Saturday, December 5, 2009

(new)A familiar face in a familiar city

Like coins in a phone box these are the days of our lives. As had become our ritual in Cordoba, I started the day by checking my inbox for the arrival of our etickets to Jo’burg. Nada. We were still ticketless and our flight was less than a week away. Once again I hopped on Skype to call South African Airways. Imagine my surprise when the call was answered after just five minutes of the now-familiar Ladysmith Black Mambazo and “your call is important to us” messaging. However the connection was super bad and after spending another five minutes spelling out our names (mike-alpha-charlie-kilo-echo-november-zulu-india-echo, bravo-alpha-romeo-romeo-echo-tango-tango) repeating each phonetic letter about three times, the connection conked out and I had to start all over again.

This time the connection was clear and I appeared to connect with the one person at SAA who could actually help. Although he briefly tested my patience by asking me if I had tried to use the website. I held in all my vitriol and quickly explained to him that using the website had started this whole mess. Hearing my patience just hanging on by a thread he set to work to remedy the situation. He was able to confirm that the tickets were issued and was about to wish me a nice day when I asked him about the etickets. Apparently, SAA doesn’t email e-tickets which would explain why we’d never gotten any but there was one major problem – having now booked over the phone for online tickets, we had no flight information, no flight numbers, no times, and no terminal directions. He told me he’d email me an itinerary but needed my email address which is my full last name which is a full 15 letters that I had to spell out phonetically once again (mike-alpha-charlie…) Now there was another problem. The jinx of our tickets had managed to infect their email system and he was unable to email the itinerary to us and the reference numbers for the tickets weren’t even registering as valid. However, through some clever internet magic he was able to email them to himself and then forward them to us. I cried out in relief when I saw them in appear in my mailbox, cutting him off his profuse apology. After two weeks and 4 phone calls and one in-person visit to the office, we finally had plane tickets.

With that finally resolved I was kind of at a loss of what to do with my time and energy. So I redirected it and called Rogers to resolve the refund they owed me. They promised to mail me a cheque after admitting that they only issue refunds if the customer asks for it. That shocked me since the amount was for over $100 and not some minute administrative amount. Accountant Adrian was appalled by this rather shady (and perhaps illegal) business practice. But obviously getting our plane tickets had vastly improved my mood and I was just amused by the cheerful way the operator completely admitted the policy. Whatever – we were getting money back and just in time for Christmas.

After all that I really didn’t feel like doing much. So we waited around the hostel until it was time to catch our midnight bus to BsAs. Although it was a midnight bus, we decided to walk to the bus station. Since nobody in Argentina appears to go to bed until 2am we knew the streets would be full of people and there would be no danger. But it wasn’t just the streets that were full – even at this late hour, the bus station was packed. I every bus bay was full and every bus was filled with passengers. But I guess 11pm is the equivalent of rush hour in a country where dinner is eaten way after dark.

Our bus arrived on time and we assumed our seats up at the front and drifted off until we were given a hot dinner which we didn’t expect given the hour and the cheap price. And since there was no mystery meat and my stomach appeared to have recovered from the last bus meal, I took a chance and ate it then went to bed. Pulled into Argentina just at the tail end of morning rush hour. Easily navigated our way back to the hostel via the metro.

It was nice to be back in a familiar hostel even if all the faces were new. But just as we had run into a familiar face in Cordoba we were about to run into another one. Simon from Guayaquil was also in Buenos Aires. After 4 months since our parting at the bus station headed in opposite directions, it was time to meet up for a drink. But first it was time for a proper nights sleep in a proper bed.

The next day was another one of planning and nothingness at the hostel. We made plans to meet Simon tonight at a pub not too far away – a proper English pub, much to Adrian’s pleasure. And then it was time to make our plans for South Africa. We were going to be in the country during the high holiday season and knew that we were going to have to plan our whole time in the country and book in advance to ensure we had a place to stay. We had searched all over the country for an African guidebook but had had no luck. Our last chance was a book store across from the pub we’d be heading to tonight. But until we had that, the internet was the only tool at our disposal. Trying to plan a trip while flipping through a hundred web pages was an arduous task so I hoped we’d find the elusive guidebook and narrowed the search to a hostel in Jo-burg. I was immediately shocked by what I found. Since no one apparently visits the city centre or at the very least stays there, all the hostels were out in the gated suburbs which made it hard to figure out which had the best location. The other shocking thing was the price. We had found the last month or so expensive but it didn’t prepare us for the cost of things in South Africa. The cheapest double room (shared bathroom) was over $35 but most were over $40. Gulp. Adrian and I decided that whatever route we took through South Africa it was going to have to be a short one or else our goal of reaching Egypt and Jordan was going to be a rather impossible one. But we hoped with a guidebook in hand we’d be able to find a better deal.

We headed out to meet Simon early planning to hit the book store first. Unfortunately it was closed, despite the sign in the window saying they were open. Oh Argentina, I will not miss your wacky business hours. A look in the window, revealed that we weren’t missing any thing. The bookstore was full of English language books but most were used novels and there was no visible travel section let alone an African travel section. Le sigh. We drowned our sorrows at the pub while waiting for Simon who arrived shortly afterwards.

On the road, people you only knew for a few days a few months ago are immediately friends and catching up with people who would be strangers at any other time in any other place was like meeting up with an old friend. We spent the evening chatting about where we’d been and what we were planning to do and it felt like meeting any friend for a pub. The pub was popular and we were soon sharing our table with an Argentinean couple who spoke amazing English (much better than all of our Spanish) and who were excited to hear our travel tales just as much as we were happy to hear about their lives in Buenos Aires. It was a good time made better by the two for one drinks, I'm sure. Adrian and I haven’t been the most social people while traveling. But in a way that was good. It meant we hadn’t blown a lot of money on drinking and it meant that we really enjoyed and treasured the times when we have gone out with folks we’ve met.

Unfortunately I completely forgot I'd broughtmy camera out to capture the evening but I know the memories will last just as long - hopefully the hang over wouldn't.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

(new) Muchas Gracias

There was still no sign of our etickets in my email. But rather than phone South African Airways again, I decided to take a break. It was time for a trip out of town, something we hadn’t done in a while. The phone call to SAA could wait until tomorrow.

Cordoba was an old Jesuit town, even older than the missions we’d visited in Bolivia. And many of those old Jesuit missions still existed in town and even more could be found in the small towns just outside the city. We were headed to one of them called Alta Gracia. But not just for the mission, we’d certainly seen enough of those, but because Alta Gracia was the childhood home of Che Guevera which Adrian was really excited about.

Getting there was easy. We caught a bus from the bus station and an hour later we were in the town. It was bigger than we expected and we had no map. So once we saw what looked like the main street (lots of shops, old signs) we got off and hoped that there would be some signs to point is in the right direction. And we were obviously getting good at figuring our way around these Latin American city because we stumbled upon the old plaza and the original Jesuit mission (called an estancia here) easily. Unfortunately despite the sign that said it was open for another hour, it was closed for the afternoon siesta. We checked out and the small church (photo above) that was open. And then popped into the tourism office just across the street in the old clock tower. With the free map and the help of the woman at the desk we were off to chase Che.

The Gueveras had moved to Alta Gracia when Che was just a 6 and lived there off and on for the next 10 years. The museum was housed in the old family home that had been and still was the leafy rich part of town just behind the fancy-schmancy resort hotel. The museum was small and contained lots of information related to his youth, including photos and copies of his school reports as well as postcards, maps and writings relating to his youthful motorcycle journey across Latin America that looked an awful lot like ours.. They even had a model of the motorcycle he rode on the famous legs and the bicycle he used for another less famous one. Adrian ran around with glee while I was happy with the free admission price.

Somewhere in the middle of the house, a familiar voice called out. Fancy meeting you here. It was Stuart from Santa Cruz but without Max who was still back in Bolivia awaiting a money transfer so he could pay his hostel bill. The two lads were at the tail end of the trip and while Stuart still had cash, Max had overextended himself. It had been 3 months since we’d first met them and another month or two since we’d bumped into them in Uyuni and here we were meeting up in Argentina. We chatted for a bit and then left each other to explore the museum before saying goodbye probably for the last time.

The mission was still closed so we stopped at a café for a little lunch of giant lomitos (beef sandwiches) which killed just enough time until the mission opened as well as filling our stomachs.

Then it was time to walk around the mission. There was a small museum to start filled with a mish mash of old objects from the history of the mission from a Jesuit farming estate up to the time of its life as the home of the local governor. The most interesting was a chair fashioned from the pelvic bones of a cow. Gruesome and yet totally cool – I think Adrian and I both decided we wanted one. The mission itself was lovely and nice and thankfully completely different from the ones we’d visited way out in nowhere Bolivia. But what was just as nice was the free postcard that the attendant gave me when we left. She saw me looking at them and just told me to have one as a regalo. A small gift but it was definitely the thought and gesture that counted and meant a lot. And with a alta gracia (high thanks) we said adios to Alta Gracia.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

(new) Testing my patience and my innards.

My stomach still wasn’t feeling great but it was definitely better – perhaps Adrian’s cure worked. However I still didn’t feel up for going to far and decided to make use of this imposed break to take care of all this business, starting with our airline tickets. Argentina was nice but it was starting to lose its charm the more we thought about Africa.

