can find it back in T.O. – take a look at the pic to see my first taste of the stuff.

The next day brought me to Gaiman and a drink to which I`m more accustomed: proper British tea. Gaiman was settled in the late 1800`s by Welsh immigrants, who left Britain after some abortive independence movements and rising unemployment in Wales. They looked around the world for somewhere with a lot of free land, where the English couldn`t be found; consequently, they settled on Patagonia and 153 intrepid souls came over in the first boat in 1865. You can still see the site on Puerto Madryn beach where they built their first crude shelters after landing.

Puerto Madryn has lost most of its Welsh character, but Gaiman is much smaller and is clinging fiercely to its heritage. Welsh is still taught in schools in Gaiman and the rest of the lower Chubut valley, and street names often has a distinctly non-Spanish flair (`Avenida Lewis Jones`, for example!). And teahouses flourish all around; I met a couple of Vancouverites on the bus ride there and we went for an authentic Welsh tea at one of these establishments. All-you-can-eat scones, apple tarts, custard, jam, fruit cake, and a dozen other kinds of baking meant we all walked out of there groaning because we were so full; likewise, the pot of tea was never emptied as the attentive lady of the house kept it filled. I didn`t bother to have dinner that night.

There`s also a wee museum in Gaiman that displays some of the artefacts belonging to the first settlers and gives you a history of the area. The sweet little old lady in charge could have stepped right out of an illustration for a traditional British grandmother; she spoke in slow, careful Spanish to me until she realized I spoke English, then switched to that language (with a hint of a Welsh accent).

I also paid a visit to the garden-cum-art-park El Desafio (Spanish for challenge or defiance), an ever-growing installation by an eccentric local artist who creates sculptures, walkways, arches and other decorations for his property out of garbage.  For 10 pesos, he lets you wander around at will, and will occasionally come harangue you about the meaning of his art (I think – he spoke in very rapid Spanish so I missed a lot of it!). It`s a fascinating little place and quite thought-provoking even if you can`t translate all of the Spanish. And I think it`s a much better use of plastic water bottles to turn them into flowers, or Chinese lanterns, or the Taj Mahal, than to pile them up in a landfill!

The only thing I didn`t like about Gaiman was the fact that it hailed, briefly. Yes, HAIL ... you know, that hard icy stuff that falls from the sky. It isn`t winter here, yet, so if that`s any indication of what`s to come, I think I`m glad I`m leaving the area! Buenos Aires should be warm, and I might even be able to stop wearing my fleece and hiking boots – T-shirt and Tevas, here I come!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Yet Another Reason Why Cats are Better than Dogs

I already have a lot of reasons, but here’s another one. Cats won’t follow you down the street in a pack, growling and snarling and snapping at you. If a cat really wants to hurt you, it will stalk past you haughtily, nose in the air, and ignore you completely; this, it is sure, will devastate you.

There are a lot of dogs running around freely in South America, and they’re usually large (German Shepherd-sized). But walking back to the hostel from the Ecocentro in Puerto Madryn today was the first time I’d encountered them in a pack, rather than just one or two, and with them not feeling particularly friendly. I don’t speak “dog” terribly well, but even I could translate those noises!

I ducked into a snooty hotel on the way to get away from them, and it took some tricky manoeuvring to keep the dogs from following me; the hotel had automatic sliding doors which one of the dogs appeared to figure out how to work. But once I’d managed it, the very nice lady at the reception desk commiserated with me and escorted me out a side exit, well away from the frustrated pack of canines.

People will generally come through for you, I find, when you really need them. If it wasn’t for her, I’d probably still be sitting in that hotel lobby, waiting for the pack glaring balefully at me through the glass to disperse.

But aside from that little adventure on the way back downtown, the Ecocentro was very cool. It uses a variety of art, sculpture, film and conventional displays to hammer home its point about the vital importance of the oceans and the necessity to protect the marine life within it. One display says, mincing no words, that we “must not let the destiny of the sea ... be its destruction.”

Another display is a figure of a life-size whale, constructed from rubbish discarded in the ocean and washed up on the nearby beach: tires, plastic water bottles, even old sneakers. An installation in a darkened room simulates the depths of the ocean and plays haunting whale sounds all around you. On the wall of one gallery, there’s a Pablo Neruda poem, in letters half a foot high proclaiming the “Ode a un albatros viajero” (``Ode to a Wandering Albatross”).

Most of the displays had English translations, but the Neruda poem didn’t. So I sat there for a while, dictionary at hand, trying to puzzle my way through it. I got the gist, I think, but poetry loses something when you take it word by word and interrupt the rhythm of the language.

There was a room sided entirely of glass right at the top of the tower attached to the Ecocentro building. Squashy white couches faced out to the sea, and the low table in the middle was scattered with books on photography, wildlife, natural history and environmental issues. I got immersed in a book by Rachel Carson that I hadn’t read, and came back to reality with a start about an hour and a half later.

Fortunately, i was not on a schedule today, so lingering over a book was entirely fine. I got to Puerto Madryn at 7 a.m this morning, having left Bariloche at 6 p.m. the night before. I sat at the front on top of the double-decker bus, which was always my favourite seat on London night buses and will now be my requested seat on all Argentine long-haul coaches. Seats were comfortably large and plush, with plenty of room – two seats on the lefthand side of the aisle, and one on the right. I was on the right, so I had lots of room to spread out.

