Sunday, May 30, 2010

Where the Viento Zonda Blows

Cafayate, Argentina is one of my new favourite cities. Well, towns ... it`s perhaps about six blocks square so it doesn`t quite rank as a city. There is one main square, and one main street, and a scattering of parillas, cafes and hotels to take care of the tourists who come in droves to drink some fine torrontes wine and explore the weird and wonderful countryside around the town.  How grapes can grow in what is essentially a desert (complete with cacti and tumbleweed), I still haven`t figured out.   Today, on Sunday, the entire population of the town appears to have congregated in the square, and I could hear the church bells ringing all morning

The viento zonda has quieted today. It`s a warm, dry wind that travels down off the Andes -- northern Argentina`s equivalent to Alberta`s chinook -- and it blew fiercely for the past two days. It made for hot, dusty travel as I went south on Friday to just over the border in Tucumán province and the ruins of Quilmes, and yesterday as I went north through the Quebrada de las Conchas in the Valle Calchaquies. But it’s astonishing countryside around Cafayate, and well worth the heat and the dust; I do have some clothes that will never quite be clean again, though. The red dirt here is like the Australian Outback’s that way: once it’s there, the colour is there to stay.

This afternoon I am lazing on my balcony after a late start to the morning and a wander around the town. I am much happier, right now, than I have been for quite a while; time and space and permission to stop and recharge for a few days seems to have been just what I needed. The hotel is lovely, and the owner very charming; she seemed to realize immediately that I knew some Spanish but am not yet fluent, so she speaks to me in clearly enunciated and slowed-down Spanish that I can (mostly) grasp. She does speak perfect English as well, but she seems to have guessed that I like the chance to practice! And she doesn`t react to my attempts at Spanish as some people do, when they coo condescendingly “Oh, isn’t she cute trying to speak our language”.

Quilmes ruins, near Cafayate
Friday I decided on a whim to go to the Quilmes ruins about 60 km south of town along Ruta 40 (the same Ruta 40 that starts thousands of miles away in El Calafate, one of my first stops on this trip). It’s a bumpy, rutted road through wide-open country, ringed by mountains and dotted by towering cardón cacti 4 or 5 times my height. I travelled with a French couple that I’d been chatting to in the square, neither of whom spoke much English; fortunately some French knowledge does exist, buried in the recesses of my brain, and I could dig it out well enough to get by!

It got interesting when we got to Quilmes, though. Quilmes is Argentina’s oldest surviving ruin, dating back to about 1200 A.D., and it made it mostly unscathed through the Inca invasion and conquest.. It eventually fell to the Spanish in the 17th century, and the population was forcibly relocated to Buenos Aires (which still has a suburb named Quilmes, although few descendants remain). It’s a huge open ruin built up the side of a mountain; how far up you lived reflected your family’s social status, with the chief living at the top.

You can wander around on your own, and there are also guides on site to give you a history of the site. This is where it got interesting: our guide didn’t speak any English, but spoke deliberately slowly and carefully so we could grasp most of what he was saying. So if I understood him, I did my best to translate into French for the other two, and if they understood more, they`d translate for me (also into French). Or they`d ask me questions in French, for me to translate into Spanish and ask the guide. My brain physically hurt by the end of the afternoon, as I attempted to keep three languages straight in my head! And I was quite muddled for the rest of the day, throwing in French accidentally when I was trying to say something in Spanish. Fortunately, it`s often quite similar, so I can still usually make myself understood.

The French couple understood me well enough but were quite confused by my accent, though, till they learned I was from Canada; then they decided it was a `Canadian` French accent they were hearing. I didn`t tell them that my French accent is pretty muddled, too; after high school French taught by an Acadian and an Argentine (whose unique Spanish accent may have carried over into her French), I don`t actually know what kind of accent I have! Except that I don`t apparently sound TOO much like an Anglo, which makes me happy.

And in English, my accent confuses people sometimes too – I travelled north to the Quebrada in the company of some Brits yesterday, and they were all convinced (till I told them otherwise) that I was Irish. (Not sure if that`s the Phelpston or the Newfy side coming out ... ) Maybe next time I`ll just go along with it, and make up a whole new history for myself. Part of the fun of travel is that you get to re-invent yourself, after all!

The Quebrada (gorge, in Spanish) is a stretch of mountains and rock formations, that stretches for about 80 km north of Cafayate. The rocks don`t look like they`ve just eroded gradually over time; they look tortured and twisted by a giant unseen hand into fantastic and other-worldly shapes. And they are all the colours of the rainbow, just about, from the various minerals present that have oxidized – red and green and blue and yellow, layered on top of each other and shining brilliantly in the afternoon sun.

Garganta del Diablo
The most spectacular formation is probably the Garganta del Diablo, or Devil`s Throat; walking into this canyon did feel like walking into the maw of the earth, with it poised to swallow us whole. Those of us in adequate footwear (I am so glad I brought hiking boots after all!) scrambled over rocks and up sheer rock walls nearly to the end, walls of stone looming ominously around us.

The rest of the group waited near the entrance; what they were thinking in the outfits they chose that day, I`m really not sure. There was an English girl dressed as if she was off to a club, with cute little impractical slip-on shoes; one German girl in a denim skirt, purple shiny tights and a thick wool sweater and socks (on a very hot day); and a second German girl who was wearing what looked like pajama bottoms with flip-flops. Not exactly the best choices for hiking or climbing up rocks ...

We made it back to Cafayate as the sun set, and it got significantly colder after dark. But, as I have a fantastically large tub for my own exclusive use, it was easy to warm up again in a hot bath, as I sipped a glass of torrontes. I might stay another couple of days here -- I was supposed to leave tomorrow – as I`m enjoying this too much to rush away too soon. I`ll make some other budget trade-offs (maybe I`ll skip the $120 US Tren de las Nubes in Salta), and it`ll all be fine. And I`ll have a glass of torrontes tonight for you, too (but only one, since I`m going hiking tomorrow). Salud!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I Think I've Died and Gone to Heaven

Who knew that heaven would look just like the Hotel Killa in Cafayate, Argentina?  I just learned that when I arrived.  Oh, my, I think this may be exactly what I needed to get out of my funk and back into the travel groove again.

This won't be long since, well, I'm in heaven and I have better things to do.  Like have a glass of torrontes.  Or have a long, hot bath, something I haven't been able to do in almost three months.  Or maybe both of those things together.  At this rate, I'm probably not actually going to remember to have dinner tonight because I'll be too busy luxuriating in my big bed and my very own room, with my very own bathroom and bathtub and my very own safe to lock up all my valuables (so I don't have to walk around with everything strapped to me as I usually do).  And I can sleep naked tonight if I want. 

Any minute now I'm going to start singing.  "All I want is a room somewhere ..."  ... Eliza had the right idea.  Sometimes it's all about having your own space.
View from my balcony

Here's my quickie shot off my balcony -- note that there is even a pool!  If it's as warm tomorrow as it was today, it could even be swimming weather; today could've been a perfect late May summer day in Toronto.  It didn't feel at all like autumn.

You might think this is not much, for heaven.  Maybe you take all of those things for granted and think that heaven should offer something much grander.  Well, this hotel is nicer than my apartment (and probably your house too), and you've got to remember the perspective I'm coming from:  I usually sleep in a dorm with at least 5 other people (some of them 20-something boys, which is why I don't sleep naked), cook in a communal kitchen when I can get a turn at the stove and hang out in a common room with 20 of my new closest friends that I just met that morning.  The idea of an entire little world just for me is luxury, indeed.  I found the local vinoteca already, so I am prepared to spend as long as I choose in my room with ample supplies of wine to hand.

Actually, I think maybe all I needed was my own room for a little bit (but Hotel Killa is providing me with a lot more than that!).  I can be sociable and I like a good party, but I have a high need for solitude and "alone" time ... one of the characteristics of an introvert, I suppose.  It's hard to find this necessary solitude when you're staying in hostels most of the time -- while it's great to have all those other people around to talk to and have a beer with, or hook up for a day trip the next day, sometimes you just want them all to GO AWAY.  At least you do if you're an introvert, and particularly if you're one with hermit-like tendencies on occasion (like me, dear reader).