Today started much like yesterday. I woke up at 7am and hopped on Skype to phone SAA, hoping to resolve our ticket issues. I was pleasantly surprised when my call was answered after only 34 minutes of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I liked to think this was directly related to my nasty, erm, firm email to customer service but seeing as I had still not received a single reply I think it was most likely luck. But the shorter waiting time did lift my spirits and I resolved not to take whatever out on the poor person who answered the call. When she answered, I gave my reservation number and asked about our tickets. I was then asked for all the same info I had given yesterday. Apparently, no one had bothered to charge my card in the last 24 hours or issue the tickets. So I had to wait another 10 minutes for what should have been done yesterday to happen today. Once again my knowledge of international phonetic language was tested as I had to spell Adrian and I’s full names out which I’m pretty sure now qualifies me as an air traffic controller. The woman promised me that now that the credit card had been charged, the tickets would be issued in the next 24 hours and that I was done. As much as I wanted to trust her, I decided to reserve judgment until I saw them in my inbox. Until then, I amused myself by sending a third snarky email to SAA customer service filling them in on the new developments. I decided I’d send them one after every phone call until I had the tickets or until they responded.

With that sorta, maybe, hopefully resolved, I felt like I was on a roll and decided to call American Express about their decision on our stolen Ecuadorean travelers cheques. It had been 5 months but we still hadn’t received any notification from them. At least this call would be free. For some reason North American toll-free numbers are accepted by Skype but not South African ones. However, I would have paid for the call to get a better reception. The operator who answered seemed to be at the bottom of a well during a hail storm. She assured me she could hear me fine and that was more important. The good news was that our claim had been accepted. The bad news was that it was only for $220US as opposed to the $320US we were owed – the rude operator from our emergency call had obviously not entered the right amount. However, we could reopen the claim for the missing $100US but only by snail mail – not email and not even fax. Well I hope the Argentinean mail system was better than it’s well, actually everything in Argentina seemed to run fine so I’ll correct that by saying that I hoped the mail system was as good as everything else. As for the $220US in cheques, well they’d issued a refund cheque and since we hadn’t received it, they would have to stop payment on it before they could reissue another one. Oh boy. But the good news was that would only take 5 business days. Then we could call back to arrange pick up the cheques in person at an American Express office. I thanked the woman for all her help. And I meant it. She was as nice as could be and polite, especially compared to the cow I had spoken to when we were robbed. Despite the pleasant phone call it was still a bit exhausting and I had one more call to make.

I took a break to respond to a months old email from a big UK publisher asking permission to publish one of my travel photos. I’d been hemming and hawing about it since the price was a bit lower than one would expect but I finally decided that something was better than nothing. Plus they offered me a free copy of the book and having sold most of our books before we left, our library will need a boost. Oh if you were wondering it was one of the photos from Mexico City – way back in the first week of our trip – when we visited the creepy Doll Island and the book is one of the Ripley’s Believe it or Not ones. Kinda cool and since we’ve only made a few dollars from this site (thank you to whomever bought that computer using the amazon banner ad) we could certainly do with extra cash help.

The final thing on the to do list was to call Rogers Cable about a refund they owed me. But I decided to save that until tomorrow. By now Adrian was up and I was mostly awake and feeling about 75% so decided to do an easy walking around tour. We’d seen most of the city yesterday but now we’d be able to see it in the light. And without divulging too much information, I just hoped that there would be easy access to washrooms around the city.

Our first stop though was the bus station. We had hoped that our night buses were over and done with but a quick check online revealed that the only two-day buses to Buenos Aires were already sold out. Le sigh. But there was a night bus that was cheaper than the day buses and it was only 10 hours. I think we can handle that, if my stomach holds up. The clerk at the station confirmed everything we had found online so we bought our tickets before they too were sold out. Then it was time to explore the city.

We headed to the Museo Sobre Monte – an old colonial house in the old part of the city. It was nice but more importantly it was shady which was all that really mattered. By the time we were out on the street it was high noon and it was hot – not sweaty sticky hot like in Iguazu just plain old frying an egg on our arms hot. We then headed to the main square. The cathedral was under a layer of scaffolding being renovated and restored but we were able to take a peek inside. It was beautifully painted – well, what we could see since much of it was also under protective plastic and scaffolding as well. But all together pretty impressive for 400+ years of use.

Cordoba was one of the oldest cities in Argentina (much older than Buenos Aires). It may even be the oldest but I’m too lazy to look it up. But surprisingly it doesn’t look that old. With the exception of the three square blocks in the centre with old university buildings and old churches, much of that history had been buried under fairly recent buildings. It wasn’t an ugly city it just didn’t look like what you’d expect for such an old town and wasn’t what you’d call pretty. But this lack of old and pretty made it easy to slowly take in the handful of sights (and avoid becoming big sweaty messes). What also slowed us was those handful of sights being closed for a siesta or just plain closed. We weren’t able to pop into the old convent or the Jesuit chapel. A bit disappointing since the descriptions talked about the fantastic interiors. Although I’m sure we’d probably seen many like them already.

After lunch in an air conditioned café, we headed to the art museum (photo above) down near the hostel. Museum was a bit misleading and in fact the name of the place was the Palacio Ferrerrya. The building was built in 1911 for a single family and was called a palacio for good reason. The grand entrance hall easily would have fit two of our old two bedroom apartments in it. And the rest of the rooms were just as grand. The art was a small collection of mostly Cordoban artists from the last 200 years but in such a beautiful setting it all looked fantabulous – like a mini-Louvre. As we were about to leave Adrian realized he’d misplaced his hat somewhere in the Palacio so while he went to retrace his steps I sat and waited and contemplated asking the ticket desk if it had been turned in. But decided to wait until he came back which gave me a chance to compose the request in Spanish. When he returned empty-handed, I asked and indeed it had been turned in which just made Adrian cranky because I hadn’t asked before he went off to search for it. Whoops.

Oh well, it was just a small palace he searched needlessly. But I wasn’t bothered my calls with South African Airways had taught me infinite patience. And my stomach had managed to hold on to its contents and that made today pretty awesome.

Monday, November 30, 2009

(new) Instant karma’s gonna get ya.

the only photo for this post cuz it's another sickness and bitchiness one.

As we’ve been traveling, Adrian and I have practiced something we like to call travel karma. When we can help out a fellow traveler we do, even if we have to go a little out of our way. Our hope has been that we’ll build up some good travel karma so that when we need some luck or a miracle, we’ll get the help we need. Of course, we hadn’t really seen any dividends for our investment. And today we fell a little off the wagon.

Since there was no pool at the hotel, there was really nothing left for us to do in Iguazu. So we decided to leave a day early. After breakfast, Adrian went to check out and pay the bill. There was some confusion and the clerk appeared to be asking us to pay for another night as per our booking. She didn’t really speak English and Adrian’s sh-sh-sh language wasn’t really working. I stepped in to try and solve the problem but I was a little angry and lost it on the clerk, telling her just how unhappy we were with the accommodations. I told her that we were leaving today because there was no pool, no bar, no computers, occasional wifi, and intermittent air conditioning. And I told her that we were not paying for another day because tonight we were going to Cordoba. At the end of my rant, something clicked and I realized that she hadn’t been asking for payment but only confused that we were leaving since we were in the computer for another night. But I didn’t apologize because I was cheezed off about the accommodations. That was bad karma.

When we went to catch our deluxe bus, it wasn’t as deluxe as we had hoped. The seats were the lie flat which was good. But the advertised champagne, beer and whiskey never materialized and we only got wine because I asked for it – it was never offered. The food was marginally better and there was more of it, but there were a lot of cold cuts which I’m never a fan of. However, I will say that the sleep was much better with the flat seats although I’m not sure I’d pay for the upgrade again. We woke up feeling more refreshed, although in my refreshed state I noticed that my stomach wasn’t feeling very good. At first I thought it was some sort of motion sickness brought on by sleeping flat on a moving bus. And when we got off the bus in Cordoba, I thought maybe it was some weird sort of reverse motion sickness brought on by no longer being on a moving bus. Whichever it was, I thought it would go away with some fresh air and solid ground. However, the urge to throw up seemed to be getting stronger so I told Adrian I wanted to take a taxi to the hostel. Of course, I’d forgotten to print out the address of the hostel and its slightly generic name – Le Grand Hostel only confused the taxi drivers when we asked if they knew it. I would ask for Le Grand Hostel and they’d ask which grande hostel I wanted and I’d reply Le Grand Hostel and they’d ask again. It was a traveller’s version of Abbot and Costello’s Who’s on first and I decided that we would go look up the address rather than continue the comedy routine. Luckily for us (and my stomach) there was an internet café in the bus terminal. I believe there was also a place to buy household appliances and get a mortgage but we didn’t need either of those. The hostel was only 6 blocks away and we decided to walk, convinced that the fresh air would make me feel better.

It didn’t.

When we got to the hostel which was indeed a big hostel, we discovered that the prices posted on their website were a mistake. But I was in no mood to argue. We checked in quickly and once in the room, I christened the bathroom with contents of my stomach. I didn’t see much besides the bathroom for the next two days. And although medically speaking I can blame the stomach on the cold cuts from the bus, my heart knows it was the bad karma I got from yelling at the blameless hostel clerk that was now biting me in the ass.

