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.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

(old) Beat by the meat sweats.

There’s nothing glamourous about the night bus. Maybe the first time it’s a bit exciting because it’s new. But the excitement is soon replaced by worry about the comfort of the seats and security of your belongings before dread sets in. Just how sore am I going to be in the morning? And in the morning, you will be stiff and covered in a layer of what I call bus slime, a charming mixture of sweat, grime and other people’s breath. It was in this condition that we got off the bus in Mendoza just before 9am. Thankfully, Danny and Jillian were in a similar state as we sat down at café in the station to really get acquainted over coffee and medialunas, Argentina’s version of the croissant (think less butter, more sugar). While we’ve been traveling a very similar route at the same time, we still had lots to talk about since they were brave couchsurfers. If you’re not familiar with couchsurfing check out the link, but here’s a basic rundown. If you’re looking for a bed, couch, piece of floor or similar place to crash in a strange town, you hook up with hosts on the site and for free get to stay with a local. Some will act as tour guides as well. Very communal and I did look into it (you know I like free), but decided that it wasn’t for Adrian and I. It takes a lot of planning – you have to email or call the hosts a lot and know where you’re going to be and when. And frankly, Adrian and I don’t always have our sh*t together enough to know that stuff. But Danny and Jillian were super organized and had managed to couchsurf about half of the time on the road. They lots of neat stories about their experiences, enough that it made me want to finally get my sh*t together. They were couchsurfing once again in Mendoza so once we were finished our light breakfast we headed out to catch our cabs – them to their host’s and us to the hostel. Just before taking off, we made plans to plan a biking and wining tour together before heading off in opposite directions.

Our taxi ride was entertaining. As soon as he found out we were Canadian, he launched into a flowing tribute to Canada (I’m surprised with all the Canadian love in Argentina, particularly since it was a Canadian bank that sorta helped destroy the economy in 2001. Maybe the locals don’t know this and I’m certainly not going to be the one to tell them). His daughter was married to Canadian and his grandchildren were Canadian and he loved Canada. When he found out we were from Toronto, he ecstatically said that’s where his daughter and grandchildren lived. But he stopped himself from asking if we knew them. He was originally from Sicily and remarked that there were many Italians in Toronto. I told him there were a lot of Italians in Argentina too. “And now not so many left in Italy,” he said with a smile. When we got to the hostel, he dropped the price of the taxi. “You’re part of my Canadian family,” he said, “You don’t pay tourist prices.” The first time that has ever happened to us. Maybe this was karma’s way of evening out the whole border bus scam. We weren’t even money-wise but it was the nicest cab ride we’d had and the gesture was definitely appreciated.

We hoped our good luck would continue with the hostel. While we’d heard great things about one place, a little research revealed that without a reservation we could find ourselves sleeping in a hammock so we’d chosen another place that was new, a bit more expensive but located in the city centre and had wifi. Inside we were greeted first in Spanish until the girl behind the counter saw we were Canadian. She then switched to Californian. Molly was a super friendly American who’d been working here for the last few months and did her best to make us feel welcome. We even negotiated a bit of a discount for a three-night stay. The hostel was new-ish and full of amenities but it seemed to be empty and a bit more sterile after our time in Salta. But that wasn’t Molly’s fault; she certainly tried and the room was quite nice. We left her to jump in the shower and get rid of the bus slime and hopefully wake up a bit so we could explore the city.

The shower did the trick and we decided to head out and explore the city. We headed to the city museum. The route took us through the pretty tree-lined streets, the shade a necessity in the warm climate. Mendoza was pretty but like the hostel it lacked the charm of Salta. Despite being another old city, it was more spread out and didn’t have many remarkable buildings – it felt almost new. The museum was an exception. Set in a pretty park, it was a copy of an old colonial building. This was the location of the original main plaza which had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1861. Underneath the park was a cavern where one could visit the foundations of the old city but it was closed today so we settled for a visit to the free (my favourite) museum. I was right, the building wasn’t an original but like the park in front had been built over the original foundations which had been excavated inside. The museum was small but well done and gave a nice overview of the history of the city explaining how the earthquake had basically wiped out the entire city. Just outside across the park, one of the few colonial buildings half-stood. The original cathedral which had once stood on the main plaza was in ruins, held up by scaffolding. In the park, an engraving (photo above) showed what the city had looked like before the earthquake. Stupid mother nature and her stupid earthquakes. But people don’t come to Mendoza to see the city. They come to see the area around the city. Or more specifically, the wineries around the city.