This bus was “cama economico”, which I’ve decided means that you get a comfortable, almost fully-reclining bed (that’s the “cama” part) but the food is terrible (that’s the “economical” part). There are other classes of Argentine buses, and the most deluxe – coche-cama or cama ejecutivo –will get you good food as well as a completely flat bed once your seat’s put down. I may get the opportunity to travel this way to Buenos Aires (my likely next stop).

As it was, I was presented with a plastic-wrapped Styrofoam tray of two tiny sickly-sweet muffins and a chocolate cookie, together with a lukewarm Styrofoam cup of tea. About quarter to 11 (nearly five hours after getting on the bus), the attendant brought around dinner, which included plain boiled chicken and spaghetti with just a hint of sauce. Some reasonably tasty quesadilla-type things were included too, though, so it wasn’t all bad. Dessert was bright red jello, so no more need be said about that.

A very loud movie went on immediately after dinner was served, and I tried to follow for a while to practise my Spanish (there were English subtitles, but the screen was at an awkward angle for me to read). To the best of my knowledge, the movie was about a guy named Javier, who was being chased by other guys with guns, for some reason that I don’t fully understand but I think had something to do with drugs. There were a couple of female characters, one who seemed to be the boss of the guys with guns and who liked to parade around on screen wearing very little. The other girl looked frightened a lot and eventually got rescued by Javier and (I think) went on to live happily ever after with him.

(Or something like that. Hey, it was an action movie, they’re all basically variations on the same theme, aren’t they?)

The landscape between Bariloche and Puerto Madryn was awesome; not in the Valley girl, like, totally awesome sense of the word, but awe-inspiring. It grew dark a couple of hours outside Bariloche, but until then it was mountains brooding under clouds and rain; after it got dark, the mountains would loom suddenly out of the blackness when struck by the highbeam headlights of the bus. As we got nearer Puerto Madryn, the landscape flattened out into broad open pampas, empty of any sign of habitation except for one tiny town about 4 a.m.

No lights in any direction, and no sign of moon or stars under the cloud cover above, so the blackness was absolute -- just the headlights of the bus pointing down the two-lane highway as the driver barrelled along. Highways in Argentina don’t have reflectors as North American roads too, so it was very difficult to tell, in the pitch black, where the centre – or even sometimes the edges – of the highway really were. Our driver seemed to be just pointing the bus down the middle and hoping for the best; fortunately traffic was very light and we rarely met any other vehicles.

At any rate, I made it to Puerto Madryn in once piece, and reasonably well-rested if a little bit hungry. Today I wandered the town, and tomorrow I’m off to the nearby Peninsula Valdés. There I will get to see sea lions and elephant seals, fur seals and (if I’m really lucky) orcas ... and perhaps even another penguin or two. A different species this time, but I’m sure just as amusing as the ones I’ve already encountered.

So lots of animal life tomorrow ... and as long as the canine variety stays well away from me, we`ll get along just fine.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Very Specific Fear

(I meant to add some of this entry to my previous blog post, but I see now that was a little long anyway, so probably better that I forgot!)

I don’t have any phobias, really, unless you count anxiety at having to walk into a room full of complete strangers and make small talk for five hours over cocktails. Or I didn’t think I did, anyway. But I discovered that I have a fear of heights ... sometimes.

High balconies don’t faze me. I can jump up and down on the glass floor at the CN Tower without batting an eyelash. I went happily ziplining in Costa Rica, hundreds of feet in the air, without so much as a twinge of fear.

Put me on a Mayan temple, though – one of those that have very narrow, very steep stone steps from a high top platform – and I’m petrified. I discovered this about 3 years ago when I went gallivanting around Mexico, Belize and Guatemala with Shelley. Going up the Jaguar Temple at Tikal was fine; getting down again was an exercise in sheer terror. (And there are no elevators in Mayan tempIes; advanced as they were, they didn’t think of that.) I think Shelley just laughed at me inching my way down the steps with quivering knees; she’s heartless that way.

The other time that a fear of heights rears its ugly head, for me, is riding down chairlifts. I’m used to going up, having had lots of practice on ski hills over the years, so that didn’t faze me at Cerro Catedral (where I went Wednesday) or Cerro Campanario (where I went yesterday). But put me in a chairlift going DOWN the hill, with distressingly hard rock and barren earth below instead of nice soft cushy snow, and I’m terrified. It didn’t help that the chairlift at Cerro Campanario rattled so hard that I was convinced that bolts were working themselves loose, or that it kept stopping for no apparent reason and left my chair swinging wildly in the fierce wind. I gripped that chairlift bar so tightly I nearly cut off circulation in my fingers.

I decided at first to walk down Cerro Campanario instead of take the chairlift, to avoid just that situation. That was fine, even though it was windy and rainy and the path was turning to mud ... until I realized that the trail had taken a sharp turn AWAY from the direction of the road. And that I wasn’t actually sure it went to the road at all; it could’ve been going to some remote mountain refuge 14 miles away for all I knew. So I sighed heavily and hiked back up, rationalizing that it was good exercise for my legs anyway.