And it just got worse. Checking my email I discovered there were still no reply to my email asking for info about our missing tickets to South Africa. Since I wasn’t able to go anywhere with my dodgy stomach, I took advantage of the hostel wifi and downtime to get in contact with South African Airways. I used Skype to dial the South African number and then spent 51 minutes on hold listening to the greatest hits of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and repeptitve “your call is important to us” message before I finally got to speak to a person. The end result was that our tickets had been “auto cancelled”. She didn’t explain what that was but it meant that we had no tickets. So I had to purchase them again over the phone for a more expensive price. Grr. Well at least we have our tickets now. Well not quite, the woman on the phone said. I’d have to call back tomorrow to ensure that our credit card had been accepted and then our tickets would be issued. What a pain in the ass. I thanked the woman and then promptly channeled my crankiness into a terse email to the SAA’s customer service department letting them know what I thought of having to call South Africa to remedy a problem I had with their international website booking. If I didn’t have Skype that call would have cost almost $40 US – even with Skype it cost almost $7 – or a small fortune in Skype-land.

I joined Adrian on a short walk to the nearby mall – once again in a beautiful old building (photo above). What is it with Argentina and all these palacial malls? After eating nothing but popsicles for the last 24 hours, I decided to try Adrian’s tried and true remedy of McDonalds. It seemed to hold for the time being so we continued a few blocks into the heart of the old colonial city. What was left of the 400+ year old buildings was a compact area mainly comprised of a university and some churches and they were all lit up nicely in the evening. It didn’t take long to see them and just as well because I didn’t want to be far away from a loo when karma decided to bite me in the ass once again.

Friday, November 27, 2009

(new) A wonderful wonder of the world.

I think most people traveling around the world have a list of most see things or must do activities. Iguazu Falls was one of those things for me. They are a wonder of the world, one of world’s biggest waterfalls. And since it had been raining we had heard that the falls were at full force. So for the first time in ages, I was genuinely excited about our sightseeing – complete with butterflies in my stomach.

Since the hostel wasn’t finished we weren’t expecting much for breakfast but we were pleasantly surprised to find the full breakfast buffet out when we got up. There was juice, coffee, cereal, fruit and bread as well as the usual assortment of jam, butter and dulce de leche. (Okay so they managed to get that right). When we were full we headed out to the bus station. Although the walk was uphill in the humidity it was still infinitely easier than the walk down was with our packs. There was a bus waiting when we arrived and once we were on it pulled out. The $2 air-conditioned ride took us down the highway past many hotels and the deluxe resort hostel. Actually I have no idea if it was deluxe but with the huge resort-sized swimming pool outside complete with swim up bar it looked a whole lot more deluxe than our place. It was too bad we weren’t staying there even if it was a good ways out of town. The Falls were another 15 minutes down the highway and the bus let us off right at the gates.

My first impression was that of a theme park – the gates looked almost exactly like the ones at Canada’s Wonderland back in Toronto, complete with re-entry stamps and colourful map. The difference was instead of rides the map pointed out hiking trails and falls in the park. Unfortunately for us though, the boat to San Martin Island at the foot of the falls was not running due to high water levels. But it didn’t matter it looked like there was plenty to do without the boat ride. Although I imagined that the view of the Falls from the island would have been amazing. Le sigh. Our first stop was the Interpretation Centre, a sort of mini-museum with a brief history of the area and a guide to the flora and fauna. We took our time going through until a pack of loud school kids overran the centre – then we quickly wrapped up our visit.

We decided to head to the furthest falls first. And I’d be lying if I said it had nothing to do with the name. The Devil’s Throat sounded the most exciting of all the falls and obviously I wasn’t the only one as the rest of the tourists all seemed to be headed in that direction. Like the Horseshoe Falls of Niagara, the Devil’s Throat is a circular fall but I think you’ll agree that Devil’s Throat sounds much more exciting than Horseshoe Falls. Perhaps, Niagara should rename the Horseshoe Falls something more exciting like the Arch of Terror or Curve of Thunder or something better than the semicircle of tepid running water that the Horseshoe Falls implies. Of course, my impression of the Devil’s Throat could be totally wrong. But first we had to get there. We decided to skip the nature trail and take the tourist train there, a wise choice as it was a bit of a trek and just as full of wildlife as the trail. As we pulled into the halfway station a coati came right up to us in the train, sniffing around for a food hand out. Along the tracks, clouds of butterflies hovered and when we disembarked they landed all over the passengers and didn’t leave. I had three on my hat and two on my bag as we walked the trail to the Falls. The trail was actually a raised metal walkway that crossed over the river to take us right up to the Devil’s Throat. The trail had some odd signage – one in particular seemed to request that humans keep right and let the snakes pass on the left. But we saw no snake on the walkway just more butterflies and some pretty navy and white birds in the trees overhead.

Before we could see the falls we hear them; the roar of the water getting exponentially louder as we got closer. Through the thick trees we caught glimpses of the brown water rushing towards the falls and then a cloud of spray rising just ahead. And then we saw the edge of the falls. The walkway led us directly to the edge so we could look down over the tumbling water. Thanks to the high water levels, it was intense and at this vantage point seemed to be five times the size of the Horseshoe Falls. The walkway offered multiple vantage points that were all spectacular and we spent a good half hour just taking in the view and snapping a bazillion shots of them (photo above is just one of those bazillion). If that had been it, I think we would have left completely satisfied but that was just one of three trails. So we tore ourselves away and took the train back to the other trailheads.

Although it was now getting close to lunch time we decided to do the Upper Trail before grabbing a bite to eat. We had heard of a delicious all-you-can-eat buffet offered at the onsite Sheraton Hotel and wanted to be good and hungry before eating all we could. As I’m sure you can guess from the name, the Upper Trail was a walkway across the top of the other series of falls, a 2km stretch of falls both small and large downstream from the Devil’s Throat. The falls here had less inspired names like the Two Sisters, Bernabe Mendez and Bossetti Falls. Although they weren’t as awesome as the Devil’s Throat the thick jungle all around them and the view of San Martin Island down below made them just as photo-worthy and we snapped another bajillion. As we finished the trail we were most definitely starving and followed the path straight to the Sheraton. When we got to the entrance, Adrian was so excited that he insisted on having a happy photo taken outside. Unfortunately, he got a little ahead of himself. When we entered the air conditioned, pristine and posh Sheraton, I sensed that something was up. There were no signs and no smells advertising of endless steam tables of buffet goodness. We poked our heads into the restaurant and saw nothing but empty counter space where the buffet had once been. Instead it was menu service only and an expensive menu service. Le sigh. I think I’ll blame Lonely Planet for this one. By telling all us riff-raff backpackers about the buffet, we’d obviously lowered the tone of the place and the hotel had done away with it. So there was going to be no buffet but what were we going to do for lunch – it wasn’t like the national park was overflowing with dining options. After stopping for a thumbs-down photo. we retraced our steps and took a wrong turn ending up at a parrilla that wasn’t on the map, an all you could eat parrilla. Jackpot. It was pricey but Adrian and I made sure we ate as much as we could without throwing up, visiting the salad bar (veggies!!!) and grill (steak, chicken, and chorizo) numerous times. By the time we were done it was just after 3pm.

With our very full stomachs, we waddled down to the beginning of the Lower Trail and hoped that we’d be able to make it down all the stairs. While the Devil’s Throat is the most exciting falls, the lower trail was the most exciting trail. It paralleled the upper trail but rather than taking us over the falls it ended almost directly under one of the falls. And judging by all those exiting the trail, we may get wet (or rather, soaked) on this ride. After sweating like pigs for the whole day, we were actually looking forward to the shower. At the end of the Trail we faced the cascade of water and even from 10 metres away the spray was enough to wet us. Adrian immediately stripped off his shirt and went walking towards the wall of water. He got within 5 metres and stopped already sopping wet from the spray and splash back. He raised his arms in homage to the scene in The Mission (where the natives throw the priest off the falls) demanding a photo or twelve before coming back to give me a shot. I wrapped up my camera in a plastic bag and left it and my purse with him as I edged towards the falls. Soon I was covered in a film of water and I was only halfway to where Adrian had gone. That was enough to wash off the sweat and dirty sunscreen. And that was enough of the falls.

We walked back to the entrance and caught the bus back into town. We picked up some empanadas for later knowing that there was no need to have dinner on top of the buffet. We’d had our fill of the falls and food. And it was amazing.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

(new) Three countries one day.

Hasta pronto Buenos Aires. We’ll be back in a week or two but today we were headed to Iguazu or at least to the bus station. We were going to take the bus but when Mintaut heard that she gave us another one of her helpful tips. The subway station just two blocks away had a train that went directly to Retiro. That information saved us schlepping our big bags on a crowded city bus and also from transferring stations. Instead we schlepped our bags in the hot midday sun through the humid city streets and down the stairs. But the trip took us just 15 minutes.

We needed the time we’d saved to navigate the bus station. Our first stop was the ticket desk so we could find out at which of the 75 bays we could find our bus. The clerk told us somewhere between #29 and 40 so we went downstairs and sat in the middle of those numbers with time to cool off before we boarded our 20-hour bus to the Brazilian border. As the bus pulled out of Buenos Aires the rain that had been threatening for the last week finally came. The sky opened and it poured rendering our view from the front seats useless. That’s okay, we just wanted to sleep and wake up in the city. So after dinner we stuck on our facemasks and earplugs and went right out.