The town of Cafayate is very cute, too, and the bus ride from Salta was spectacular.  I spent an hour or so walking around town this evening, which means I probably saw the whole town since it's also very small.  But it's delightful, and it's a candidate to be added to my "where I could live" list (I'll keep you posted if it makes the cut, upon closer inspection).  I think I could happily spend a week here, although if I do, I'll have to move back to hostel living for some of that time or else I'll really be denting my budget.  A night here at Hotel Killa is about the same at a week at a hostel in Argentina -- not expensive by North American standards, considering the quality of what they're offering, but too much for a long-term stay if you hope to stretch your travel funds for a year!

Ahhhh ... I think that bath might be calling my name.  Along with that glass of torrontes.  I'll catch you later.

P.S.  And while I'm at it, here's an FYI, since it's a particular pet peeve of mine -- "introvert" DOES NOT equal quiet or shy.  It simply refers to where you get your energy from -- introverts recharge by being alone and spending time "in their heads" -- being "inward-directed" -- while extroverts feed on being around other people, being "outward-directed".  There are fewer true introverts around, so the majority extravert population tends to think we're a bit weird -- but please, please, PLEASE don't ever ask your introvert friend "Why are you so quiet?".   I used to get that a lot as a kid (I was extremely shy and quiet -- by comparison now I'm a regular social butterfly), and it always made me feel like a weird freak of nature; like being "quiet" was a character defect or abnormality.  (I would never say to a talkative person, "So how come you never shut up?" so please extend us introverts the reciprocal courtesy!).

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Trouble with Travel

Oh, don't worry, I'm not going to have another bad-tempered rant.  It's safe to keep reading.  But thanks for listening to the previous one, I needed to vent a little and it's nice to have a sympathetic ear.  Er, eyes, or whatever.  This one's just a lot of ruminating about life and travel and stuff ... it helps me to write it all down.

The trouble with travel is that there are just too many options.  And unless you have unlimited time, and unlimited money, picking some of those options has to come at the expense of the rest -- you can't do it all.  I've met a lot of people here who have the luxury of time, but not money; they can spend a long time travelling, but they can't do things like go to Antarctica or Easter Island without severely cutting short their travel.  They have all the time in the world (being fresh out of university, or unemployed either because they've quit their jobs outright or been laid off), so they intend to keep going as long as they can make their money last.

I've realized that I'm in a different position:  first, I probably have more than enough money to last me the year (even with the odd splurge thrown in), but I don't have unlimited time.  Seven months, in fact, since May is just about over; there's a limit to how much of the world I can see in that time, particularly if I'm travelling in more difficult places where it takes more time to get around.  (Case in point:  Argentina is relatively easy, and I'm still here at the end of May!)

Second, I realized that I don't actually want to spend years on the road, even though I could, if I chose, quit my job and stretch my savings much longer than a year in cheap parts of the world.  I like having a home base and a challenging job and the same people in my life for longer than a day or two. And I like being able to buy expensive shoes.  So I'm not planning, at this point, to just quit my job outright and keep travelling as long as I can.

I wasn't planning to worry about any of this today.  I did my best to just relax, and spent most of today doing not much more than sitting in the sun and reading (finished one novel and started another).  Eventually, thought, I started to feel like I *should* be doing something more useful (I have workaholic tendencies, even when not actually working) so I started doing some more research about travel options for the next trip.  After I get home from South America, have a bit of time to chill out in Toronto (and possibly in Newfoundland) and hit the road again ... but to where, is the big question.

You`ve heard my original thoughts on the second half of the year.  London for a visit, overland from Istanbul to Kathmandu along the old hippie trail, down through southeast Asia and back home through Australia or New Zealand and a South Pacific island or two.  Well, it started to dawn on me, as I`ve been travelling for the last (almost) 3 months, that trying to cram in all of that was sheer madness for four or five months.  It could be done, but I wouldn`t be able to stop anywhere for long or see very much of any one place.  And is it really worth it, to cover all that ground if you just end up feeling like you`ve missed too much along the way?

Then I started reading the Canadian government's travel reports for some of the places on my original plan, and I realized it might be prudent to rethink the plan for safety reasons, not just in the interests of time.  Here are some of their more interesting quotes: 

"...advises against non-essential travel to [...]. Canadians face great risk in [...].  Canadians choosing to travel to [...] despite this warning should carefully evaluate the implications for their security and safety. Canadians already in [...] should consider leaving if their presence is not necessary. ... Canadian officials may not be in a position to provide consular assistance to Canadians in some parts of the country ... due to security concerns."

Hmmm.  Iran, Pakistan and -- this one surprised me -- Thailand made that list.  (The news about recent events in Thailand apparently didn't make it to South America, so it was all new to me when I started googling for information.)  So that pretty much puts paid to the hippie trail idea ... although just the start and the end (flying over the troublesome bits in between) would work.

Southeast Asia had always included Thailand for me when I thought about going there, but it appears it's not the safest place to be these days either.  So that cuts down my list for that part of the world too.  If Australia or NZ decides to turn renegade and dangerous in the next few months, it will become a very short round-the-world itinerary, indeed!

So I started thinking about Africa again instead -- not the western bits, which are equally or more problematic, security-wise.  But what about top to bottom, or vice versa -- Cairo to Cape Town, or the reverse?  That's the kind of trip I couldn't do in a few weeks' holidays when I'm back at work, so it could be a great way to spend some time this year.  I looked up some trips online -- there's no way I'd try to do THAT trip entirely on my own, are you nuts? -- and there's some very intriguing options out there, for trips anywhere from a couple of months to nearly a year. 

But if I choose to go to Africa instead, what do I then give up?  Do I still try to go to India, Nepal or southeast Asia -- all of which I've been promising myself for years I'd do, when I finally took that year off to travel -- or will I just end up rushed and never stopping to breathe?  Do I skip over it all, and just do Africa, or will I then feel like I've missed out on something important?  Do I still try the round-the-world thing, but maybe substitute the Trans-Siberian railway, or a trek through the 'Stans, for the more dangerous parts of central Asia?

How do I choose?  At some point I'll have to -- by the time I get home, I'd like to be able to buy plane tickets and sort out visas, but that means I'd better know whither I goest!  I hate to pick something, though, knowing that it means I have to give up on something else ... maybe I just need to convince my boss to give me another six months, and I'll be able to fit it all in.  (Hey, Todd, if you're reading this ... let me know what you think!)

I posted a while back (before I left home) about needing a personal assistant.  That offer's still open ... any interest in doing all the research for me and mapping out an itinerary for me for August to December?  You can come along, if you like, just as long as you promise to do your share of the cooking and not to whine about "but it's not like this at home".   You are allowed to whine, but it must be about reasonable things.

I really wish I had my running shoes with me right about now.  I discovered long ago that the best way to stop myself over-analyzing everything for a while was punishingly hard exercise -- forget about yoga, I can't clear my mind unless I'm working up a sweat and gasping for air!  Long walk, tomorrow, perhaps, instead of reading.  And if you have any bright ideas for me between now and then, I'm all ears.  Er, eyes.  Whatever.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

La Linda, at last

I just arrived in Salta, Argentina ... nicknamed `La Linda` (`the fair` or `the beautiful one`) because it apparently is very lovely, with magnificent colonial architecture and a beautiful setting in the sierras.  I can`t really vouch for that yet, since I`ve spent the day mostly lounging around; what I did see on my walk from the bus station to the hostel this morning did look very pretty, though.

This has long been intended (well, for a month or so anyway) to be my most northerly stop in Argentina.  I hadn't quite realized just how bloody big Argentina is, or just how long it would take me to meander my way here!  But I arrived this morning, at last, off a very plush and comfortable bus ride -- complete with complementary malbec -- from Cordoba, Argentina.

Now that I'm here, I'm stopping for a bit, here and in Cafayate.  You may have read my previous rants and gathered that I'm probably overdue for this; sleeping in the same bed for more than a night or two will feel like a royal treat.  I might even splurge and stay at an actual hotel (i.e. have my own room, with no bunkbeds or roommates) in Cafayate ... Sarah or Steve, if you're reading this, where did you stay when you were there?  (And would you recommend it?)

I'll have a couple of days of enforced idleness, even if I felt like running around madly (which I don't); Monday and Tuesday are national holidays in Argentina, as May 25th is the 200th anniversary of the revolution that gained them their independence from Spain.  As a result, many things are shut, aside from the restaurants and cafes; I couldn`t play tourist even if I wanted to.  So my plan for tomorrow involves nothing more ambitious than parking myself on the hostel`s patio, with a glass of torrontes and a good book (I found an Anne Tyler and a John Irving in the last hostel`s book exchange, both of which I am very excited to read). 