I survived the harrowing chairlift ride, dear reader (but then you knew that, as I wouldn’t otherwise be writing here). And fortunately neither of these situations arise frequently in my day-to-day life, so my particular phobia is not a debilitating one. If I ever get to El Mirador in Guatemala, though – with the tallest temple in the Mayan world – I’ll have to brace myself. There’s no way I’m NOT going up it, so I’ll just have to figure out the “down” part of it. Perhaps I can hire a brawny Kiwi backpacker to carry me down ... hmmm.

Anyway, now that I’ve unburdened myself, I should tell you too that I’m leaving Bariloche tomorrow, heading on to Puerto Madryn on the coast in what is nicknamed “Welsh Patagonia” because of the number of immigrant from that particular part of the world. Bydd yn ddrwg gennyf i adael Bariloche ... but I’m also happy to hit the road again! (That’s Welsh, by the way, courtesy of an online translation site. Thought I'd get in the spirit of the thing. “I’ll be sorry to leave Bariloche” ... at least that’s what it’s supposed to mean. If the website lied, and I accidentally said something rude, I apologize to any Welsh speakers who may be reading this.)

My bus is at 6 pm tomorrow, and will be my first experience of overnight bus travel in South America. I’m told they do it very well, so the 14 hours should pass quickly enough. They will even feed me, and give me a seat that reclines all the way so I can actually sleep. I’ll take a picture if I remember so I can show you.

I’m going to say goodbye to Bariloche properly tomorrow with one of the things it is best known for: chocolate. There are 3 things, mainly, that Bariloche is famous for: skiing, trekking and chocolate. I figure I’ve done enough of #2 (and would have done #1, were it the season), so I can indulge in #3 to my heart’s content. Er, stomach’s content. Whatever.

Chocolaterias abound in this town (and I love that there is a specific word for chocolate stores in Spanish), and I’m going to check out a few. I had chocolate ice cream at Rapa Nui on Friday (see picture to left), but I also want to try their hot chocolate with chilli, and go to a couple other stores that are supposed to be mouth-wateringly good. I’d offer to bring some back for you all to try, but I don’t think chocolate would survive 3 months on the road. (Plus I don’t think I’d have the willpower to get it all the way back uneaten.)

Talk to you again from Puerto Madryn! Keep your fingers crossed for me that the bus is as comfortable as they say, otherwise it`s going to be a long 14 hours.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Chairlifts Are Easier on Skis

I don’t tend to think of Argentina when I think about skiing. But there are some very large mountains right next door to Bariloche, so this is a ski centre for Argentina. I visited a ski resort yesterday – Cerro Catedral – which is (I believe) the largest in South America. There was a little bit of snow, right near the top, but it’s not ski season yet; that comes around in June. For now, the ski runs are still dusty, barren expanses of sand and rock.

Two of the lifts were running, though, so that interested tourists (like me, although nearly everyone else was Argentine) can get to the top and check out the views. (You can check it out to the left … picture snow instead of the dirt and rocks, and I think you’d be looking down a very nice, broad, cruising blue run.) Top of the mountain is about 2500 metres, so you can see for miles around.

The first lift was easy enough – a gondola called the Cable Carril – but the second was a bit of a challenge. A chairlift took me to the very top; while I’ve long since mastered the art of getting on and off chairlifts gracefully WITH skis, it’s a different story without. Getting on isn’t so bad, but getting off was entertaining (at least when I watched other people do it). The chairlift guy grabs you by the elbow and kind of swings you around out of the path of the chair; picture square-dancing, without the cheesy music.

But the views were absolutely worth it. I’d forgotten to bring a lunch, so I ate in the restaurant at the top of the mountain called Refugio Lynch (don’t ask me why the “Lynch”; he could’ve been one of the multitude of British immigrants who ended up around here in the latter part of the 19th century.) There’s a large open deck with tables and loungers, so you can hang out with a sandwich and a beer and drink in the panaroma before you. I did, for at least an hour.

Then I hiked some around the top of the mountain, to work off the jamon y queso and the cerveza, My legs had better end up in good shape after this stay in Bariloche; not only is the town itself basically one big hill (so anytime I head south, such as getting back to the hostel from downtown, I have to walk uphill or up steep stairs), but I’ve done a few of the hikes around the area. Tomorrow I’m going to Cerro Campanario, which my Spanish teacher assures me is the most beautiful of all.

Last Sunday was Cerro Otto, which is smaller than Catedral and hike-able to the top; what I hadn’t realized before I started out was that I’d have to walk 5 km first just to get to the start of the 8-km hike to the top. Then I hiked around some of the trails from the top, up and down mountainsides that made me feel like I was one of the Von Trapps in the Sound of Music, escaping on foot over the Alps. Fortunately, no Nazis made an appearance, only a few other determined hikers, like me, who appeared to think a half-marathon distance up and down the sides of mountains was a good idea.

I did a little bit of hiking in El Bolsón, too, but Saturday was a cold and rainy day so didn’t venture too far. Mostly, I spent my afternoon at the market, eating ridiculously large waffles, sampling the local artesan ice cream (their chocolate profundo flavour is heaven on earth) and the locally made beer. I did a little happy dance when I found the beer again in a store in Bariloche, and I’m sipping one right now – El Bolsón cerveza artesenal con frambuesa is seriously good, and a bargain at only 12 pesos (about $3). (You can buy cheaper -- Quilmes, another Argentine beer, goes for about $1.50 for a litre bottle -- but for me, personally, I prefer to buy less but buy what I really like when I do.) Anyway, all the snacking put an end to thoughts of hiking again, and I chilled out – as a good hippie should -- till the return bus to Bariloche.