We woke up sore and stiff but we were a few hours away from Iguazu. The scenery was a flashback to central America. All green and jungle and hills and tropical fruits growing alongside the road. It almost made me homesick for Honduran taxi drivers – just kidding. But it was certainly a nice change after the last month or two of mountains, deserts, pampas and other dry stuff. And it momentarily distracted us from the fact that at least one limb was numb after sleeping on it all night. Night buses. I will not miss these when we’re in Africa (although now that I’ve typed that I imagine we’ll have a few coming up). They’re just not getting any easier.

Just before noon the bus pulled in to Iguazu and we got off. Immediately we were hit with a wall of sticky humid and hot air. It was like we were in the middle of the jungle or something. Within 30 seconds we were covered in a layer of slimy sweat. So we forced the circulation back into our limbs and began the walk to the hostel which was located on the main street in the middle of the town. And it wasn’t what I expected. Having stayed at the snazzy new Che Lagarto in Calafate I almost walked by the one here in Iguazu. Actually we did walk by it but a woman saw us looking at signs and came rushing out to greet us. This hostel was an old hotel in the midst of being renovated. The manager was nice and showed us our room. The room was nice too with a private room (although obviously furnished with the old hostel stuff) but the rest of the hostel was a mess of construction – there was no pool or bar or computers. Now I understood why it was so cheap. But at least our room had air conditioning.

We showered the bus slime and sweat off of us and decided to take a peak around this frontier town. The shower was wasted. Within minutes of exiting the hostel we were covered in sweat again. Oh fun. But we had a destination in mind. We were headed to the intersection known as Tres Fronteras. This wasn’t just a street intersection it was the intersection of three countries – Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina – all at once. It was a fair trek from the city in this heat and humidity so we did our best to stick to the shade. It should have been a straightforward walk but the map of town the hostel had given us had the hostel marked in the wrong place and was missing a few streets. In this case it was the 5-year old Lonely Planet that set us on the right path. I guess it’s allowed to be helpful every so often. We eventually found the Tres Fronteras. While we stood on the Argentinean side of the river we could see Brazil across from us and Paraguay right beside it. Since time and high visa costs were keeping us from visiting the other two this was as close as we were getting. So we (and by we I mean Adrian) posed with Paraguay and then Brazil and then Argentina and finally with all three. And that was it. There was nothing else to see or do. So we guzzled 2 litres of water in the shade and then headed back to cool off in our air conditioned hostel room.

Eventually we had to head out for something to eat and without Mintaut around to tell give us one of her tips we once again had to consult the Lonely Planet to recommend a parrilla and headed out. It was a lot pricier than we expected or wanted to pay. The waiter recommended one dish that he said was big enough for two. It was barely. So we were done quickly and back in the cool hostel. After all we’d been to (almost) three countries in one day and we were tired.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

(new) Dead lazy.

I don’t know whether it was because we were at the tail end of our time in Latin America or because this was our second visit to BsAs but this morning I didn’t feel like doing much. It didn’t help that the air was heavy with humidity and the forecast called for rain. We puttered around the hostel. In our lethargy we decided that we’d head straight to the last big thing we wanted to do in South America – the mighty and magnificent Iguazu Falls – and hopefully find our travel mojo for our last couple of weeks in South America. Lucky for our lazy bones the hostel was able to book and print out tickets for us, saving us a trip to the chaos of the bus station.

Mintaut then invited us to join her and another girl in a trip to La Boca but I passed admitting that I was rather tired and cranky and not very good company. Plus the weather forecast called for thundershowers (again) and I didn’t think my mood would be improved by getting stuck in the middle of a downpour. Mintaut understood and they took off leaving Adrian and I to figure out what we were going to do today. Adrian suggested the Evita museum but I hemmed and hawed and when the sun came out I suggested we head to the other art gallery in Recoleta and then a bit of walking around. The museum was a good choice and better than we thought it would be. Not because it was free (and everyone knows how much I like free). Not because it was air conditioned. But because it was a perfect size with a good eclectic collection and almost next door to one of Buenos Aires biggest tourist attractions – Recoleta Cemetery.

Now, we had been to the cemetery before and had been to many Latin American cemeteries over the last 8 months. So we were hear only for a nice stroll. But Receoleta Cemetery surprised me once again. I forgot just how spectacular it was. No really, it’s like Rome, Florence, Paris and Athens all rolled into one. The world’s most beautiful architecture but in miniature. Every tomb is better than the best monuments of the world with detail and artistry that makes you forget that you’re in a cemetery full of bones and dead people until you look closely at some of the engraving or interiors and realize that nice design is a skull and crossbones or that those pretty tablecloth covered things are actually coffins in various states of decay. I couldn’t help but snap tonnes of pictures, thinking particularly of a certain cemetery obsessed friend of mine back home (Victoria, I dedicate them to you). Even Adrian who was less enthused about this detour at the first didn’t want to leave until he’d found Evita’s tomb. In the end it was I who dragged him out and not the other way around.

We made our way through one of the poshest parts of the city – past the five star hotels and super expensive designer shops. I had read that the Polo store was in a particularly nice old mansion. We popped in but immediately felt like Julia Roberts in Pretty Women (and it was only Polo not Prada) we did a quick tour, flicking off the salespeople and continued walking until we got to the French embassy. Of course it was another beautiful building but there was also an interesting story about it. When the Argentinean copycats decided to redo the city layout, they attempted to buy back the French embassy so they could bulldoze it and extend Avenida 9 de Julio. The French government said Non with a sneer – perhaps they were a bit miffed with the copyright infringement on their city design. The embassy stayed and the road ended. But it marks the beginning of one of the city’s most impressive avenues that we followed back to the Obelisk getting there for the tail end of the flag lowering ceremony.

At Adrian’s insistance we had grabbed dinner at a certain American franchise that begins with Mc and ends in Donald’s and made our way back to the hostel. Adrian stayed up to watch a couple of Argentinean movies while I called it a night. I was dead tired and I wanted to fix that before tomorrow’s night bus.

Monday, November 23, 2009

(new) Toto we’re not in France any more.

Buenos Aires is called the Paris of South America. Contrary to some people this is not because of the dog poop that litters the street. No rather, some 100 years ago, the city council was inspired by Napoleon III’s redoing of Paris and when I say inspired I mean they totally copied him and not just the layout of the streets but the architecture as well. This copying the French thing was also present in other ways: numerous cafes, croissants, wine, hatred of the English and art museums. It was this last one that we were going to embrace today.

Most museums didn’t open until noon so there was no rush to leave the hostel and since we liked our new location we didn’t mind. It also gave us time to figure out which museums to visit and how to get there. We decided to start with the MALBA (Museo del Arte Latinamericano de Buenos Aires, no wonder they just call it the MALBA) which was described somewhere as the must see art museum. We’d heard that before but put our cynicism aside. Unfortunately, the museum was located just out of reach of the subway line which required us to venture onto the bus system of BsAs. It had been over 8 months since I was scarred by a big city bus experience in Mexico City but with super easy instructions from the hostel (and a whole lot more Spanish), we headed out. It also provided the first opportunity for Adrian to get rid of some of his stockpiled coinage. The bus stop was just around the corner from the hostel and arrived within five minutes. Thanks to the patience of the bus driver we paid our fare, depositing the money in the coin machine behind the driver’s chair and were off. The bus took us to the front steps of the MALBA. It was super easy, exorcising my fear of city buses.

The MALBA was a brand spanking new shiny building just on the limits of posh Recoleta. We paid our $5 and began our visit. We started at the top only to find the same Andy Warhol exhibit we’d seen in Bogota. But since you can never see enough Warhol we checked it out again before heading through the rest of the museum. Even the benches were works of art and probably my favourite. The wooden slats extended past the bench and twisted and turned over the walls of the atrium and down to the next floor. And you could sit on them. Pretty and practical rather than precious, may kind of art. I had to take a couple of pictures of them which promptly got me in trouble from one of the security guards. It was a half-hearted telling off and unlike my experience in Bogota I wasn’t forced to erase anything.

We stepped outside into the blinding sun and figured it was too nice to spend it inside anymore museums. So we chose to just walk around and hopefully find some lunch. But a few blocks into the purple flower covered streets of Recoleta had us realizing that any place nearby would probably require a bank loan, or at least more than we were paying for our room thereby breaking one of my travel rules – never pay more for a meal than what you’re paying for your room. So we hopped on the bus heading back downtown getting off at the law courts for a walk around. The supreme court was a pretty building I questioned the skills of Argentinean members of the legal profession when I noticed that just outside the entrance were numerous book stalls selling legal textbooks and other reference books. A note to Argentinean criminals: if your lawyer stops to pick up a copy of the “Beginners Guide to Criminal Law” just before your trial, I suggest you find yourself another lawyer (unless you’re guilty in which case forget what I said). Also interesting to note was the area around the courts was also the theatre district – I guess the two are closely related in Argentina. But it was also the area full of after-theatre/after-court restaurants which meant no cheap food here either. So we just kept walking and taking in the sights.