And I`ll do some thinking about plans beyond Salta.  This is where I`m starting to tie myself in knots as I try to figure out options, so I`m probably going to ignore the whole issue tomorrow and get lost in a fictional world.  The problems of Anne Tyler`s characters are usually quite absorbing, so I doubt I`ll be thinking too much about my own dilemmas.

My original plan was to head from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, and from there organize a trip through the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni into Bolivia (at least a 4-day excursion).  But I`m conscious that it`s the end of May, almost, and I still haven`t made it to Cuzco -- my four `must see`s` in South America on this trip when I started out were Easter Island, Mendoza/wine country, Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands.  Everything else I saw, I thought, would be gravy but I wouldn`t be too upset to miss other stuff.  Well, I`ve got two of those things still to do -- and I`m still determined not to miss them! -- so part of me just wants to get to Cuzco, and then to Quito, so I can organize those trips.  I decided to cancel my Inca Trail booking, so I could do one of the alternative treks instead; now, I`m quite glad of that, as I`d otherwise have to be in Cuzco and starting the hike next week!  (And I have one very sore heel that would seriously undermine my hiking ability right now.)

I`ve also realized that travelling through Bolivia would take a lot of time and effort, as their bus system is nothing like Argentina`s.  Flights from Bolivia to destinations out of the country are either non-existent or expensive, so my Plan B of simply flying onward from Uyuni to Cuzco doesn`t look possible either.  Then I thought maybe I`d just skip the salt flats, and fly directly from Salta to Cuzco; well, there are flights, but they`re about $900.  That`s just a wee bit steep for my budget, particularly after I already took an expensive (but worth it) detour to Easter Island.  And I don`t really want to skip ALL of Bolivia, just the scary bits (La Paz).

I went online and found a travel agency in Salta that does a Salta-Salar de Uyuni-San Pedro trip in about 5 days, which is much faster than I`d ever be able to do it on my own.  Plus, I like the idea of having travel companions for a few days!  From San Pedro, I could carry on over the border into Peru and be in Cuzco before too long, so it just might work.  I`ve emailed the company in question, but probably won`t hear back till at least Wednesday (everything being shut, as I mentioned).

So I don`t know, really, what I`m going to do.  I think I`m just going to put the question out of my mind for a few days and just relax:  read, write, go for walks, review my Spanish course books (I have become too used to just using basic Spanish and switching to English if I get stuck; I`d like to refresh my memory).  Maybe after a few days to recharge, all will become clear.  Or at least maybe I`ll just be able to pick a plan and go with it, instead of ruminating endlessly and driving myself completely mad.

Oy vey.  This travel stuff is not a walk in the park, but I`m going to have such a sense of accomplishment by the time I get home.  (This is important for us Type A, overachieving, first-born children so that`s a really good thing.)  And I`ve learned some stuff along the way; no, I haven`t figured out the big question of `so what do I want to do with my life when I get back home?`, but I do realize now, at least, that I like having a home base (so I won`t became a total nomad) and I like having a purpose/goal other than `what do I feel like doing today?`(That`s good in the short term ... but as a lifestyle, it wouldn`t work for me.)  And I really, really like to write, as I`ve learned from writing this blog; it`s gratifying to know that people out there are reading it (I love it when you comment!) but I`d do it anyway, because it makes me happy.  Maybe I`ll even dust off my mystery novel again over the next few days and get writing some fiction, too.

Anyway, I think I`ve probably done enough rambling for the moment.  I`m also hungry, so I`m going to go cook my dinner -- I`m excited about that, I found lots of vegetables and spices at the market and am going to make my favourite arrabiata sauce.  With perhaps another glass of torrontes to wash it down ... bottoms up!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

It`s Not All Fun and Games, Kids

Do you ever have bad days?  Days when every single little thing seems to go wrong?  And you walk down the sidewalk behind people moving with seemingly delibrate slowness and aimlessness, and you just keep muttering under your breath, "Would you get the F%$?!&% out of my way and pick a direction already?"  And the universe appears to be conspiring with everybody else in it just to PISS YOU OFF?  Oh, please, you know you have, I'm not the only neurotic one around here.

I've had a couple of days like this recently.  Easter Island was a lovely little break from reality and I did manage to chill out quite nicely; when I got back to the mainland, though, I came crashing back to the grind that can be long-term travel.

I left you last on Easter Island; I spent three full days on the island, and flew back after my fourth night there; I crashed in Santiago for a night (since my flight landed about 8 pm) and then caught a bus the next afternoon for Cordoba. My inner island peace had evaporated by the time I got there, as my promised "directo" bus wasn't direct at all (I had to switch in Mendoza about 10:00 at night), the food was terrible, the movie played very loudly until about 2 a.m. and I didn't get a blanket or pillow.

Oh, and this was after some panic-inducing moments at the border crossing -- the immigration officer insisted that I needed an entry card with a stamp from when I arrived in Chile, in order to exit the country. I didn't have any such thing; thinking furiously back, I thought I probably had received one but wasn't sure, and after searching all through my pockets, money belt, and neck pouch I didn't turn up anything resembling an official piece of paper from Chile.  And I figured that if I had actually received an entry card like I was supposed to, it had probably fallen out of my passport unnoticed, either when I checked in at the airport going to or returning from Easter Island, or when I handed over my passport to buy a bus ticket (required in Chile and Argentina).

At any rate, I didn't have the all-important entry card ... but I couldn't begin to explain in Spanish what might have happened to it.  My Spanish has gotten pretty good for basic transactions, and I can even manage conversations once in a while (although nothing deep and philosophical), but it's nowhere near good enough to argue my case with an immigration officer hell-bent on keeping me at the border until I can magick up the piece of paper he wants from me. 

In the end, I played the often-useful "dumb tourist" card and insisted stubbornly that I'd never received one when I crossed into Chile, and didn't know I needed one (so obviously, I implied, I couldn't have realized the border guard's mistake at that time and didn't know I should ask for one).   This was simple enough to communicate in my halting Spanish, so I just kept repeating it.  Finally, the immigration guy just shrugged and rolled his eyes, stamping my passport with a resounding THUD and shoving it back through the grill at me.  I think I caught him near the end of his shift (I saw him putting on his jacket and heading out as our bus was finally pulling out), so I guess he had better things to do than keep me in Chile.

So I got back into Argentina in the end, with another piece of paper that I'll be sure to hang out to this time.  Could've been worse, I suppose, but it still made me cranky.  Then I got to the terminal in Mendoza, and realized the original ticket guy in Santiago had flat-out LIED to me when he said the bus went straight from Santiago to Cordoba; I didn't just get to sleep all the way to Cordoba, I had to haul myself and my backpack off that first bus in Mendoza and wait around more than an hour for another one. 
Which arrived half an hour late, which meant I got dinner late and was ravenous and very bitchy; I'm not a nice person when I'm hungry (just ask anyone in my office who's ever interrupted me before I had breakfast at my desk, or worse still, before I had my coffee).  Dinner arrived about 11:30 at night, and it was ham and cheese in 3 different forms for dinner (none of them good), so I got crankier still.  The movie started playing about midnight, very loudly, and the bus was freezing cold and they didn't give out blankets, so I dozed fitfully when I managed to sleep at all. 
Somewhere in the middle of the night, the bus broke down and the driver and attendant made a tremendous racket as they did whatever it is that people do under the hood of a vehicle; it started up again, finally, and we got on our way again.  The heating appeared to be working again, too, and I was soon roasting uncomfortably (note to self:  always dress in layers for any form of travel).
Tired and monumentally out of sorts by then, I arrived in Cordoba finally about an hour after the scheduled time.  Trudged to the hostel, which was a much longer walk than it looked on the map and up two steep flights of narrow stairs.  Threw my bag in my room and headed back out the door again, bound for the sleepy little hamlet of Jesus Maria and its Jesuit estancia which was the whole reason I'd bothered to stop in Cordoba.  Got to Jesus Maria easily enough, in about an hour on a little local minibus, and then wandered around growling to myself when I got lost and couldn't figure out where the estancia was, anyway,  (The obvious step of, oh, ASKING someone didn't cross my mind in my foul humour.) 
I got found, eventually, and it was actually pretty cool; the Jesuits arrived in this part of Argentina in the early 1600's and (among other things) founded the University of Cordoba in 1622.  They ran the operation in Jesus Maria as a wine-making centre, in order to pay the operating costs of their university; their original operating capital had been hijacked by pirates on its way over from Europe so those resourceful priests turned their hands to the making and selling of alcohol instead.  Did a roaring trade, too, by all accounts, with their fancifully-named first wine "Lagrimilla del Oro" (little tear of gold). 