Also near Bariloche, you can do very long hikes to mountain refugios and stay overnight for about $8 Canadian, but I likely won’t do that before I leave. For one thing, I don’t really fancy dragging my backpack along the 10-km or more that would be necessary to reach one of these, and for another, I’m probably leaving Bariloche this weekend. I’ve really liked this town, but I have my last day of Spanish school tomorrow and I’m kind of itching to move on to new places. And while I still have 3 months to go, I know it’s going to fly by and will end up being much too short!

So it’s onward soon … somewhere warmer would be very nice! Bariloche is okay when the sun is out (or when you’re hiking up the side of a mountain and working up a sweat), but as soon as it gets dark the evenings are pretty chilly. But yesterday in Mendoza, my roommate told me, it was 27C … so going north might be a good plan. A former colleague of mine is also on vacation in Argentina now, so if I can work it out I’ll meet up with her somewhere on her itinerary.

First, though, I want to head over to the coast to Puerto Madryn, to check out both the wildlife preserve and the Welsh communities in the Chobut valley. I might detour to the Cueva de Las Manos first (near Perito Moreno – the town, not the glacier), but it’s a pretty expensive detour and I’m not sure it’s worth it this trip. Plus, it’s further south so is unlikely to be warm, and I only have one fleece (which I’d rather not have to wear every single day).

Okay, must sign off soon as I have Spanish homework to do for my final class tomorrow. It’s been a fun two weeks, and I’ve learned a lot – I can even say things in the past tense now, and I’m very proud of that. I still can’t listen fast enough to keep up with Argentine speech, but I’m hoping to improve with more practice. Failing that, I’ll hold out for countries further north where they speak a little less quickly.

There are some tricky things about Spanish, although much of it seems quite straightforward. Pronounciation isn’t hard, since letters are pronounced more or less consistently (except for a few Argentine quirks with “ll”s and “y”’s) and the accents have distinctly different purposes which I understand (unlike French, where I get all confused). But they don’t use pronouns, generally; the “I” or “you” or “she” is implied by the form of the verb that you use, so I have to pay close attention to make sure I know who’s being talked about.

Worse, some of the verb forms in the past tense are spelled exactly like the present tense, but for different pronouns; for example, “hablo” (no accent) is present-tense “I speak”, but “habló” (accent on the “o”) is past-tense “he spoke”. And “está” (with accent) means "he/she is" (or “you are”, if you're being formal), but “esta” (no accent) means “this”. All well and good when it’s written down, and when it’s spoken, the accent means that the emphasis goes on the last syllable (so it should sound different that the no-accent version, where the first syllable is emphasized); however, the differences in sound are often subtle enough that I don’t pick up on them. When I’m speaking, I probably over-emphasize the accented part of the word, but I want to make sure I’m understood; sometimes I throw in the pronoun, too, just to be safe, which means I’ll sound even more like a gringa but may mean less confusion.

There are other, weirder verbs too that change forms completely from one tense to the next, but I suppose I’ll just have to memorize those as there seems to be no logic. Same for the masculine/feminine thing; I have no idea why a week (la semana) should be feminine, but a day (el dia) should be masculine. And don’t even get me started on “por” and “para” and which to use when, or the fact that there’s two verbs for “to be” (“estar” and “ser”) which are, in theory, used for different situations but in reality overlap. For example: you use “estar” to say “the room is dark” (“la habitacion está oscura”) when it's dark because the curtains are closed, but “ser” (“la habitacion es oscura”) when it’s always dark because it never gets any sun.

Oy vey. I think I have pretty good survival Spanish now, for a gringa tourist, but it’s going to be a long time before I’m fluent! Anyone want to come hit the south of Spain with me next winter, and practise our Spanish on the waiters bringing us drinks on the beach?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Backpacking Then and Now

I just realized this afternoon that I've been on the road for exactly a month. That means this is my longest backpacking trip since Europe in 1994 ... oh, I've had great holidays since of nearly a month (New Zealand, Australia and Central America) but because I've only recently made it to five weeks' vacation allowance (one of the perks of working 18 hours a day as management), I never had enough time off to be gone for a month, unless I used every single vacation day in one shot.

So it's my second longest trip ever, as of today, as I realized. Then I started thinking about the differences between backpacking way back when in Europe (1994! Can't believe it was more than 15 years ago), and backpacking now ... here's the 10 things I think have changed the most.

1. AGE:

Well, this one is obvious. I was a young chick of 25 when Julie and I backpacked around Europe, and I'm over 40 now (but only slightly). The average age of backpackers has remained about the same, so that means now I could be "mom" for some of them. Hell, I have a friend my own age with a 20-year-old son; there are boys staying in my current hostel who aren't any older than that.

2. HAIR:

This goes along with age. I didn't have to worry about this in 1994, but if I go for the entire trip without dying my hair again, I'm going to have about 6 inches of greying roots. I think I'll be dying it on the road, as high-maintenance as that might sound. (I am not high-maintenance otherwise -- no makeup or hair products in my travel bag!)