We headed to the chaotic pedestrian shopping areas and in order to escape the crush of people ducking into the chichi Galerias Pacficio shopping centre. I had also read that it had an interesting food court, and by interesting I hoped that meant cheap. Galerias Pacifico is probably one of the poshest malls I’ve ever stepped foot in. It was kinda like walking into Berdorf’s – I kept expecting some security guard to ask to see our tatty shoulder bags any moment. Much like Galerias Lafayette in Paris (yet another French thing in Paris), the building outshone whatever the stores were selling (well for me), especially when we reached the atrium in our search for the food court. Above us was a giant dome covered in mosaics. Adrian was momentarily confused by the presence of a Christmas tree (photo above), until I reminded him that the holidays were only a month away. Yes, it's easy to forget about Christmas when you're walking around in shorts. As we stood there staring, a woman came rushing up to us. Uh-oh, here comes the security shakedown. Nope, it was just the buildings tourist guide offering us some pamphlet on the mosaics. I forgot, that tourists as tourists we can look like tramps and still get first class treatment.

As we looked for a place to sit and read the pamphlets, we found the food court. It was the best food court I’ve ever seen. Rather than a collection of brand name peddlers of grease in a box, each place was a variation of a parrillada. That’s right, fire grilled steak made to order at food court prices. Adrian was skeptical and went off to check the prices at the Burger King hidden in the back way out of sight. The prices of a steak and salad bar were actually cheaper than a combo. So back at the parrilladas, Adrian ordered a steak and I got half a chicken from the place with the nicest looking salad bar. Cost of dinner? About $12 for both of us. But we still needed to stop in at Burger King. Not the one in the mall but the one further down the pedestrian area. We dodged a couple tango dancing and ducked in to the fast food place. We weren’t there for food but for architecture. This particular branch was built in an old art nouveau mansion. You couldn’t tell from the street level but a little tip had told me that the upper floor revealed some of the history. Indeed it was another beautiful frescoed ceiling however after the mall it was a bit less impressive so we ducked out and continued to the Plaza de Mayo to catch the subway back to the hostel.

It was dusk when we got to the Plaza so we thought we’d hang around for a bit and wait for the lights to be turned on Argentina’s version of the white house, You may recognize the Casa Rosada from Evita - it’s the building with the balcony where Madonna sang “Don’t Cry for Argentina”. Or maybe, like me, you don’t remember that scene because you were too busy burying your head in your hands trying to block out her voice until Antonia Banderas and/or Jonathon Price came back on screen. But I digress. Their white house is actually a pink house although in the fading light it was looking a lot more brown. The lights never did come on so we left. Paris maybe the city of lights but I guess Buenos Aires is the city of saving on the light bills.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

(new) A Sunday at church.

It’s fitting that football matches are played on a Sunday because in most parts of the world they are a religion and nowhere more so than Bs.As. The team around here is Boca Jr. where Diego “hand of God” Maradona played as well as many of the players that have made Argentina a World Cup contender. For the past 8 months I had been denying Adrian the opportunity to see a football game, telling him to save it for Argentina or Brasil. Now we were here and today we were going to the church called La Bombonera to see Boca play Gimnasia.

With so much to look forward to, it would have been nice to wake up fully refreshed but nature was against us. Well not nature since I don’t think mother nature was responsible for the loud dance music blaring from the bar below. It began at 1am and didn’t stop until, actually it didn’t stop before we left at 11am. Although the kind folks did turn it down to a dull roar around 6am. However, mother nature was to blame for the bites that now speckled my body. That’s right, I had about a dozen or so bites that looked rather suspicious. I think they might be bed bugs but considering that it was just a handful of bites maybe they were just flea bites. Whichever they were, they were itchy and grossed me out so I was glad we were getting the heck out of that place. It was probably the fastest we’ve ever packed and eaten breakfast. But can you blame us.

We took the subway to the new hostel and walking through the doors we felt a hundred times better. They’d fixed our reservation so now we had the same room for all three nights we were here. It was quiet. The bedroom was clean and bright and the bed comfy. They even had a kitchen with stuff in it and a bunch of munchies for sale. So we bought some empanadas munched on those and enjoyed the silence. We even bumped into a familiar face, John who we’d met in Baños. He was on an extended holiday from his job as a tv presenter in China. Nope he wasn’t Asian just an English guy fluent in Chinese who’d stumbled into the job while doing translation work in China. We weren’t able to catch up as he was heading to bed after partying all night (hopefully not at the bar below the old hostel) and then off on the night bus. There were also new faces. Mintaut a girl from Lithuania was at the tail end of 6 months on the road. We chatted with her while waiting for our pick up.

The mini bus picked us up around five. It was a small group of just 15 plus our guide Hernan. Since we were the closest to the stadium we were the last ones onboard and it was a short drive to the stadium. Although the game didn’t start for another 2 hours the streets of La Boca were already full of people all proudly wearing their Sunday best – the team colours of blue and gold. If we were so close to the stadium you’re probably wondering why we didn’t just go on our own. Well, La Boca wasn’t the best area after dark (or in the light) and with 60,000 rabid fans in attendance we paid the (super high) premium to avoid sitting in the wrong section wearing the wrong colours and to make sure we got back in one piece. Overly cautious I’m sure but since I’d just heard how a fellow traveler had to walk 6km back to his hostel after missing the last subway, I wanted to make sure.

Okay, so back to the game. The bus let us off a few blocks from the actual stadium – the streets were actually barricaded and only ticket holders could enter on foot. So we showed our tickets to the police and were allowed to pass. Inside it was a giant street party. Crafty locals had set up bbq grills and were selling food to hungry fans. Hernan guided us into one of the store fronts were we were seated in a temporary street café. We were fed tasty choripans – sausages on French bread and given beer. When we were stuffed Hernan got us all together and led us through the packed streets to the final barricade just before the stadium entrance. He helped us stash away contraband items like lighters (banned because they can be thrown) and throw out drinks that we weren’t allowed to bring in. This barricade involved a pat down (for the guys) and search of our bags. The girls should have gotten the same treatment but the female officer had disappeared so we got through easily.

Then it was through the actual ticket gate and up the stairs and up and up to the terraces – general admission concrete stairs. I thought for the price we had paid (A$230) we’d at least get seats so I was momentarily disappointed until I realized we were sitting in the locals area. Here were the real fans. And directly across from us was the super crazy area know as La doce, the twelveth player (photo above). Hernan told us to sit anywhere we wanted but suggested staying away from the front rows which were in throwing distance of the stands above us. Over the next hour both our section and the one on the other side filled with more people than I thought possible and then when I thought that was it even more packed in. I have a feeling there is no fire code capacity up here.

Hernan stopped by to visit us (although I’m clueless how he found us in the crowd) and told us a few fun facts about the team. Although blue and gold are the team colours they weren’t always. Supposedly they were once the same as another teams but neither wanted to change. To settle the dispute, the two teams played a game to decide the issue. Boca lost and decided that their new colours would be those of the flag of the next boat that came into the harbour. It was a Swedish ship. Just a little history there.

While we waited for kick off, we saw lots of plastic bags of liquid being thrown down on the people in the first row. In retaliation the people in our section taunted those above with gestures that looked a lot like eating a popsicle (if you know what I mean) and chants that questioned the sexuality of those above. But compared to what was happening over in La Doce it was nothing. The other section was nothing but a sea of banners. A band was somewhere in the crowd – we could hear it but couldn’t see it. They were leading the chants which everyone in the stadium (except the gringos sprinkled throughout) sang along with. Or tried to sing - unfortunately we happened to be sitting in front of the one tone deaf person in the whole crowd, who of course was also the loudest. The songs only stopped when the refs and the visiting team took the field and then it was just a cacophony of whistles. But when the hometown boys came out it was back to the chants.

Since we don’t have anything that takes videos I looked up someone else’s to give you an idea of what it sounded like and to a certain extent what it looked like. There were no fireworks on our day. Probably because they had no lighters to light them with.

Here's one song and a good view of the crowd.

Then it was time for kick off. Immediately everyone packed into the stands stood up and any gaps in the crowd were filled by others who had been waiting for their chance to squeeze in. It was packed (I can’t say it enough) and I was glad we were in the back where there was a bit more breathing room. As for the game well it was just like any other football game and since I’m not a fan or a conneisseur I’ll skip commenting on it. I can say that the crowd went wild when Boca scored twice in the first half and that the refs were victims of a chant that involved both the word puta and puto (I’ll let you look them up) which didn’t seem appropriate for a Sunday. Adrian thoroughly enjoyed it even after discovering that no beer was sold in the stadium and technically wasn’t supposed to be sold inside the barricaded neighbourhood around the stadium.

At half time, everyone sat down and with triple the amount of people to the amount of sitting space packed in, to call us sardines would be the understatement of the year. In fact I didn’t even get a seat having hesitated just a little too long. I ended up leaning against a stadium support unable to even wiggle my toes between the bodies. It was amazing to watch people head to the washroom trying to navigate the crowd. People above would pull them up by the arms while they placed their hands on people’s heads for support. And nobody minded.