(What is it with Catholic priests and the wine business?  Dom Perignon -- the original guy the champagne is named after -- was a monk and used to pre-sell his entire inventory before it was ready, knowing that about a third of the bottles were likely to explode from the built-up pressure before they ever left his hands; he'd keep all the money anyway and blame the buyers for handling the bottles too roughly.)
Their profitable little endeavour -- and their side efforts to Christianize the locals and "teach the natives how to live like civilized men" (direct quote from a placard at the museum) -- didn't last all that long, historically speaking.  They were turfed out in 1767, having fallen out of favour with the powers that be; among other things, they were accused of pride, greed, ignoring the dictates of the pope and of "pelagianism" (that last one I'll have to look up -- I have a vague memory from high school religion, something about the doctrine of original sin).
I got back on the bus to Cordoba, a little more cheerful after a good historical wallow and a wander around the countryside.  But I quickly got back to cranky again, after my bus didn't go back to the same terminal it departed from, but took a long, roundabout tour of the entire city of Cordoba before going to the long-distance bus station on the far side of town.  Two and a half hours after leaving Jesus Maria ( almost three times as long as it took me to get there) I was back in Cordoba, not quite where I wanted to be, but thought I could salvage the situation by buying my onward bus ticket for Salta for tomorrow while I was there.  
But I tried a couple of counters and neither company had seats left for tomorrow.  So I grumbled again, threw up my hands and stalked back to the hostel, figuring I'd just worry about it tomorrow.  At least, I thought, I'll get a good dinner tonight without having to go buy food and cook; the hostel was planning to have an asado, a traditional Argentine barbecue.
Well, I got back to the hostel and the asado was cancelled.   So I have eaten the remains of my crackers and fruit, and am still hungry and grumpy but can't be bothered to go out and find anything else.  Add to that how much I'm stressing out about Bolivia, and I'm a thoroughly unhappy traveller tonight -- I do not, do NOT want to go to La Paz (it scares the hell out of me from the stories I've heard), but I can't figure out how to get around it by bus, and flying over doesn't seem to be an option unless I backtrack to Argentina or Chile.  And I don't want to skip Bolivia altogether, because I want to see the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats), so I have to figure this out somehow, or just bite the bullet and pass through La Paz as quickly as humanly possible and hope like hell the stories are exaggerated.

You see, boys and girls, that travel is not always glamourous and exciting; sometimes it just annoys you, frustrates you and leaves you bad-tempered and sulking.  I'm doing my best not to inflict my bad mood on anyone here -- it hardly seems fair to bitch at them when I've only just met them all -- so I've decided to rant at you, dear reader, instead.  You can always get up and walk away from the screen if you don't want to put up with me.
I promise to be in a better mood next time.  A few days of doing nothing in Salta or Cafayate might just do the trick ... as long as I can get a bus, that is.   If I get stuck in Cordoba, I'm not promising anything.

Land of a Thousand Heads

Rapa Nui ... you probably know it better as Easter Island (Isla de Pascua, to Chilenos).   It's also called Te Pito o Te Henua (the "navel of the world" -- which begs the questions, if Easter Island is the navel, then what does that make Australia?)  Any which way you refer to it, it is a tiny, isolated speck of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean -- just 24 km at its longest point and 12 km at its widest, and nearly 4,000 km west from the mainland of South America, and nearly 4,000 km east of Tahiti.  Only Pitcairn Island is closer to Easter Island, and it's still nearly 2,000 km away (and has less than 50 inhabitants).

In other words, a long way from anywhere.  But it`s got something no other place on earth can offer:  those magical, mysterious, marvelous moai, the giant carved statues that no one can really explain.  That`s why I travelled 5 hours and two time zones.  (Well, that, and the promise of hot and sunny weather.)  There aren't quite 1,000 heads, but the total comes pretty close.

How people got to Easter Island in the first place, much less why they started carving those moai in the first place, is the subject of much debate.  How the island itself came to be is clear:  some overactive volcanos (3 primary ones and 70 secondary, all now extinct) eventually created a spot of land above the surface of the ocean.   Best current guess is that people arrived -- somehow, from somewhere -- between 700 and 1100 AD,   They may have travelled all the way from the Marquesas Islands, although one famous dissenter (Thor Heyerdahl) theorizes that they came from mainland South America.  Either way, they would've had to travel in flimsy canoes over a vast distance to a speck of land they had no way of knowing was there.

But they were here long before the Europeans first arrived.  First was a Dutch sailor in 1722, landing on Easter Sunday (and thus giving the island its name).  Captain James Cook also landed here, and a member of his crew was a Polynesian from Bora Bora who could converse with the inhabitants of Rapa Nui, as their language was closely enough related to his own.  By the time the first missionaries arrived in the mid-1800's, the Rapa Nui people were still here but their traditional culture was dying and their island had been nearly deforested.  What happened before then is the great mystery.

They carved moai out of volcanic rock in a quarry at the Rano Raraku volcano, and somehow transported them from there to sites all over the island, probably to represent deified ancestors who acted as guardians over the villages; moai always faced the village, with their backs to the sea, and were installed on altars called ahu.  How did they manage this?  No one really knows, although the most common theories include the use of sledges and log rollers; keep in mind that these statues in some cases weigh as much as 90 to 100 tonnes!

As more and more moai were carved, resources became more and more depleted:  more trees cut down to use for transport; more topsoil exposed to air with nothing to anchor it and blowing away in the wind; fewer and fewer acres of productive land to grow crops as soil quality deterioriated.  Warfare broke out among rival groups as they fought for scarcer resources, and in the course of this civil war, moai were toppled and ahu destroyed.  Some moai were left at the quarry, partly finished, never to be used for their intended purpose; hundreds of them still remain, blank eyes gazing solemnly at the visitors walking past in awe.

Why did they destroy themselves?  This is what I really wonder.  The person who cut down that last tree must have known it was the last, yet he cut it down anyway; all of their society must have been able to see the devastation to their island, but they didn't change their way of life.  It strikes me as an interesting parallel for our times:  surely anyone who sees and breathes and smells can tell that our way of life (for "our", read North American in particular, although it's not just us) is spoiling the water and destroying the land and eating up the resources of the planet faster than it can replenish them.   And if the rest of the developing world -- billions of people -- catches up and starts living the way we do, then God help us all.

Yet we continue to drive our SUVs to the corner store and live in our 5,000-square-foot mansions, heedless of the kind of earth we will be bequeathing to our children.  My sister used a quote on Earth Day that I really like:  "we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children."  We would do well to remember this more often.

All right, I'm stepping down off my soapbox now.  But even today on Easter Island, there are hardly any trees, and no fish off the shores or seabirds careering through the sky; tuna fisherman have to go 3 miles out to sea to find anything to catch.

But it's green, and lovely, and dramatic, and the weather was as hot and sunny as I hoped.  I spent the first day on a bus tour, which took me around to all the major island sights, but spent the next two days hiking up the coast and south of the city.  The landscape is almost eerily quiet:  no traffic, no sounds of birds, no signs of human civilization much beyond the boundaries of Hanga Roa, the one and only city.  I met more horses than people in my rambles; they outnumber humans almost 2 to 1, and the domestic horses are often used as transport instead of cars.  The wild ones roam around freely, striking terror in the hearts of hapless hikers brought up short to let a herd gallop by just inches in front of her.  (I don't know if you know this, but horses are very large animals.  Twenty of them coming at you at once is an awe-inspiring sight.)

The hostel was pretty quiet, as it's low season on the island, so I had the huge outdoor patio all to myself at some points.  I sat there the second morning, gazing at the view, thinking what an awesome place it would be to sit and write for a while; an hour later, I was still staring idly into space, daydreaming instead of writing.  But sometimes you need a little space and time to let your mind just wander.

So I found a little bit of peace and relaxation, on that tiny faraway dot of land, and remembered why I was travelling in the first place.