NOW, I have as few clothes as I thought I could cope with, plus a small but reasonably well-stocked first aid kit, hiking boots, Tevas and a pair of flip-flops. Oh, and of course a couple of novels and some journals, plus the netbook I am currently typing away on. All packed in a high-tech, extremely well-designed backpack that cost me something like $300 and is a marvel of ergonomics.

THEN: for some reason which I now don't understand, I packed a green silk robe, white denim shorts, red Converse sneakers and nothing resembling anything so practical as a first aid kit. I think I even bought a pair of high-heeled sandals in the south of France (which fell apart about two weeks later). Actually, I loved those red Converse sneakers, and I'd bring them again if I still had them. But the rest was a bit silly. All packed in a canvas backpack from an Army surplus store (cost about $15), which was extremely uncomfortable when fully loaded (canvas straps cut into my shoulders).


THEN: collect calls home every week or so to let Mom and Dad know we were still alive. Postcards every so often, and handwritten letters to a couple of friends and my then-boyfriend. No internet or Skype anywhere. Anyone beyond a chosen few who wanted to hear about the trip had to wait till I got home again.

NOW: mostly don't even have to go to an internet cafe, even though they're everywhere (even in tiny towns), as I have a netbook and usually have access to free Wi-Fi where I'm staying. I have a blog which you, dear reader, can access whenever you want to see what I'm up to. So much easier! How did I cope before the electronic age? How is it that I was alive, and an adult at that, before the internet took over the world?

And while I am not one of them, many backpackers now carry cell phones, iPhones, Blackberries, or other electronic devices that mean they are never actually out of touch for a minute. Plus iPods to block out any chance of hearing any sound on the bus or in a dorm room. I think I remember one person in 1994 who travelled with a Sony Walkman*, but that was about it.

*NOTE: for anyone under the age of 30: feel free to email me and I'll explain what a 'Walkman' is.


THEN: paper copy (remember those red carbons? I miss them actually) of plane ticket home, carried around anxiously in my money belt since if I lost it, I'd have to buy an entirely new ticket. No way to change it without expensive international call and very stiff surcharge.

NOW: don't think I even bothered to print a copy of my e-ticket. I just showed up at the airport, showed them my passport and they knew the rest. The details are stored somewhere in my email so I know where and when to show up to fly home eventually. If I want to change it, I can do it online.

6. HOSTELS: the basic concept hasn't changed, although they've added a few more amenities like Wi-Fi. But how you organize where to stay has changed.

THEN: wander from hostel to hostel when you arrive somewhere, until you find a place with a bed. Or else take a guess at which one might be good and deal with frustrating and often non-functioning international phone systems to try to make a reservation ahead of time, which may or may not be waiting for you when you eventually arrive. If not, you can't actually prove you ever made it, and if there are no beds left, that's just your tough luck.

NOW: book online if you like. Read lots of reviews ahead of time, look at pictures of the hostels and maps of the areas, check out what's nearby, print out directions from the train or bus station, pay a deposit ... and when you get there, they already know your name and where you came from, and have a bed waiting for you.

7. MONEY: probably the biggest and best change!

THEN: carried travellers' cheques around in money belt for months, so had to keep track of numbers as they were cashed so I knew which were left in case they were stolen and had to be replaced. Bank card didn't work anywhere outside Canada, so when I ran out of travellers' cheques I took a cash advance from my mastercard (which Mom paid off for me at home so I didn't get charged interest). No way of checking bank account or credit card balances so had to just hope all was in order till I got home.

NOW: travellers' cheques didn't even occur to me before I left. I left home with a couple of hundred dollars in U.S. cash, three credit cards and two bank cards. I take out local cash as/when I need it from regular ATMs, even in the middle of nowhere. Can transfer money and pay bills online so will never be charged interest on credit card.


THEN: travelled with my sister Julie. We are quite alike in many ways so probably drove each other crazy at times. In other ways, we are not that alike at all: she is much more of a planner and a list-maker, for example, while I like to show up spontaneously somewhere and assume everything will work out. Come to think of it, I probably DID drive her nuts. I think she may have ended up doing most of the organizing, but cannot recall.

NOW: Me. Just me. And whatever random people I meet along the way. This is both good and bad: good, because I get to indulge myself entirely and go wherever the spirit takes me without having to consult another living soul; and bad, because it is ALWAYS me to has to buy the bus tickets, book the hostel, buy the food and cook dinner, make the decisions, and so on. Just the price you pay for independence, I suppose.


THEN: this also now seems silly, but at the time I liked to run around wearing a short little white cropped top when it was very hot. Probably with the totally impractical little white denim shorts. Then I wondered why Italian men were so attentive. (I used to have a midriff worth showing off in crop tops ... am working on getting that back again, it just seems to be a little harder now that I am, er, slightly more than 25.)

NOW: one of the backpacker girls in the last hostel described her dressing style as 'masculine christian missionary'. Mine might be described as the same, mostly; it is considerably more modest, anyway, than little white crop tops! I do have one halter-style tank top, if I ever feel like showing a little cleavage. And I know better now than to bring either white or denim along; white becomes grey after a week and never gets clean again, and denim takes days to dry.


THEN: had English boyfriend with whom I was madly in love, who was supposed to be waiting for me in London. (See also #11.) Accordingly, not allowed (according to my own rules) to pick up interesting foreigners of the backpacker sort or otherwise.