The second half was even more lively. Boca scored two more goals and I started to feel bad for the visitors. I secretly hoped Gimnasia would score just so we could see what would happen in the crowd. But it was not to be. The game ended and Boca won 4-0. I expected there to be a surge toward the exits but instead everyone sat down (this time I got a seat). For 45 minutes, our section and la doce were kept in while the rest of the stadium emptied. I guess it was an attempt at crowd control and also to ensure that the visiting fans didn’t mix with the home fans. Finally we were allowed out. And Adrian and I fought against the crowd and made it to the meeting point. The crowd thinned and Hernan led us back to the minivan and back to the hostel which was just heavenly after our evening at the church of La Boca.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

(new) Filling up on Buenos Aires.

After all those all night bus rides and dorm rooms, I was really looking forward to sleeping in. Of course, this mission was thwarted by Adrian’s snoring, the music coming from the bar below last night, the absolutely pouring rain, and finally the not-so-comfy bed at the not-so-comfy hostel. Oh well. Despite all this, it still took us until noon to get up and out of the hostel, partially because there were no plates, mugs or cutlery in the hostel kitchen (kinda making it useless), meaning there was no way to get our much needed morning coffee. The friendly owner told us that there was a free breakfast at the café downstairs but of course it wasn't open this morning (making the café just as useless as the kitchen). Good thing this place was cheap and the owner was nice. However cheap and nice didn't make us breakfast. The owner lent us some of his mugs and we dug the camping cutlery out of our packs so we could eat some yogurt. Then like a couple of Mcguyvers, we used the plastic tubs as bowls to eat cereal. Jealous of our fine dining in the big city aren’t you? Hey, whatever works.

The rain appeared to have let up so we ventured out, walking south towards the modern art museum. About half way there it began pour (of course). We waited under an awning at one of San Telmo’s countless antique stores but when the rain didn’t stop we hugged the walls of buildings as we made our way down the street. When we arrived at the address we were greeted with the familiar sight of construction hoarding. The museum was closed for “amplificacion y modernisacion”. Sigh. At least it wasn’t raining as hard any more. So we continued walking through San Telmo. It looked vaguely familiar from our visit in 2001 but the overall impression this time around was hugely different. From back then I remembered nothing but broken uneven sidewalks, a lot more dog poop (believe it or not) and everything looking like it was on the verge of falling apart. I don’t know if it’s all the traveling we’ve done in grittier parts of the world or if BsAs has indeed scrubbed up real good, but now it actually looks like its nickname the Paris of the Americas. The sidewalks have been mostly repaired, the once deserted buildings now seem to be full of chichi cafes and stores and there was room between the piles of dog poop to step.

We found the national history museum in the middle of Parque Lezama just at it started to rain again. Before another downpour we ducked inside and were happy to discover the museum was free. It wasn’t much of a museum and checking in our bags took longer than walking around. You see, at about half of the museums we’ve visited thus far, you’re required to check your bags in – even if your bag happens to be a purse. Although I’m sure the attendants are fine honest upstanding citizens, I hate the idea of leaving behind our passports, my wallet, ipod, and camera, (ie everything in my bag). So it takes some time to stuff all that stuff in our pockets and the end result is us walking around the museums with grossly deformed bulges in our pants and us checking in two empty bags. It amuses the attendants even if we're not. Oh well at least we were out of the rain which stopped by the time we were done. We got our bags back emptied our pockets back into them and headed back past the bronze lions and back into the drizzle.

After stopping for lunch at a small café, Adrian decided we should check to see if we had a confirmation for our new hostel booking. Rather than pop into an internet café I suggested we just walk over there. Good thing too because there was no reservation for us. Gulp. But when the clerk checked the emails she realized that someone had forgotten to enter it into the computer. So she did her best to find us a room - actually she found us three rooms. One for each of the night we were booked in. But because of the error she was charging a nice low rate. While I was clearing that up, Adrian fixated on the poster for the soccer game the next day. Boca Jr. the most infamous team in South America was playing and the hostel arranged travel, food, drink and ticket packages. It was expensive but I had promised him for the last 8 months that we’d do it. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough cash to pay for the tickets. So out we headed to the nearest bank machine 8 blocks away. Halfway back to the hostel, a police motorcade stopped traffic. I expected a visiting dignitary but it was a bus load of soccer players. The visiting team had just arrived in town. I took this as a good sign about tomorrow’s game and felt less cranky about the cash we were about to fork over. After booking our tickets, we took are tired feet back to the hostel, deciding that we'd done enough sightseeing for the day.

When it came time for dinner Adrian informed me that he wanted steak – an easy choice and rather derigeur in BsAs. Except with hundreds of cafes, restaurants and parrillas just outside the hostel doors, choosing one was overwhelming. So I let the internet make up our minds then headed out to local institution, El Desnivel for some steak. The place opened at 7:30 but even showing up at 8:15 we were the first ones there. (It’s a good thing we’re leaving soon because I don’t think we’ll ever get into this eating at 10pm thing.) All the reviews talked about the cheap prices, but the owners of El Desnivel had obviously read them too and decided him didn't want to be the lowest priced option out there. Our loss once again. Although when I tell you huge steaks were under $10 you’ll lose all sympathy for me. Looking for a deal we settled on the 2 person special: Bife de chirozo rellando a papas espanoles. Now that seemed to read “t-bone steak stuffed in Spanish potatoes” which didn't make much sense. I chalked this up to my bad Spanish and assumed it was steak with some sort of stuffed potato dish. So we ordered it. 20 minutes later a giant pile of stuff was placed in front of us. I can only describe it as Argentinean poutine. 40 ounces of steak shoved in a pile of home fries and smothered in a layer of ham and cheese and covered with a sauce/stew of tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers, and eggplant. I guess my Spanish was okay after all. As messy as it looked, it was pretty darn tasty and more than two people could possibly eat. The picture up above is only half of the original pile to give you some idea of our ordeal. We did the best we could before having to ask for a bucket or refuse a wafer thin mint ;) . Our day wasn’t culturally filling but we were most definitely absolutely positively full.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Blog check up.

Okay okay so you may have noticed that the blog is over two months behind. Between the crap internet of Bolivia and us now rushing to get through Chile and Argentina without going broke, it's been hard to catch up.

But I'm going to try something to fix that. From now on, I'm going to update one old post (continuing) and one new post. This is going to be totally disorienting for a while (like two months more than likely) but I'm hoping it will help close the gap sooner rather than later.

I still can't get the rss feed to work (no clue what happened there) so please sign up for the email subscriptions to follow along. And please forgive the old/new post mixture. But I'm doing it for you.

(new) The long way home, sort of.

a photo from our 2001 visit because we were too tired to do any sightseeing today.

Too many night buses in the last month have made us very tired and very cranky. Everyone talks about the luxury of Argentinean buses, Sure the on board food and movies are great (when you get them) compared to say, Guatemala or Belize. But what everyone seems to forget is that they are still buses and unless you fork over big bucks for the fully flat seat, you’re still sleeping sitting up on a bus. So we woke up from our half-seep at 7am with almost 6 hours to kill before our arrival in Buenos Aires. At 9, the bus pulled into La Plata and I was surprised to see signs announcing the Capital Federal was only 43 km away. Since we had been told that we wouldn’t be arriving until 12:45pm, I assumed that this was maybe some sort of highway sign trickery to get me all excited about being early. I refused to give in and ignored the kilometer countdown (43, 37, 28…) but soon I realized it was indeed the city the signs were referring to and actually, we were now in the city. The bus driver took side streets with lots of stop lights in an apparent attempt to slow down our arrival. But even still we made into the Retiro bus terminal, all 75 bus bays of it, just after 10am. Why couldn’t any of our other buses have arrived this early?

Although tired and hot (we were still dressed for the frigid south and frigid bus) and carrying our huge packs we decided to first head to the South African Airways office nearby to find out if we had 2 tickets for December 9, and not 4. It took us a good half an hour to get out of the bus terminal and another 45 minutes to walk to the address. It was an office building with security guards who took one look at sweaty us with all gear and immediately demanded to know where we were going. When we told them, they quickly escorted us out of the lobby and into the SAA office behind the elevators. We dropped all our bags and stripped off a few layers then approached the woman sitting at the desk. Thankfully she spoke English. And she quickly able confirmed that we had a reservation for just two spots and not four like I feared. But she let us know that there were no tickets issued in our name yet and then gave us the South African phone number for the online booking help. Wha… Well apparently, all website related stuff can only be handled by the South African office. Grr. I wasn’t bitter because we’d hiked all the way there (well maybe a bit) but only because that would be a mighty expensive customer service call. Thank goodness for Skype. Well with that resolved (sort of) it was time to get to the hostel.

Adrian whinged that he wanted to take a cab. But since he doesn’t speak Spanish, I told him no because I had no desire to deal with a cab driver without a good night’s sleep. Actually, I had no desire to deal with a cab driver ever. Instead I shoved him towards the stairs to the Subte (the Buenos Aires subway). The fare was about 25¢ for each of us. After hearing from sooooo many people about the shortage of coins in the city, Adrian dug out exact fare. But there was no need because the attendant had a pile of coins sitting there. So much for the coin shortage. I guess we’ll have to find another use for the pocketful of change Adrian now has in his pocket. We rode five stops and got off about 5 blocks from the hostel. God, how I miss the subway. However those were five long blocks and the hostel was actually up a flight of stairs.