P.S. my peace of mind evaporated just as quickly once I got back to the mainland, but that's a story for another time.  See you in the next post!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Feeling the On-the-Road Blues

Call it Travel Fatigue, if you will.  You know you have it when you reach a point when you get tired, really tired, of travelling.  Everything becomes "yet another ..." whatever-it-is; it's your 40th hostel, your 17th Mayan ruin, your 22nd hiking trail.  Everything starts to lose its luster and "new" no longer automatically equals "exciting".  In Europe, backpackers call this YAP-YAM-YAC syndrome:  yet another palace, yet another museum, yet another church ...

I realized today I've hit that point.  I knew I was there when I had to work hard to convince myself that it was worth the effort to go to Valparaiso for the day, when I couldn`t be bothered figuring out any winery day trips from Santiago, when I started getting irritated by slow-moving people on the sidewalk or waiting in line to buy metro tickets, when I shrugged while walking past the national art museum and thought, "Oh, it`s just a few more paintings, I`ve seen plenty already this trip."  When the thought of having to buy yet another bus ticket, or book yet another hostel, onwards from Santiago, just seemed like more effort than it was worth.

Travel Fatigue, definitely.  I`m not excited today about the prospect of two more months of travel, or about my trips to come in the second half of the year.  I`m not even that jazzed about Easter Island,  I`m just tired.  I don`t want to figure out where to stay anymore, buy any more bus tickets, have any more superficial conversations with people I might know for 24 hours and then say good-bye to, yet again. 

One of the best things about travel is all the people you meet, but one of the worst things about travel is all the people you say good-bye to.  And you know, despite Facebook and best intentions on everyone's part, most people you say good-bye too you won`t encounter again.  Your life is filled with 24-hour friends, who can make that brief period lots of fun, but .... then you start over again somewhere else.  You find some places you really like, but the road beckons onward to other, different places and you catch yet another bus.

I`m so tired of that right now.  I just want to stop for a while.  Or wake up in my own neighbourhood, where I know where everything is, I can go out without a map and without having to carry all my valuables strapped to my body ...and where the bartenders at my "local" know my name and what kind of wine I like to drink.  Where I could order in from my favourite pizza place, and not have yet another night of rice, beans and vegetables for dinner.

Oh, this isn't an incurable disease.  I'll get over it, one way or another.  It just probably means I need to stop for a little bit, and just hang out somewhere, without a tourist agenda.  Don't worry about rushing around to see the sights, or figuring out the plans for moving on to the next place ... just chill.  Easter Island might do it.

But if not ... somewhere else.  I'm thinking maybe Puno in Peru, on the shores of Lake Titicaca.  I'd love to avoid having to travel through La Paz, Bolivia (it scares me, just a little, from the stories I`ve heard), so I might fly over it instead, to Cuzco, and backtrack a little bit to hang out on the lake.  Or sooner, in Cafayate, Argentina ... chill and sip some fine local torrentes while I recharge my batteries.

I remember this happening to Julie and me in Europe, about a month into the trip.  We were moving a lot faster than I am on this trip, since we had a long list of things we wanted to cram in.  When we started getting very snappish with each other and easily frustrated by the littlest things, it was time to stop for a while.  Which we did, very happily, on the French Riviera at Cap d'Ail ... a few days of nothing more strenuous than lying on the beach (and a little side jaunt to the casino in Monte Carlo) and we were good to go again.  It hit me later this trip, but probably because my pace has been less frantic.

So I know I'll be fine, again, and I'll get excited about travelling again.  Just give me a little breather, first.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Oda a un Poeta Chileno

I thought I'd use this blog post to inflict some bad poetry on you that I wrote just for the occasion.  Then I thought better of it, and decided to share the work of a much better poet than I, whose house I visited today in Santiago:

Day-colored wine,
Night-colored wine,
Wine with purple feet
Or wine with topaz blood,
Starry child of earth,
Wine, smooth
As a golden sword,
As lascivious velvet,
Wine, spiral-seashelled
And full of wonder,
Never has one goblet contained you.
-- Ode to Wine - Pablo Neruda

Ah, I feel so cultured now.  I've read some of Neruda's work before -- I have his sonnets (at home) translated in English, with the Spanish original on the facing pages, and it is fascinating to read the two side by side.  I'm ever so slightly better at making sense of the English version, but, oh, the Spanish sounds divine even when I don't know the meaning of all the words.

I am in Santiago, if I haven't already told you -- oh, right, I think I already told you about my hostel misadventures upon arrival.  I spent yesterday taking care of some practical things:  first, I undertook a journey to the neighbourhood of Providencia for English language bookstores in search of a travel guide for Bolivia.  Simple enough task, but I was shocked at the price of books in Chile -- I'd expected English language might be a little bit more, but $30 for a used (well-used, at that) book?  Even the Spanish-language books were outrageously expensive; apparently there's a 19% tax on books here.

Second task was to mail some stuff home -- full travel journals, souvenirs, and the like -- in an effort to lighten my backpack and avoid any risk of losing or damaging them on the road.  The Correo Central (main post office) is a grand and elegant building, and I got a good look around while I waited in line for at least two hours.  Then spent about another half hour trying to negotiate the transaction; I swear all my Spanish (such as it is) flew right out of my head that afternoon, as I struggled with the simplest of points!  But it all got done in the end -- I think -- and with luck my packages are on their way back to Canada.

Third task was the most fun -- booking a flight and place to stay in Easter Island!!  Whoo-hoo!  Yep, I'm on my way, baby, and I fly off early Friday morning, returning next Tuesday (the 18th).  It isn't going to be cheap -- just the flight and a place to stay are costing me about $1,000 -- but it's cheaper than trying to do it later from home as a separate vacation, and hey, when am I ever going to happen to be in the neighbourhood with the time to go?  ("In the neighbourhood" being defined very loosely, as Easter Island -- Isla de Pascua -- is about 3,700 km away.  But the only point of land closer than Chile is Pitcairn Island to the west, at 1,900 km from Easter Island and a long, long way from anywhere else.)

The rest of the day was the usual stuff -- making dinner, washing clothes, hanging out in the sunshine in the big back patio of the hostel.  They even have a pool, which I haven't yet tried; days are pretty warm, but I'm not sure it's quite bathing suit weather.

Today I actually got to see something of the city other than the post office and a few bookstores.  My neigbhourhood of Barrio Brasil is walkable from downtown, and the metro is so efficient that it's ridiculously easy to get around to places further afield.  Transit isn't as cheap as Buenos Aires -- but at 3 times the price, it's still only about $1 a ride and covers the entire city.  And Santiago is very safe; there is almost nowhere that you shouldn't ramble around alone.  The biggest hazard you'll face is the smog (more on that later).

I discovered an antique funicular than runs up Cerro San Cristobal, the hill that towers over the centre of the city.  After a slow, rattling ride up, I wandered around in the sunshine for a while -- the top of the hill is devoted to parkland, a zoo, and an outdoor church with the largest statue of Mary that I've ever seen at (22 metres high).  In theory, there should be fantastic views of the city and the mountains encircling it, but the smog is painfully evident -- take a look at this to see just how thick the blanket of pollution is:

(Then I thought I`d spend the rest of the afternoon walking around breathing in that air?  What on earth was I thinking?)

I also went to visit Pablo Neruda`s house in the neighbourhood of Bellavista (hence the literary offering at the start of this post) -- his second home, built for the woman who eventually became his third wife.  At the time he built her the house, he was still married to the second wife, but that`s a minor point, isn`t it?  It`s a delightful spot, anyway; designed to evoke the look and feel of a ship, it would have, in its day, commanded majestic views of the Andes.  (Now, of course, the view is largely obscured by skyscrapers and smog.)  There are 3 bars on the property -- just to uphold the stereotype that writing and alcoholism go together -- and an eclectic display of his possessions.  Among them are the medals awarded to Neruda, most notably the Nobel prize for literature in 1971.

The house isn`t quite as he left it, as it was raided and trashed by Pinochet`s troops after the 1973 coup; Neruda was a dangerous left-wing sympathizer and too high profile -- he had been politically active since his 20`s and served as ambassador in the Far east at the tender age of 24 -- so to protect the state Pinochet`s men burned his classic works of literature and flooded his home.  (Uh-uh, totally logical.  Military dictatorships are so wise.)  Neruda`s widow -- the mistress-turned-third-wife Mathilde -- returned to live there after his death (he died two weeks after the coup) and restored the house as part of his legacy.  The books, however, could not be saved.