Mendoza is the capital of Argentina’s wine industry and a major tourist draw. It was the reason we were here. For months and months I had refused to let Adrian order overpriced wine (just thinking of the budget and his liver), promising him as much as he could drink when we got to Chile and Argentina. So tomorrow was the day he been looking forward to forever. But tomorrow was still a day away. So we puttered around town taking in the ambiance. We stopped by the market to get some food. It was a lot like the St. Lawrence market in Toronto – not so much a fruit and veg stand but a place to get local gourmet treats. However, most of the stalls were either closed or a little beyond our price range. Although they did look tasty. We opted for the “gourmet” hot dogs instead. I can only hope that in this land of meat, that there was a little less mystery in these wieners and more meat.We’d run out of things to see so we headed back to the hostel, past all the fancy cafés and chichi hotels. Although Mendoza, the city wasn’t visually remarkable, there was a good vibe and I imagined it was one of those cities that would be great to live in even if it wasn’t the most beautiful one.

Back at the hostel, I tried to contact Jillian and Dan about the bike tour. But email isn’t the most effective way to make plans so I wasn’t optimistic that we’d actually connect, although I did keep my fingers crossed. Instead I told them that we were going to book through the hostel tour company and hoped that they’d be somewhere nearby. Adrian watched TV and I uploaded some more photos and attempted to catch up on the blog – now only 3 months behind. And that helped pass the time until dinner time, and by dinner time I mean Argentinean dinner time. You see, here dinner is something eaten at 9pm or later and most restaurants don’t even open until 8. So between 5 and 8 if you’re hungry, you’re also SOL. We’d eaten late and light in preparation for this though. Tonight we were going to indulge in a real Argentinean asado at a tenedor libre (that’s bbq at a “free fork” or all you can eat buffet). After weeks of soup, rice and chicken/fish and the last few days of hot dogs, we’d definitely earned it. The folks recommended a place within walking distance of the hostel that they said would be a good price for good food.

We arrived at Caro Pepe just after 8pm, and since we were the only ones there, I’m guessing they had just opened for dinner. The price was a lot more than our hot dogs (perhaps $12 each) but definitely much more appetizing. Since we hadn’t had much to eat we were ready to make the most of it. We skipped ordering wine and instead headed straight to the salad and veggie bar. I swear I’ve never been so excited to see spinach (first corn flakes and now spinach, oh the exciting life I lead). But I was one of the few to do so. The locals who were now trickling in, skipped this area or passed through to pick up some of that mystery sandwich meat before lining up at the asado counter. It’s amazing. Argentineans seem to eat nothing but meat and more meat, at these late hours, washing it down with cups of coffee and bottles of wine. Yet they look far healthier than any North American. It’s another of those great unsolved mysteries of the world that I wish Robert Stack would get to. But I digress. When we felt full of vitamin goodness, it was time to move on to the meat part of the show. Half of the buffet area was taken up by a large barbecue area where entire animals were being charred before our eyes. Now I’m not a big meat eater but I had to try some of the famous Argentinean beef. At the counter I ordered my small steak to which the chef ordered half a chicken and another pile of various meaty bits. He motioned to the bowls of chimichuri sauce to the side and I slathered on a couple of varieties. I’m sorry Ayngelina, but there are no pictures of this food. I was too selfish to remember my camera.

I got through about half of what the chef had piled on my plate when the meat sweats began. I have to say this is the first time I’ve ever experienced them and it wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience. Adrian seemed undeterred and went back another load while I felt my pants expanding in the seat. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to move for another hour. Eventually, the sweats subsided enough and I was able to get out of the chair. We settled up and rolled back to the hostel where we promptly passed out from our protein overdose. From this morning’s bus sweats to this evenings meat sweats, we’d come a (very) full uncomfortable circle.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

(old) Oh, the people you will meet.

sorry no photo of the festivities. but here's a photo from around Salta, appropriate because I was feeling a little penitent the morning after most of my nights in town.

What makes a good hostel, good? Sure there are the amenities (wifi, comfy beds, hot water and a clean kitchen) but there are also the people. And oddly enough, the hostels with the most amenities don’t always have the best people. So it’s rare when you get to a place where you have both packages. This hostel had everything. Perhaps it was because the owners, German and Eduardo, actually live there and actually made you feel like guests in their home. But the good company was the reason I wasn’t feeling so great this morning. Because of Tasha and Silvie, we had gone through the wine we’d meant to drink over our entire stay. But they were also one of the reasons we weren’t in any hurry to move on.