The owner welcomed us in and encouraged us to get settled in and shower first and check in second (We must have smelled a bit.) The hostel looked just like the pictures on the website. Yay. Except for the room. Boo. It was dark and dismal but we were lucky to have our own bathroom. Sure it was one of those closet sized bathrooms where you basically sit on the toilet and shower at the same time. But it was ours. So we showered, changed into more temperature (28º) appropriate clothes, checked in and then headed out to find some grub. Since we’d enjoyed our stay at Che Lagarto in El Calafate so much we headed over to the BsAs location to at their pub. Unfortunately, the good vibe of the El Calafate location hadn’t transferred over here. Sure it looked the same but the downstairs pub was more of a business person hangout in the day. Still we sat down, hoping that the weird vibe was just our tiredness. It wasn’t. We waited 15 minutes for a server to pay any attention to us the only backpackers in the place and when she didn’t, we got up and left. Luckily, there was a little café next door that despite having a line up of hungry locals rushed to serve us. And for half the price, we got giant tasty milanesas and salads.

We weren’t in the mood to do any more sightseeing so we headed back to the hostel. Boring I know, but we were feeling tired and cranky. On the way back we spotted a “british curry house” and decided to head there for dinner. But first, Adrian dropped off our laundry (a third of the price we paid at the hostel in El Calafate). And then it was nap time. Well, Adrian napped and I worked on this thing. Dinner was very good. We were the first ones through the door (we can’t wait until 9pm to dine like the porteños) but we were kept in good conversation from the owner a guy from Dorset and his partner, an Argentinean. The food was good too – and definitely one of the best chicken curries I’ve had (and not just on the road). A man from Glasgow joined our conversation later. In his retirement he spent winters in BsAs, lucky duck. Between him and the owner Adrian was able to find out where to get proper everything in the city. It still amazes me – no matter what awesome place we arrive in, the first thing Adrian wants to seek out is a proper English newspaper or magazine and food. I guess you can take the Brit out of England dump him in Canada for 13 years, drag him half way around the world, but you still can’t get the England out of the Brit.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

(new) 1+1=2 except online.

Dealing with airlines is never easy, is it?

Today was another official do nothing day. We hadn’t planned it that way. But we were still stinging from the cost of yesterday’s tour, and still tired from all the traveling we’d been doing. So both our bodies and our wallets told us to stop. It was good thing. It allowed us to get down to planning our next phase of traveling. Now that we’ve definitely decided not to go to Brazil and getting close to the end of Argentina it was time to look to our next continent, Africa. So we spent the day looking at the cost of hostels and bus travel. After the last month, we don’t need any more sticker shock.

Then it came time to book our plane tickets. We’d been on the South African Airways site a few times over the last few days. But we’d never been able to commit to purchasing the tickets. It felt a lot like when we were getting ready to by our first tickets to Mexico City almost a year ago. We knew we were going but it took almost two weeks of hemming and hawing before we could press that glowing buy now button on the screen. I don’t know why – butterflies, I guess. Today, however, we were going to do it. But first some more playing around with all the flight options. Yes, I admit it was more procrastination. But hear me out, this was good procrastination. Just for kicks I clicked on the return flight option. Back in Mendoza, Dan and Jillian had suggested buying a return ticket if the price wasn’t much more. You see, South Africa is one of those countries that require proof of exit in order to enter. Technically many other countries we’ve been to have required it only Panama demanded it. But it’s not the border officials that are the problem it’s the airlines who are sticklers for the rules. They won’t let you get on the plane if you don’t have the immigration requirements, sometimes forcing you to by a ridiculously hard to refund, last minute ticket in order to get on board. Better to be safe than--- wtf?!? A return ticket is $500 cheaper than a one way ticket? That’s right for $1200 we could fly there and back or for $1700 we could fly there only. Confused? So were we, for about two minutes before we rushed to buy the return tickets, thinking it was a mistake that would be taken down asap.

Faster than you can say “faster than you can say”, we filled in our info and hit buy now. The site thought and thought and then flashed a dreaded error message. We’d had some trouble with the card back in Chile so Adrian placed a call to Visa to find out if there was an issue. There wasn’t. Okay best to try again. The too-good-to-be true prices were still online. We quickly filled in all our info and once again hit buy now. The page thought and thought and… nope. There was the error message again. Crap. It must be the price; it was a mistake and it was crashing the system. Or so we thought. Oh well, on to looking at hostels. The plane tickets can wait until we’re in BsAs (what the lazy cool kids call Buenos Aires) tomorrow. Or so I thought.

I opened up my email to send a few hostel enquires and there in my inbox was a flight confirmation from South Africa Airways. Judging by the time stamp, it was a confirmation was for the first attempt. Now I had a horrible sinking feeling. Did we just accidentally purchase two tickets twice? It really was a good thing we were in BsAs tomorrow to straighten it out. I jotted down the address of the South African office – it was only a few (less than 10) blocks from the bus station so we could stop in as soon as we arrived, provided we got in on time and provided they weren’t closed for that silly Argentinean siesta.

The rest of the afternoon was just hanging around the hostel and chilling before our long bus ride to BsAs. We said goodbye to Deirdre and the lovely staff and trundled down to the bus station. The bus was 15 minutes late – never a good sign – and a little worn around the edges. We were two of 6 people on board but the ayudante was a super nice guy and very attentive – even if communication was strained. He spoke the most heavily accented Spanish we’ve heard since Colombia. But managed to communicate that we had our choice of wine with dinner, as well as offering us whisky before bed. And to top it off, they had a movie other than The Bucket List. Wow, I didn’t think it was possible. Goodbye, Puerto Madryn. Hello, Buenos Aires.

Friday, October 23, 2009

(old) It’s chilly in Chile

GOOD MORNING ADRIAN! I tested the severity of his hangover but was disappointed that he was fine this morning. I guess passing out at 9pm will do that. That meant we could get going because we’d seen everything Mendoza had to offer. Adrian whinged that he wanted to do another wine tour but I ignored him. Why the hurry? Well, despite the discount we’d asked for the hostel was still one of the most expensive ones and the prices didn’t look much better for the rest of South America. Plus, we wanted to do the NaviMag Patagonia ferry and November 1st the prices went up for high season. So we were going to have to move it, if we wanted to save those pennies. We checked out and told Molly we’d be back if we couldn’t get a seat on a bus to Santiago. But at the bus station we easily got tickets, quickly picked up some food at the station for the ride and were on the bus and on our way out of Argentina. Don’t worry, we’d be back.

The bus took us through the flat wine country and then began the trip up and up and up and up into the Andes. Soon we were surrounded by snow and rocky mountain tops. The landscape reminded me of that movie Alive! and I realized that we weren’t too far from here that those Uruguayans had survived the plane crash by eating each other. Luckily, our bus driver was a huge improvement on his Bolivian counterparts so there was no fear of a remote crash. Plus we had our food supplies just in case. Although the food wasn’t really necessary. I’d forgotten that they fed you on buses down here. Besides food, the ayudante also passed out immigration forms to everyone and even helped us to fill them up. Soon we were passing ski lifts just closed for the season. Although it was warm on the bus, I was glad I’d wisely worn pants. We’d gone from 30º to 0º in just a few hours and we’d go back to 30º when we got to Santiago. So I had pants on but a t-shirt and sandals not a problem on the bus but when we got to the border post I noticed lots of people in front of us milling around outside in the windy mountain pass. I dug out our Bolivian woolly hats and mitts But we sat in the line up of buses and waited. It was Friday and there were two full buses ahead of us and two behind us waiting to be processed. To the right was another line up of fancy cars that were taking part in some sort of cross border rally. Between all the bus passengers, their luggage and all the paperwork for the cars, the border was severely backlogged. Not that I was in a hurry to stand outside in the cold. After an hour, the ayudante led us into the hanger-like border post where we stood in line for another hour. Now it was cold, freezing even, and I stamped my feet to try and keep warm. Two little girls in front of me were very bored and driving their mother crazy. But they held still when they saw me and then started giggling. It was my silly Bolivian hat – they thought it was the most amusing thing ever, probably because it looked like something a child should wear. So I let them play with the dangly bits which kept both of us amused while waiting. We eventually passed through the Argentinean exit and on to the Chilean entrance. Then it was another hour wait while all our luggage was examined. After three hours we were finally back on the bus. And in Chile.

Despite the long wait it was one of the easier borders. We didn't need to change money since we still had some Chilean pesos left over from our time in Iquique and would need our Argentinean when we returned. But now it was time to get back down the mountains. This proved to be tougher than the trip up as the road wound its way down the precarious road. It twisted and turned but that barely slowed the convoy of huge trucks carted goods across the border. The bus had to hug the road to make room for them as they made their way up giving us all a good look of the sheer drop down (photo above). We survived and were soon in the lush green vineyard and farm land of Chile. Thanks to the border delay it was getting late in the day and by the time we finished with the suburban stops it was late by the time we got into Santiago. We were given a light dinner on the bus. Now we didn’t have to worry about finding dinner and could just concentrate on getting to the hostel.