NOW: no romantic attachments of any kind. Many lovely men in my life, but mostly gay (they do make the best boyfriends, I have to say, aside from the obvious drawback). Completely free to interact with any attractive Kiwi lads or smouldering Argentinos with whom I may be so inclined. Or anyone else, for that matter.


THEN: No job, no apartment, no life plan. Think I spent 4 months or so on Mom and Dad's couch trying to decide whether or not to go back to England; had just broken up with then-boyfriend (he did some things while I was away that displeased me immensely) and didn't want to get back together with him. (Did, inevitably, when I went back to England, but that is a whole other story.)

NOW: In theory, at least, am going back to a challenging, well-remunerated, and fairly senior job in the provincial government. (Whether or not I will actually go back is a matter of some debate.) Have apartment (currently inhabited by sister) furnished with real furniture (not entirely from IKEA or hand-me-downs) and other grown-up stuff.

Okay, I thought I had 10 things, but it appears that I had more to say! It would be very interesting, actually, to go back now and do the same European trip, just to see how different it all was, and what things were still the same. I won't, of course, since there are too many other places I've never been, but I hope all those naive little 25-year-olds who head out this summer on the European bacpacker trail enjoy themselves as much as I did!**

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Una Gringa en Bariloche

I think I left off in Puerta Varas, so I'll pick up again from there. As you may have guessed, I am in Bariloche, Argentina; "gringa" is, of course, an English-speaking foreign woman. It's generally a disparaging term, apparently, but I kind of like the sound of it so don't mind referring to myself this way.

Bariloche is warmer than anywhere else I've been so far, about 20C right now. I've finally been able to leave off the fleece and start wearing the Tevas instead of hiking boots and socks. (Good thing about the fleece -- since I'm staying in one place for a while, people would start to recognize it very quickly.) It's been brilliantly sunny since I arrived on Saturday, which is a pleasant change from Chile. (Don't get me wrong, some scenery is more beautiful in the mist and the rain, but I just get tired of walking around in it.) Right is a picture of the Centro Civico, designed by an Argentine architect in a "Swiss" style; presumably this is why there are people hawking photographs with gorgeous St. Bernard dogs all around the square.

I spent late Saturday and most of Sunday wandering around the town and enjoying the sun. This was a long weekend in Argentina -- they get holidays from Thursday to Easter Sunday -- so the centre of town was full of Argentine tourists as well as foreigners. Occasionally I would get stopped by some of these tourists and asked for directions, which made me chuckle to myself (do I really look like I'm local enough to know my way around?); in one case, though, I could actually help and directed a very friendly old lady on her way to the cathedral for Easter mass. I even went to mass myself; since I went to church every Sunday of my childhood, I understood the gist of what was going on, but didn't catch most of the actual words. Spanish is a lovely, melodious language, though, so I enjoyed the sound of it.

I've changed hostels since I arrived, as I wasn't too fond of the first one. The location was great -- right in the centre of town -- but the dorms were very small and cramped, and I got stuck in an upper bunk, which I hate. Their book exchange was also under lock and key, and you could only trade in books 2 for 1 (i.e. leave 2, take away 1); this displeases me immensely as I go through books very rapidly, and if I had to donate two every time I wanted a new one, I'd already have run out of books and have to start buying again.

So I'm now at a hostel almost as close to the centre, just a little bit further walk up the hill. Bariloche is very close to the mountains -- you can see them across the lake -- and streets rise very steeply away from the lakeshore. Walking south generally means hiking up a 45-degree slope or a daunting near-vertical set of steps; this would be a great place to run, as your quads would end up in phenomenal shape! I'm hoping I can get the same benefit from walking, as I don't have any running gear with me.

There's a lovely spacious backyard at this hostel, so I am now sitting out in the sun as I type this. Ah, the benefits of a netbook and free wi-fi; I didn't anticipate this before coming to South America! I just finished my third day at Spanish school at 1 pm today, and my brain is, I think, starting to melt down from overwork. It's been a long time since it had to cope with school of any sort!

It's fun, though, and I think I will definitely end up with much more confidence in speaking and understanding Spanish. Learning in Argentina is challenging, though, since los Argentinos speak muy rapido (kind of like the speed I speak English, or les Quebecois speak French); I have trouble listening fast enough to keep up and understand them. They've also got some unusual pronounciations which are unique to this part of the Spanish-speaking world: "ll", for example, is usually pronounced as a "y" or a "ly" in the rest, but in Argentina it's more like a "zh" (as in the "s" in "measure"). So I occasionally end up thinking they've said something very different.

They also like to throw in their own unique pronoun for "you" (I think los Chilenos might do it, too, but not sure): "vos" as well as "tu" and "usted". And "vos" gets its own unique conjugations for verbs, i.e. "vos sos" instead of "tu es" to mean "you are". Couple that with the speed of speech, and I don't always understand when someone is directing a question at me; I know they mean me if they say "tu" (or "usted", if they're being polite), but "vos sos" becomes one long slur of sound that I don't get.

Apparently the speed with which people speak will slow down as I go further north in South America, so I'm hoping that I might be able to listen fast enough by Peru to understand more of what people say! The slang might still confuse me, though; Latin American Spanish is very different from the European variety (kind of like Quebec joual and Parisian French).