German tried to tempt us out with a visit to the small town of San Lorenzo. And even though most folks come to Salta to check out the surrounding countryside, I didn’t feel up to it. Besides we’d just come from the salt flats and seen all the rocks and desert we needed to for the moment. But Tasha and Silvie, those troopers, were all for it. They headed out while it took Adrian and I a little longer to get moving. But we did have to move. Thanks to an unfortunate incident with a wicker chair on the Isla del Sol, I needed a pair of pants and shorts to replace the convertible pants that were now shredded. Of course by the time we finally made it out to the pedestrian shopping area, it was siesta time in Argentina. We discovered that although it was Monday, all the stores were closed between 2 and 5. Yes, all of them. The imposed break gave us a chance to scope out our best bets for cheap shopping for clothes that might fit. And even walk to the bus station to buy our tickets to Mendoza for tomorrow. Then we camped out at the department store and as soon as the shutters were lifted we stormed in. In the uniform section we found a pair of good quality guide shorts that fit. However, the convertible pants were sold out in my size. Too bad, I was just getting into this shopping thing.

When we got back to the hostel, Tasha and Silvie were back and there were a few new arrivals. A couple from Singapore traveling with their young daughter, two French girls and two 30-something Brits, Del and Andrew. Andrew immediately tried to chat up the French girls in French but that seemed to drive them into their room for the night. Undaunted the Brits headed out to the grocery store to get food returning with little food and three bags of alcohol. Adrian was holed up in the lounge watching NFL highlights on the computer and I went to join him but they insisted that I, Tasha and Silvie stick around for a few drinks. They were only here for two nights as part of their two-week whirlwind tour of South America so they wanted to make the most of it. Uh-oh it was going to be one of those nights. They were good fun and even brought out the 8-year old Singapore girl early on. No, she didn’t drink with us. But she did enjoy mixing weird concoctions from Andrew's equally weird collection of alcohol that he actually drank. Fortunately for Andrew’s liver, she soon had to go to bed. But then it was time for German and his girlfriend Fabianna to join in. They had some time to kill while the suckling pig they were BBQing cooked. German brought out all the bottles of assorted alcohol left over by previous guests. A couple of sips into many of the bottles, and we had figured out why the liquor was left behind. Most of it either tasted of cough syrup or paint thinner. At this point, German thought it would be time to introduce all of us to the joys of Fernet, Argentina’s favourite liquor. Tasha and Silvie had already tasted it so they were excused. But Andrew, Del and I hadn’t. I tried to beg off but Andrew insisted I try it since it was so tasty. I should have know when he reached for his camera that I was in trouble. Somewhere out there in the cybersphere there is a video of me gagging as I spit-taking a tall shot of straight Fernet – a drink traditionally mixed with Coke.

I begged off any more drinks but hung around with the gang until 1am. I have no idea how late they went and I have no idea how the lads managed to get up for their early morning salt flat tour. But they did. When Adrian and I got up they were gone, as were the Asian family and the French girls. We just caught Tasha and Silvie as they headed out for a day of horseback riding and said goodbye. They were all a good laugh and it was too bad we were heading in opposite directions. That’s the problem with backpacking – you meet people whose company you enjoy and then you’re off, probably never to run into each other again. Of course if you run into people you don’t like then you’re happy about it. But we liked Silvie and Tasha and it was too bad we wouldn’t see them again. And as for Del and Andrew, well tomorrow they were headed to Rio and then Peru before running back to the UK. That was probably good thing, or so my liver told me.

Just after noon we checked out and headed to the bus station, grabbing a sandwich on the way. I’d heard so much about the comfort of Argentinean buses and was slightly disappointed to discover it was the same old type of bus we’d been on for the last few months. But then again we’d refused to pay $100+ dollars for the executive class upgrade. What was different about the bus ride, was the ayudante who was more like a cross between a flight attendant and Julie the cruise director from Love Boat. He led us in a game of bingo for a prize bottle of wine. It was good practice for our Spanish numbers but after last night’s festivities I was glad neither Adrian nor I won. Then it was dinner and movie time. I have to say the food was pretty good, except for the mystery sandwich meat. Just before it was time for bed, the bus pulled in to the town of Tucuman and Adrian and I hopped out for a cigarette break. Looking up from the ground, I saw a familiar face. At first I couldn’t place the guy, but I knew I knew him. And then it clicked, I actually had never met him. Him was Danny and beside him was Jillian. They were another couple I’d been emailing back and forth with ever since we discovered we were taking almost the exact same route through the same countries at the same time. We’d tried to meet up a few times but had kept missing each other. Now here we were, in a small town about to be on the same bus heading to the same time. We briefly chatted before we were hustled on board. Unfortunately their seats were at the opposite end of the bus. But we made plans to chat when we got to Mendoza the next morning. That’s the good thing about backpacking, you never know who you’ll run into or when.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

(old) The joy of shopping.