My final stop before meandering home was the Museo de Arte Precolombino, just off the central square of Plaza de Armas, to check out their fascinating collection of artefacts from 4,500 years of civilization in Latin America, including mummies that pre-date Egypt`s by centuries.  Now I`m back at the hostel, procrastinating about making dinner -- I`m just not in the mood for rice and beans and vegetables (which is what I have).  I could go for a thick, juicy, bacon cheeseburger right now.  With a glass of malbec to wash it down ... mmmmmm.

Tomorrow I`m off to Valparaiso, I think -- it`s a couple of hours north of Santiago by bus, and has a reputation as the bohemian capital of Chile.  Neruda had another home here -- his first one, I think -- so I might go check that out too.  Had thought about going to one of the nearby wineries, but since I`ve just come from wine country I think I`d like to do something different. 

Then I`m off to Easter Island!  Not only do I get to go somewhere I have long wanted to see, but it`s going to be a very welcome break ... I`m getting a little travel-lagged and it`ll be nice to chill out on a tropical island for a little while.

P.S.  How much better still does that poem sound in Spanish ...

Vino color de día,
vino color de noche,
vino con pies de púrpura
o sangre de topacio,
estrellado hijo
de la tierra,
vino, liso
como una espada de oro,
como un desordenado terciopelo,
vino encaracolado
y suspendido,
nunca has cabido en una copa

Monday, May 10, 2010

There was this thing called an earthquake in Santiago ...

I'd almost forgotten about it, actually (apparently I have a short memory for these things) ... but was forcibly reminded when I showed up in Santiago, Chile today.  I'd made a hostel reservation online, as I've been doing all along, and blithely made my way from the bus station by metro to the address in my Lonely Planet.

There, I found a dark, derelict building with a chain and padlock on the door and boards on the windows.  I double-checked the address -- yup, Catedral 2207, this was the place.  I looked up at the wall of the building and could faintly discern lighter patches, spelling out "H-O-S-T-E-L" against the grime, and a lighter oval patch above; clearly there had been a sign for the hostel which had fallen off or been taken off.

By this time, it was getting dark, as my bus to Santiago had been very delayed at the border in a long, long line-up which didn't move for at least an hour.  (The American guy I was chatting to speculated that they were all taking a lunch break;  sure enough, on the dot at the top of the next hour, the entire crew came back to work and the line finally started to move.)  It was twilight, and the neighbourhood of my erstwhile hostel was becoming quite deserted, and I didn't really fancy wandering the darkening streets of a strange big city looking for a place to lay my head.

So I headed back in the direction of the metro as I considered my options; a few doors down I saw a very welcome sign for the "Chile Inn Hostel" and rang the bell.  Two very nice older women ushered me in and were happy to provide me with a bed for the night for 7,000 Chilean pesos (about $14).  I realized after they showed me to my dorm room that, not only was I the only one in the dorm, but I was the only person staying in the entire hostel! 

It's nice -- quite a bit more stylish than the usual hostel accommodation, for about the same price -- but it's rather spooky being the only one.  I'm just hoping that at least one of the two ladies at the front desk stays here at night; if I'm completely alone in a big old creaky building all night, I just might develop a fear of the dark.  And I don't think they provide breakfast in the morning, which is a South American hostel perk I've grown quite accustomed too -- even if "breakfast" is always too-sweet pastries with dulce de leche syrup to pour on top, and Nescafe instead of real coffee.

But at least it's somewhere to stay for tonight.  Tomorrow I'll figure out a better option -- a few more people around to talk to would be nice.  I enjoy solitude, but less so when it is thrust upon me unwillingly ... and hostels are more entertaining with a few loco Australianos around.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Visit to the Stone Guardian

I don't know how familiar you are with the geography of Argentina.  I wasn't, at all, till I came here; it still blows me away occasionally how BIG this country is.  It's the 8th largest in the world, after ... let's see ... Russia, Canada, United States, China, Brazil, Australia, and India, in something like that order.  It's nearly 4,000 km from north to south, and 1,500 km from east to west, and I'll have traversed it in both directions by the time I'm done.

And a chain of huge mountains run nearly all the way up the length of the country, forming a sort of spine for South America.  The Andes carry on northward into Bolivia and beyond, but they hit their peak right near Mendoza.  Away to the west, there's a mountain called Aconcagua ("Stone Guardian" in the local indigenous language) that reaches the lofty height of 6,962 metres.  That's taller than any other mountain outside of the Himalayas.

I took a day trip yesterday to go visit the Stone Guardian, with a few other stops along the way.  As you leave Mendoza, heading west toward Chile, it isn't long before the landscape changes from flat desert to foothills to mountains to ... towering peaks the likes of which I've never seen.  The Rockies have nothing on these.   Aconcagua is the highest, and there were a few foolhardy souls heading out on the long hiking trail that would take them to the base of the giant itself, from there to start a long and arduous climb to the top.  Because of the altitude, you can't hike continuously day after day, as you have to stop to acclimatize;  it takes at least 2 weeks to reach the summit.

THAT idea didn't even cross my mind for a second, as I was very happy just to look at it from a distance.  It's still impressive and the landscape was quite literally breath-taking; the viewpoint for Aconcagua is at about 3,000 metres and it's noticeably harder to breathe and hike.  Quite what it would be like at nearly 7,000 metres, I don't even want to imagine!

It was mostly Chileans on the bus with me, aside from a couple of American college students, and they appeared to be equally fascinated by the fact the the little lakes near the viewpoint were frozen over, and that there was snow on the ground, as they were by Aconcagua itself.  They would happily have spent hours, I think, just skipping rocks across the ice of a pond, chuckling to each other at this novelty.  (For a Canadian who grew up with real winters, this was much less fascinating.  But I had fun showing them how to make a snowman.)

Aconcagua was obviously the highlight of the day, but there are a few other oddities around the area that amused me.  We stopped for breakfast (which, for an Argentino, means sweet pastries with dulce de leche) at a little town called Upsallata, proud possessor of the Tibet Bar -- it's furnished with castoffs and souvenirs from the set of "Seven Years in Tibet", which was filmed near here.  Brad Pitt lived in the local schoolhouse during the shoot.

A bit further out from Mendoza, past Upsallata, there`s a late 18th century stone bridge over an icy glacier stream called the Puente de Picheuta.  It was built originally by the governor of the day for the use of travellers on the trade route over the Andes, but it gained its claim to fame from its use by the massed forces of General San Martin in 1806 as he marched against the Spanish.  This year, Argentina celebrates the successful conclusion of that revolution, as it`s the 200th anniversary of their official independence in 1810.

Puente del Inca
Further on still, nearly at Aconcagua, there`s an intriguing stone formation called the Puente del Inca.  Legend has it that the natural bridge was created when the Incan sun god was ailing and needed to access the healing hot springs on the other side of the water.  Loyal Incas formed a human bridge and when the Sun rose again, fully restored, they were frozen in place, there to remain for all eternity to assist others in need of the springs.

The more prosaic explanation is that the mineral-rich water has gradually eroded the stone over time.  But I think I like the legend better.  Either way, it`s an interesting place -- at one point, it was the site of a posh hotel and spa, where guests could go down to the bath house over the hot springs to soak away their ailments.  An avalanche destroyed the hotel, but the bath house remains, slowly being covered up by mineral deposits as the water continues to flow. 

Well, tomorrow I head back out that direction, but carry on right over the pass into Chile.  I`m off to Santiago for at least a couple of days, and -- I think -- arranging for a side trip to Easter Island while I`m in the neighbourhood (or at least as "in the neighbourhood" as I`m ever going to get!).  This is not a cheap undertaking, but this is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime year for once-in-a-lifetime trips just like this.  So I might just take the plunge and go.  I`ll keep you posted.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Red, Red Wine ... and a Couple of Good Whites, Too

Now I'm going to be singing that song all night.  But it seemed like the only possible title for this particular post, since I'm now in Argentine wine country in Mendoza.

I last left you in Buenos Aires, dear reader (aside from a little detour in the last post) and from there I caught a 'semi-cama' bus to Mendoza.  14 hours and NO BLANKET later, I was here; this was my first experience in this particular class of bus and, while significantly cheaper than 'cama', you definitely get what you pay for.  Had I realized when the bus stopped at a cafe-cum-gas-station about 11 p.m. that it was my only chance to buy some dinner, I might've enjoyed it more; as it was, I survived on fruit I'd brought with me.  I misunderstood the attendant's rapid-fire Argentine accent and thought he said we were stopping only for 'seis' minutes (e.g. 6) so I took a quick walk to stretch my legs and got back on, but it was more like half an hour.  So I would've had time to buy a tasty jamon-y-queso empanada, or something.