Yesterday afternoon after class, we watched a movie together, "El Secreto de sus Ojos", which won the Oscar for best foreign film. Muy bien, but muy complicado to follow at times; to help us practice our Spanish, the teacher showed it in Spanish with Spanish subtitles. He occasionally took pity on the confused gringos, though, and would stop the film at intervals to make sure we understood what was going on. Very good movie, by the way, should you ever wish to expand your horizons to Argentino film!

So, I'm halfway through my first week of lessons. I'm staying here next week, too, for another week of Spanish, and I might extend it to a third (depending on how the first two weeks go). I will probably have new classmates next week, though, as my current two (both Canadian girls, one from Victoria and one from Calgary) are leaving on Saturday, one to Chile and one to Iguazu Falls.

Anyway, we'll see about the third week; I love the idea of becoming much more fluent in Spanish, but there are so many places in South America that I want to see that I'm also itching to get on the road! I have a bit of time to decide, so I'll keep you posted. Hasta luego (see you later), mis amigos!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Heaven or hell? Would I love this trip ... or hate every minute?

Looking for your thoughts, all you intrepid travellers out there ... would love to hear your comments, as I'm trying to make up my mind about some things.

I am stuffed to the gills from too much Easter dinner and am online researching some options for second-half-of-the-year trips (yes, thinking ahead for a change). As you may already know, I have long been a wanna-be hippie (I'm sorry I was born twenty-odd years too late) and have been reading about travels on the old "hippie trail" from Istanbul to Kathmandu or Goa through Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Obviously, Afghanistan is out of the question at the moment. But I'm very interested in doing as much of the rest as I can. But here's the problem ... I really don't want to attempt it as completely independent travel. So I've been looking into options for tours in that part of the world.

There's some that will take me from Point A (Istanbul) to Point B (Kathmandu) but don't really follow the classic hippie trail. Going a more northerly route along the old Silk Road -- Tashkent, Samarkand, Ashgabat -- would be equally fascinating, but it's not actually what I'm trying to do. I would love to see all the other 'Stans one day, but that's another trip, I think, and not what I'm after at the moment.

There's a couple of companies that offer long-haul overland trips that include the hippie trail route, more or less, but include a lot more than that too -- London, UK overland to Sydney, Australia, for example, for anywhere from 4 to 8 months. Again, probably a very cool trip in its own right, but I don't want to be locked into someone else's itinerary for that length of time (and God forbid if there were people on the trip that I couldn't stand, I'd be stuck with them!).

There's one company, though, with a trip that might work. It's called OzBus, and they have a month-and-a-half trip from London to Kathmandu. Timing's not exactly perfect, but they have one leaving in early September that would get me to Nepal by mid-October. Website is here: They have a full London-to-Sydney option, too, but I'd rather have the time in SE Asia on my own to wander at will.

Worried, though, that not even starting SE Asia till mid-October would leave it very late to fit in all the things I want to do by the end of the year -- including western Oz, possibly NZ and a South Pacific island (have not yet decided which one). Unless I can convince my boss to let me come back another couple of months later, I might end up having to skip stuff or just whizzing through and not staying anywhere long. And the actual London-to-Kathmandu trip would be moving pretty fast, to cover that distance in 46 days.

But I have other ideas of how I could spend the summer -- trekking the Arctic (hey, why not hit both polar regions in one year?), say, or meandering around Newfoundland, Scotland and northern Ireland in search of my roots. Or, hey, a month in Africa somewhere (also like the idea of visiting all 7 continents in one year). So later timing (starting the trek to Kathmandu in September) might actually help. And realistically, unless I'm proposing to take next year off work, too, I can't meander along the Hippie Trail at a pace much slower than OzBus would move, and still get back home by the end of December.

Then there's the drunken-Aussie factor; oh, hush, I'm not saying all Australians are drunks, but what if the bus ended up being full of 21-year-old Aussies who just wanted to get loaded every night and didn't give a fig for the sights along the way? A month and a half of being the only one sober enough to get up in the morning might feel like a very, very long time.

But then, the original travellers on the Hippie Trail in the 60's and 70's probably did their fair share of substance-abusing (although drugs of choice were probably those other than alcohol), so it might actually be more authentic that way.

So anyway ... what do you think? Good idea or bad?

Friday, April 2, 2010

In Bavaria

No, I haven't crossed the Atlantic recently. Technically, I'm still in Chile, but if I ignore the Spanish street signs, I could swear I was in Germany. I'm in Puerto Varas, just off the boat this morning from Puerto Natales, and this town was settled by German immigrants in about 1880. So the architecture is very reminiscent of the Black Forest (the main cathedral is modelled on the Marienkirche) and opportunities to eat sauerkraut and kuchen abound.

The boat ride was fantastic; it takes you through some of Chile's most stunning scenery, through the fjords off the coast, and you even have the chance to get off midway for a morning exploration of a remote community on one of the islands in the archipelago.

Sailing up through the islands made me think of one of the Narnia books (all of which I have read approximately one thousand times, as I love them all) -- do you know the Voyage of the Dawn Treader? The characters sail to the end of the world, through remote and beautiful islands -- I felt like I was doing the same as I cruised up through southern Chile. This side of the Andes is the rainy side; over the mountains in Argentina it's almost shockingly dry, but cruising up through Chile brought a lot of mist and rain. If anything, the fog improved things: it added to that sense of remoteness, being in our own little world.