We were definitely in downtown Santiago but I didn’t recognize any of the surrounding street names from the guide book map. We looked around for a subway station but in the chaos of dozens of buses and hundreds of people (and just as many taxi drivers) we couldn’t find it.So we gave up and grabbed a taxi. I gave him the address and the cross streets and even then he overshot the location and had to double back a couple of blocks. Of course he then asked for more money but I refused and despite my basic Spanish I understood a couple of the epithets he muttered under his breath. Hmm, not quite as friendly as the Argentinean taxi driver. But who cares we had arrived at the Moai Viejero Hostel. We didn’t have a reservation and they didn’t have a private room so we grabbed two dorm beds and crashed. Discovering the charms of Santiago would wait until tomorrow.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

(old) Don’t drink and bike.

Back in the years I now lovingly call my misspent youth, I used to ride my bike everywhere. To university (when I went), to the club (when I left), around Ottawa, around Toronto. And after dark that often involved riding my bike (with helmet) down side streets with more than a couple of drinks in me. My clubbing days are way behind (by choice) me and so are my cycling days (by bike thievery). But today was a chance to relive those halcyon days of drinking and biking and see if they were just as rose coloured as I remembered. Adrian and I had signed up to do the bikesnwines™ tour of the Mendoza wineries.

Over our free breakfast of corn flakes, medialunas, coffee and juice, I checked my email and saw that Jillian and Dan had replied but the best I could do was suggest a random winery and random time to meet up. Then I sent my sister a happy birthday email. Then it was off to raise a glass or two in her honour at those wineries. We were picked up and dropped off in Maipu at the bikesnwines office where there was a large group already waiting. We were given maps of the area and a briefing about some of the highlights including where we might get some food on the way. Then it was time to grab a bike. They were all yellow but not equal, except for all being equally in bad shape. But eventually Adrian and I both found bikes we could peddle and headed out down the road. Initially there were bike paths at the side of the road but once we left the town the road became smaller and the bike paths disappeared. Neither of our bikes was a particularly easy ride so rather than heading out to the furthest winery we had picked out we ended up at the closest one.

The closest winery also ended up being one of the original ones. La Rural was also a museum. Amongst the industrial and modern vats and distilling equipment were the original wine making instruments, old photos and documents from the winery’s centuries old history. My favourite room had to be the one full of giant oak vats full of aging wine. We took it all in (probably because we weren’t in a hurry to get back on the awful bikes) and then wandered over to the tasting area. For free we were given three half glasses of wine including a malbec. Now, I’m not a wine connoisseur but I’ll do my best. Malbec is an Argentinean varietal so I wanted to like it but can’t say I enjoyed it. It had an almost bitter taste to it. However, the others okay. I blamed this on the sample being free. After all we couldn’t expect them to give away the good stuff. With our free wine sampled we headed back to the bikes and peddled off stopping to watch a tanker pull in and up a one-wheel ramp so that the last bit of grape juice dribbled out of the tank.

We continued down the road. The cycling didn’t get easier but the view was pretty spectacular. Miles of vineyards in front and the snow-capped Andes in the back. After our first tasting I was already feeling my fake Asian flush* coming on (*after a drink, I have a minor allergic reaction to alcohol, however I am not Asian, hence my term fake Asian flush) and it was also midday so we decided to stop in at the Almacen del Sur deli that was mentioned during this morning’s briefing. We turned down a side road and soon reached the “deli”. It looked more like a french country estate and the on site gourmet deli full of organic spreads and tapanades. Delicious but wasn’t going to tide us over. Luckily they also had a café in their garden so we sat down, looked at the menu and immediately began drooling. There was a biker’s quick lunch but it was the tasting menu that we lingered on. $30 each for a huge spread of countless goodies and a bottle of wine. We hemmed and hawed about the splurge before common sense kicked in – we’d never get an opportunity to eat so well for so little, at least not on this trip. We ordered the tasting menu and undid our pants’ buttons in preparation (metaphorically speaking of course)

The food was delicious. The server kept bringing it out, explaining each dish as best she could in English. The first course was a selection of breads and spreads. Tapanade, arugula and pine nut, roasted eggplant, some soft cheese and a vegetable mix. Delish. Then there was the green salad, followed by 7 more dishes cheese and fish stuffed peppers, chicken wings, sauteed shrimp skewers, pork ribs, filo stuffed with lamb, and a potato cake. We were soon stuffed and good thing because we needed something to soak up the alcohol as we washed it all down with a bottle of chardonnay, passing on the malbec this time. But we weren’t finished. Dessert was apple crumble with custard and a coffee. All the food was grown on site and fresh and we enjoyed ever cent we spent. In fact we had so much food in us, the idea of getting back on the bikes wasn’t very alluring.

It was now past 2 (the random time I had suggested to Jillian and Danny that we meet at the random winery). But a glance at the map and it was obvious we were nowhere near the meeting spot. But since it was more than likely possible that they didn’t get the message I didn’t feel too bad about not being there. Instead we headed to the Tempus Alba winery. Only our second winery on our winery tour. As old and traditional as our first stop had been, this place was modern and shiny. Inside our first sight was a bottle of wine draped in the Canadian maple leaf. It had won some major prize at some Canadian wine show. We took it as a good sign and walked through. There was a self-guided walking tour explaining the fermentation process which led us from the vineyards to the restaurant and tasting area. We quickly turned over the food menu and reached for the wine tasting one. We chose to split the three wines for $7 menu. We skipped the Malbec and picked a Tempranillo (another local special), a Syrah and a fancy blend (photo above). The glasses were larger and so were the tastes. It was a good thing we were sharing. Especially when we left and were immediately followed by a motorcycle cop. I waited for the siren to go off and hoped we weren’t as drunk as we felt. I tried my hardest to keep the bike going straight and a decent speed. But sweat trickled down my back in nervous expectation. Back in Canada we’d definitely be arrested for drunk biking (actually, I don’t know if it’s an arrest or a ticket but I do know it’s illegal) but here in Argentina we were followed all the way to the next winery which just happened to be Trapiche, the one I had randomly suggested meeting the others at. Now safely off the bikes, I turned to take a look at the cop. He was now following another group of drunk cyclists in a slow-motion imitation of a cop chase. It was then that I noticed the “Turista” emblazoned on the side of his bike and the flashing light. His job wasn’t to arrest drunk bikers but to protect them from the other vehicles.

Having lost the fuzz on our trail we were finally able to relax. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) we weren’t able to relax with another glass or two of wine. The guide told us we had just missed the 4pm tour and the next didn’t begin until 5pm. Trapiche was Argentina’s largest winery. It looked like a big corporate monstrosity and evidently ran their even the tourist part of their business like a corporation. So we decided to bail and head to the liqueur and chocolate place marked on the map. We’d probably had enough wine by this point any way but you can never have too much chocolate. We had to wait here for a tour too. And after the rest of the day it was a bit more cottage industry than elegant winery. The chocolates were tasty and the liqueurs weren’t bad however we didn’t really need the hot dogs they served to go with it. It was now time to get back to the winesnbikes office. We were definitely a little tipsy because it was suddenly easy to peddle. But that didn’t stop us from having a few après drinks drinks back at the office. We didn’t need them but we started chatting with some of the other recently returned folks and suddenly found ourselves imbibing. After Adrian order and drank another large Quilmes, I cut him off and dragged him to the bus stop. He was definitely now drunk and was completely useless when the bus arrived and I needed to get bus fare from him. He handed me his wallet and went to sit down in one of the few available seats at the back. But there was a problem. I couldn’t pay my fare to the driver, only a machine. And the machine only took coins in a country where no uses or ever has coins. I asked around the bus and met nothing but blank stares. I turned back to the front and was greeted by Dan and Jillian, they were on their way back to town as well. I told them my predicament and they tried to help by breaking my bill into some smaller ones. But I still had no coins. No wonder drinking and biking is acceptable in these parts – it’s virtually impossible to pay for a bus fare. Luckily a stranger on the bus, stepped forward and swiped his pass card for us and I gave him the bills. Thank you, stranger.

With Adrian half passed out in the back of the bus, I stopped to chat to Dan and Jillian who were accompanied by their couchsurfing host Jessica. Somehow we ended up talking about Canadian politics which the two Americans knew more about than me thanks to some Canadian civil servant couchsurfing host they’d had in Mexico. I was put to shame – I only hope that Jessica wasn’t bored by all the North American political babble. But it helped to pass the time until we got back to Mendoza. It was dark when we all got off the bus. Adrian immediately ran across the busy street to pee in front of the rush hour crowd. He may have had no shame but I did especially when Jessica jokingly mentioned that these things don’t happen in Argentina. I tried to excuse his behaviour by saying that they were quite normal in Bolivia where we had just been for the last month. I quickly said my goodbyes to the gang and dragged drunk boy away from further embarrassment. Unfortunately, I dragged him three blocks before realizing we were walking in the opposite direction from our hostel. Ok so perhaps I was a little tipsy too. But the detour back to the hostel did take us past a little completo (hot dog) stand so I could get some more food into Adrian.

We stumbled back into the hostel and while Adrian immediately passed out, I began searching for our Santiago friends, Ivan and Catalina’s contact info. We were headed there next and it would be great to meet up with them for their offer of a city tour. I turned all our bags upside down but couldn’t find it. Just as we’d made contact with Dan and Jillian I’d lost contact with two others. Oh well. If you’re reading this Ivan and Catalina sorry for not ever emailing you but now you know why.