But it didn't kill me to live on bananas and apples for a night; probably good for my health and my waistline, actually.  I'm already fastening my belt at least 4 inches tighter than when I started out, so a few more food-less bus rides and I'll be doing even better!

But I digress.  I got to Mendoza just fine, and checked into a hostel in a lovely old converted mansion right off the main square, the Plaza Independencia.  After eating (the bus didn't provide me with breakfast either), I headed out to wander the town.  Among the better discoveries was a little wine tasting bar right down the street called the Vines of Mendoza, so I headed back there in the evening to taste a 'flight' of 5 Malbecs.  Scrumptious!   (As you can tell from the smile on my face ...)  I was very tempted by the "Los Iconos" tasting, with 5 of Argentina's best wines, but was deterred by the 600-peso price tag.  (That's about $125 ... I probably wouldn't think twice in my working life, but on the road it's about 10 nights of accommodation, or two long-distance buses!  Or a good chunk towards an Easter Island jaunt.)

The next day (yesterday) I went touring vineyards in the nearby regions of Maipu and Lujan de Cuyo; I decided against the self-guided biking tour because I'm with my sister on this one ... alcohol and cycling is a bad combination!  So I hopped a bus and someone else drove me around; slightly more expensive than biking but still reasonable.  There are very high-end tours to be had, where you can pick your own specific winery stops, or you can hire a car and driver to take you wherever you want to go; alas, these things do not fit well in a long-term backpacking budget. 

But I was equally happy on my bus, full of Argentinos and Chilenos on holiday, and one other backpacker (a sweet young American college boy named Brian who had never actually drunk wine before).  The others on the bus -- mostly married couples -- kept thinking he and I were also a couple, so we gave up trying to explain otherwise and I just smiled when they referred to my "novio" (a.k.a. boyfriend).  Considering he was, at most, 22 or 23, I thought I was doing all right for myself.

The wines were delightful, and I tried some equally tasty olive oils at another stop.  I'd expected to enjoy the wine-tasting part, so that wasn't really a surprise; what did surprise me was the area we drove through.  I'd been expecting, I suppose, something like the bucolic peace of Bordeaux or Burgundy, steeped in tradition and history, or the lush green of Niagara or the Okanagan.  But Maipu and Lujan de Cuyo are suburban, if anything -- we didn't really hit open countryside at all.  The wineries are mostly very small, boutique or family affairs, so there are few grand estates with long sweeping drives and majestic chateaux.

Still, you can't really go wrong spending a day drinking wine, especially when it's fine Argentine malbec and torrentes (the latter is one of the good whites I tried).  Incidentally, did you know that "malbec" comes from the French for "bad mouth"; French wine growers tried and discarded this grape in a huff as unworthy of their attention.  From the dry mountainous region of Mendoza, Argentina, however, it`s taking over the world; those old French viticulturalists might be rolling over in their graves.

You can find other red wines here, too, and I tried a few of those as well.  I`m not sure what it is about the climate or soil or ambience of this part of the world, but Mendoza appears to turn all kinds of red wines on their heads and turn them into something else entirely.  Take pinot noir, for example:  I`m used to this wine as a lighter, easy-to-drink quaff (which it usually is in Niagara), but here in Argentina, I had a pinot noir that was spicy and peppery and `big` like I`d expect from a shiraz or a cab sauv. (What would Sideways make of this?)   I had to double-check the label to be sure what I was really drinking.  Similarly, the Argentine version of a cabernet sauvignon I tried was much softer and mellower than anything I`ve had from other parts of the world.

I had trouble remembering, though, as I drank some fine wines, that I am no longer a hardworking finance professional with ample disposable income and was tempted to buy a few expensive bottles to ship home.  But then the wine fog cleared, and I remembered that I`ve transformed into a backpacker-on-a-budget who would prefer to spend her available cash going to Easter Island, say, than on expensive wine; the wine will still be there and they`ll still ship it to me when I have a paycheque again, but I won`t be as tantalizingly close to the Isla de Pascua (as I must remember to call it here) as I am right now.  It`s just a question of priorities.

This is my biggest argument with anyone who`s told me I`m `lucky` to be able to afford to travel.  They don`t get that anyone can do this, if they`re willing to make the trade-offs required.  There`s no `luck` involved, people ... I worked really, really damn hard for the money that I saved up, and I`m willing to live very cheaply and forego a lot of luxuries to make it stretch to the things I really want to do.  So if you`re sitting there saying, `Well, that`s good for you, but I could never manage it even though I`d love to`, then quit your whining ... and quit your job, throw some stuff in a backpack and c`mon down and join me!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

I don´t know what to call this post ... but please send all of your positive vibes this way!

Hi, everyone ... I am surprised and very touched by the number of people who have already sent me supportive messages about this, but I wanted to write a little more about this.  It´s not about me; I am well and safe and healthy, but I need your thoughts and prayers for someone else.

You may or may not know already that someone very close to me has been diagnosed with cancer.  (For his sake, I´ll refrain from giving his name ... I don´t think he wants to be defined by this disease, and I don´t know how many people he has told.)  The prognosis is as positive as it could possibly be; I have done a lot of research about this particular diagnosis since I heard the news, and, intellectually, I know there is very little to worry about.  It´s a very slow-growing, non-aggressive form of cancer that is very, very treatable and he will only have to have radiation, not chemotherapy, so treatment will be (relatively) easy.  Odds of successful treatment are approaching 100%, so, well, if you have to have cancer, this is as good as it gets.

But it´s still cancer, and that word scares the bejesus out of me.  Despite the fact that I know this particular case is different than others I´ve encountered, it still scares me.  My grandfather died of cancer, but I know that was largely (probably) a result of a lifetime of working in Newfoundland, Nova Scotian and northern Ontarian mines, and it was the 1970´s so treatments weren´t nearly as advanced as they are now.  A friend died of cancer late last year; this one hit me close to home because she was very close to my own age and, while her diagnosis was initially quite optimistic, her particular cancer was very aggressive and moved too fast to be cured.  Even my beloved little cat Zoe was diagnosed with cancer in November last year, and it was too advanced by that time for me to consider even trying treatment; I´d have just been putting her through a lot of pain  for something that wasn´t doing to be cured.  (But it still hurt like bloody hell to have to put her to sleep.)

I´m tearing up even as I type this.  I know, I KNOW, this case is different and it is all going to be fine.  But it is hard to be thousands of miles away, even though there is nothing I could do even if I was home.  I know he would feel worse if I gave up my trip and flew home now -- he wouldn´t want me to give up something I´ve been waiting for this long! -- but it´s still hard, even though I think staying here, having an amazing time and telling him all about it through this blog and through emails and random phone calls will ultimately help him more.

So all I ask, whether you´re religious or spiritual or not, and whatever forms your prayers or good wishes may take, that you keep this person I love in your thoughts and wish him well.  He´s one of the good ones ... the universe can´t afford to lose him just yet!


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Step Aside, New York ... THIS is the City that Never Sleeps!

Buenos Aires.  BA.  Paris of the South.  Call it what you will, this city of 13 million people is a complex and overwhelming place.  After four days back in urban territory, I'm right back to being as wound up and impatient type-A as I ever was in Toronto.  I need to get out of here before I completely lose my hard-won peace of mind!

That doesn't mean I haven't enjoyed it, though, because I have.  It's just a little much to take in large doses, after time spent wandering around the largely empty land of Patagonia.

I got back on Saturday, May 1st, early in the morning, dropped my bags at the hostel (the same one I'd stayed at before -- can't beat the location!) and headed back out the door, determined to spend a day seeing the sight of Palermo, one of the trendiest neighbourhoods of BA.  Well, I'd forgotten what May 1st means in Latin America -- it's the "Dia del Trabajo" (Labour Day) and nearly everything is shut.  Including grocery stores, which meant no cooking myself dinner that night unless I wanted to eat only plain rice.