We boarded in Puerto Natales on Monday night and spend the night on board; the ship actually left on Tuesday morning. Sleeping options range from berths in a corridor with communal bathroom (which I went for, at about $336 US after a 20% discount), upwards to 4-person cabins with no window and shared bathrooms, to cabins with windows and bathrooms, to the ultra-luxury (relatively speaking) two-person cabins with private bathrooms, desk, closets and large window, as well as access to a private dining room and lounge only for the people in the posh cabins. Fares at the high end went up to $1200 US.

But I was quite happy with my little berth ... and quite frankly, it would have seemed a waste of several hundred dollars just to have a door that closed. They ate the same food (albeit some of them ate in a separate dining room with tablecloths and real china, instead of the main cafeteria), slept in the same kind of bunks (just fewer people in a room), and had the same views as I did.

Unhappy passengers on the ferry
The only downside of the bottom-of-the-scale accommodations, I discovered, is that they're at the back of the boat just up from the cargo deck. Oh, the "ferry" isn't a typical ferry -- it's primarily a cargo run that has been partly outfitted for human passengers. Some of the cargo on this trip included four trailer loads of cattle, squashed in like sardines so they couldn't turn around, with no tops on the trailers so they suffered through the wind and the rain with no protection. It seemed very cruel that they should have to travel like this for 3 1/2 days! And the "downside" I mentioned came when the wind blew a certain direction, carrying that lovely bovine smell all through the back of the ship.

There were only 50 or so human passengers, in a ship that could hold 300, so it was easy to get to know most of the folks on board. I was glad to see again that it wasn't mostly couples -- there were a few older couples, mostly from Canada and the U.S. (they were staying in the posh cabins), but for the most part, it was solo travellers just like me.

We had communal meals in the cafeteria (costs of which are included in the fare) and hung out in the top deck lounge or on the outer decks during the days. A few people spotted wildlife along the way -- dolphins and a few sea lions -- but I wasn't so lucky. I was hoping for blue whales in the Golfo Corcovado on day 3, where I'd been told about 250 whales lived, but saw nary a one. Evenings, there were movies on offer (I sat through one very dreadful Matthew McConaghey flick, but saw a very good Argentine film too), or the lounge to hang out in, with fine Chilean beer on sale for about $2 a bottle. Wine was a little more expensive.

Puerto Eden, in the middle of the Chilean archipeligo
Day 2 took us to Puerto Eden, an isolated little fishing hamlet on Wellington Island. Primary industry -- only industry, really -- is fishing for mussels and crabs, but like many other fishing communities, marine populations have been declining dramatically in recent years, and it's become harder and harder to make a living. But the 300 or so residents carry on -- some of them try to supplement their fishing income by offering crude little handmade souvenirs for sale, and the ferry company collects a 4000 Chilean peso fee (about $8) from passengers who go ashore, donating all the funds to the community.

Day 3 brought us through the Golfo de Penas (literally, Gulf of Sorrows), which is notorious for rough weather and big waves, as it's open to the Pacific. But we sailed through with hardly a ripple in the water, so I still haven't been seasick ever in my life; there were a few folks on board moaning and groaning in the Gulf despite the calm, but clearly I'm a better sailor than those.

Day 4 brought us to Puerto Montt early in the morning, and we disembarked after breakfast on board (before the cows, thank goodness, or we'd have been waiting a while). A few people scrambled to get ready in time, having enjoyed themselves a little too much at the farewell party the night before. We danced, and (oddly) played bingo; the winners got prizes of bottles of wine, but had to do a dance in the middle of the lounge to earn their prize. I was sitting there at one point with one number left for a full card; I wasn't sure whether to be disappointed or relieved when someone else won. I could've handled the first few songs (I can dance to Elvis, or Chubby Checker, or Abba) but the later numbers switched to merengue and salsa. And I have NO latin rhythm at all (must be the Celtic blood).

Puerto Varas, Chile
Since Puerto Montt is an unattractive industrial port, I opted to catch a mini-bus for about $1 for the half-hour journey north to Puerto Varas on Lake Llanquihue (try saying that five times fast -- I stil haven't figured out how to pronounce it). To the right is a view of the town; don't you agree it could just as easily be a picture from Bavaria? Peter from the UK, who'd also been on the ferry, showed up at the same hostel as me, so there appears to be a backpacker trail in South America as well (but before you get any ideas ... Peter, although a lovely gent, is 70 if he's a day, and while very sweet is undoubtedly too old for me.)

So I spent today wandering the town, after I'd taken care of necessities like buying groceries to make dinner and booking a bus ticket for Bariloche (Argentina) tomorrow morning. I was very pleased that I managed to conduct the latter transaction entirely in Spanish; even though my Spanish was about the equivalent of saying "I want go Bariloche. When bus?", I managed to make myself understood. Perhaps I'll even sound semi-educated in Spanish after a couple of weeks of lessons in Bariloche.

Okay, dinner calls. Plus I'm getting pretty cold hanging out on the porch, and there's a lovely cosy fireplace inside ... spending the evening in front of it sounds like an excellent plan.