But it's a pretty, green, leafy neighbourhood with huge parks, so I wandered a while and breathed in the relatively fresh air.   And I had a deliciously yummy burger in the park, so ticked off one of the 3 things you must do in BA (well, sort of - the 3 things are eat steak, tango and watch football.  I'm counting a burger as #1, since I'm not a big fan of red meat except in this form.).  To my surprise, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (more easily referred to as MALBA) was open, so I went in and had a look around; it's kind of BA's answer to MOMA in New York, and has an impressive collection of mostly modern art by Latin American artists.

I got to #2 and #3 on the Buenos Aires "must do" list, too; #2 with a trek to San Telmo on Sunday to browse the famous Sunday market and have lunch at El Balcon, where I also saw a music-and-tango show.  Donation tango shows were also on offer in the plaza; these are "free" outdoor performances to recorded or live music, with a hat passed around the crowd afterward to make a contribution.  Delightful day -- San Telmo is just south of the center, and is a lovely old neighbourhood of cobblestoned streets and pastel colonial buildings.

#3 -- football -- came Sunday night.  You may have already read my previous blog post about this; if not, go back and have a read!  It's an experience quite unlike any other soccer game to see one in Argentina; the fans are legendary for their passion.

So I've done the "must do's" of Buenos Aires (if you'll allow me to count the burger) and am heading onwards with a sense of mission accomplished.  Having earned a little break, I took yesterday to go to Colonia, Uruguay on the very convenient (but slow) ferry from BA's Puerto Madero neighbourhood (akin to London's Docklands).  So nice to have a little breathing room, a break from the urban insanity of BA -- Colonia del Sacramento is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its historic centre that dates back to the late 17th century.  At various times, it's been Spanish and Portuguese and back again, as the two colonial powers in this part of the world struggled for dominance over its key strategic location.  Nowadays, though, it's a sleepy and peaceful little place; I ambled around the town for a while, and then found a spot to just sit and drink in the atmosphere, listening to a Uruguayan guitarist with a warm baritone voice serenade us.

For today, my last in BA (I leave at 8 pm tonight), I headed back to Palermo for the Museo Evita and the Museo Xul Solar. The first isn't so much a museum as it is a shrine to Saint Eva Peron; I left with the impression that she was sort of the Princess Di of her day, beloved by the nation and famous for her stylish wardrobe. A good chunk of the latter is preserved in the museum; she had very good taste in shoes, I'll give her that.

Xul Solar was an Argentine artist from the early part of the 20th century -- among other things, Argentine painter, sculptor, writer, inventor of imaginary languages, and student of astrology and the Kabbalah -- and the museum in his name houses a collection of his work. It's quirky and colourful and quite appealing -- I don't know quite what "style" you'd call it, but think Paul Klee, or Kandinsky.

And now I must start packing up and head back out to Retiro bus station, to try to find my bus to Mendoza in the bewildering array of 75 platforms.  Wine country, here I come ... I promise to have a glass or two of Malbec for you when I'm in a vineyard somewhere.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Best -- and the Worst -- of Travelling

This is going to be short, because I am so tired I can barely keep my eyes open.  It's early by Buenos Aires standards -- barely 1 a.m. -- but hey, I don't operate according to anyone else's schedule but my own these days.  And I had a long travel day, gettimg up early to catch a ferry to Colonia, Uruguay and getting back tonight.

Tonight reminded me of the thing I love most about travelling (well, one of the things -- there are many) -- the opportunity to meet and hang out with some very cool people from scattered places all over the globe.  It also reminded me about the thing I like least about travelling -- the fact that you have to say good-bye to those same people when you move on to somewhere new.  I'm catching a night bus to Mendoza tomorrow, so will be saying good-bye to Buenos Aires tomorrow afternoon.

Email, and Facebook especially, have made it so much easier to stay in touch with people that you meet casually, randomly. briefly ... but still are people that have touched you closely and that you wish to keep in your life in some way.  So I'm glad that technology has made it simpler ... but I still might prefer to keep those people with me, physically, for a few more days at least.

Since that's not going to happen, I'll take what I can.  And, at least, I get a few more free places to crash around the globe .. and perhaps a few more houseguests in Toronto at some point in the future.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Bend It Like Beckham; or "Goooooooaaaaaallllllll!!!!!!!!"

You think you've watched soccer before. You might've actually gone to a game or two, to see Toronto's relatively new FC or some other team. But if you haven't seen soccer (make that "football") South American-style, you've had an entirely different experience.

Argentina's soccer fans -- and that category includes pretty much every male Argentino from the age of 6 upwards, and a fair number of las Argentinas, too -- are in a class of their own. They are completely, utterly, certifiably NUTS in their passion for this game. For a wide-eyed inncocent (a.k.a. tourist) attending a game, it's just as entertaining to watch the fans as it is to watch the field.

(The other really entertaining thing was the number of very beautiful men who play soccer.  But that`s neither here nor there for the purposes of this story.)

I went to a game yesterday in Avellaneda, a southern suburb of Buenos Aires, to watch Independiente host their bitter rivals Boca Juniors for the third-to-last game in the Argentina’s Primera Division. This is the top level of Argentina’s football league, widely regarded as one of the strongest in the world. It was a do-or-die game for Independiente; five points behind the first-place team Estudiantes, they had only two games remaining after this one to make up the difference. With a win counting for 3 points, a tie for 1, and a loss zero, they stood virtually no chance of coming out on top if they lost this game.

I opted to go with a tour rather than try to arrange it myself; you pay well over the odds for your game ticket this way, but once I got there I was very glad I had. It was in a far-flung suburb that would have been a very expensive taxi ride away, and I don’t think I’d have even been able to find my seat on my own, much less track down a taxi once the game was over to get back to civilization. Seating seemed a little random; our tickets all had row and seat numbers, but our guide waved his hand vaguely at a couple of rows of seats and said, “We’re somewhere around here ... I think.”

With neither rows nor seats labelled, it was difficult to tell, so there was a bit of shuffling around before the game started as football fans came to claim some of the seats we were originally in.

Riot police separating the Boca fans
It was quickly clear once we’d sat down that we were cheering for Independiente that evening; to do otherwise would’ve quickly gotten us thrown out of the stadium (at best) or lynched (at worst). We were surrounded by a sea of red (Independiente’s colour – they are also nicknamed “El Rojo”) and Boca’s fans in blue and yellow (see right) were congregated in one end of the stadium behind fences, surrounded by police in riot gear. Fans set off fireworks in the stands, and threw so much stuff onto the field that men with leaf blowers came out to clear off the pitch.

Obviously this wasn’t going to be your average North American soccer game.

There was a preliminary game with some of the young players from both sides; fans cheered for their teams but didn’t seem too worked up. But once the main action started, I saw the true colours of the Argentine soccer fans: they started jumping up and down in unison, chanting and singing their team’s fight songs, waving flags and T-shirts and anything else in their team’s colours, and tossing plastic stadium seats in the direction of the opposing team’s fans. And they didn’t stop, once, throughout the game; they got as good a workout as anyone on the field.

The stadium, an aging concrete structure visibly in need of repair, juddered and quaked with the force of their enthusiasm. We, the tourist contingent, looked at each other a little askance; just how solid was this building, and how much shaking could it take until it collapsed under the weight of all those feet pounding the concrete?  (Needless to say, since I am writing here, it didn’t choose that night to crumble. But I don’t think it’s beyond the bounds of possibility!)

It didn’t take a lot of Spanish, either, to guess what was being yelled at the referees for bad calls, or at the opposing team if they scored a goal. (“Hijo de una puta” came up a lot.) Every fan took it very, very personally if things didn’t go well for their team; a man in front of me was sobbing so hard into his hands that his shoulders heaved, after the referee missed a particularly blatant penalty by an opposing player.

In the end, Independiente lost, 3-1. The sea of red collapsed, overwrought, and was silent for the first time all night as they watched their team file off the field. Boca’s fans, on the other hand, were jubilant, and the sound of those thousands of voices raised in song probably carried back to the centre of Buenos Aires.

Riot police, fully kitted out with helmets and shields, took up positions on the field at the end of the game, and gates were kept closed in most sections (keeping the Independiente fans inside) until after all the Boca fans had departed. From the mood of that game, I think that was wise; while it would make for a good story afterwards, I have no desire to ever end up in the middle of a football riot!

Whew. It’s quite the spectacle to watch, almost primal in its intensity. I don’t know how the fans keep that up, game after game. I’m exhausted just writing about it.   So I'll take a little break and fill you in on the rest of the past few days later.