Despite yesterday’s hassle it really was nice to be in Argentina, starting with breakfast. The Inti huasi hostel offered a nice spread of things we hadn’t seen in a while. Coffee, toast, dulce de leche, or course but more exciting, were the corn flakes. I’d never thought I’d get excited by breakfast cereal but that’s what backpacking does – you get excited by simple little things. And we’d just about forgotten about yesterday’s little border scam. We helped clean the slate by moving into the no-free nice room with private bath (including bath tub) and handing in our laundry. More excitement. Then it was time to actually explore Salta. Last night some of the other guests had been talking about the cheap empañadas sold at a little place on the main square and the promise of cheap and tasty food was a good reason to head to the square for lunch. The hostel was in a residential area but not to far from the centre of town. It was a good thing it was in a quiet area and it was Sunday because we needed to get used to civilization again. Sure we’d had a brief peak at it when we were in Chile but for some reason here in Salta it was immediate and stronger. There were stoplights! And street signs! There were huge grocery stores and trash bins on the corner. But it was also so green, lush and warm after our time in the desert. After freezing in Bolivia it was nice to be wearing shorts again, even if the strange clothes added to the disorientation.

But despite all this civilization, Salta was spookily quiet. It was Sunday and Mother’s Day in Argentina, meaning, everyone was at home or in church rather than out in the streets. It was a good thing because I’m sure I looked like an idiot gawking at all the beautiful buildings and shop windows. I’ll admit I was suffering from a bit of culture shock. Unlike the culture shock I experienced in Costa Rica, this was a good culture shock because the culture was Latin American not North American. And Salta was definitively Latin American. It was one of Argentina’s oldest cities and it was lovely. The square was old and leafy and surrounded by a pink cathedral, colonial archways and beautiful old hotels. But our destination was the empañada café. We found it and ordered a plate full and a couple of sodas. They weren’t super cheap but they were super tasty and the view from the sidewalk table let us take in the locals on a lazy Sunday.

We paid our bill and continued are informal walking tour. The main square was surrounded by pedestrian malls that were empty, all the shops being closed. There were beautiful buildings everywhere and evidence of ongoing restoration. A police station looked like a Moorish castle. The legislature looked like a palace. And family homes looked like Parisian townhomes. And the quiet streets we were able to appreciate them all without distraction.

However, one of the main attractions of Salta was the shopping mall. Adrian had walked there last night to fetch his McDonald’s. And now it was my turn to visit. After 7 months on the road, I was down to one pair of pants and a pair of shorts and my shoelaces had snapped rendering my trainers almost unwearable. The mall was the first modern thing we’d seen in Salta and it was tastefully tucked between the hillside suburbs and the old town centre but still in walking distance and despite it being Sunday it was open. Unfortunately, the shopping was not the best. The stores were all way out of their price range and even if we had been able to afford them, the designer duds did not come in my size. Le sigh. Just as we were about to leave disheartened, we came across a small outdoor gear store. They didn’t have much but I saw that they carried my Solomon sneakers with the annoying laces. I asked if perchance they had replacement laces in stock and they did – for less than I’d seen them sold for in Canada. Hallelujah! I bought two pairs just in case. I know it sounds like a petty thing, but honestly finding replacement laces for these super high-tech shoes was something I didn’t expect to happen and I was glad I ignored Adrian every time he told me just to buy a new pair of shoes.

We’d walked around town, had lunch, been through the mall and still had half the afternoon left. So we decided to take in the city’s major tourist sight, the funicular, called the teleferico in these parts. We walked to the park and found the boarding station that would take us up San Bernardo hill for a view of the city and surrounding countryside. The station looked like something from the 1920s and I was wondering about the safety of heading up inside a rickety old car. But a plaque inside the building revealed that the funicular was only 20 years old. It blended in perfectly with the old city but was shiny and new. And I’m glad because the funicular went high up and was high off the ground (photo above) and I didn’t want our journey to end in a crash to the bottom of the mountain before we'd had a chance to appreciate it. We decided not to walk down the mountain and purchased return tickets (Salta was small and walkable but we’d walked it all and our feet were tired.) and then hopped into our very own car.

The speakers pumped in classical music and in both Spanish and English welcomed visitors to the funicular and to Salta. I’m glad there was something to distract us because we were really far off the ground and every time the car traveled over a junction, it shook and swayed precariously. But the views were spectacular. Not sure they were worth the price of admission but close. And once we were at the top and on solid ground again we had time to take everything in. An annotated photo marked points of interest to look for, and I have to admit that I got most excited finding the large prison. But after looking around, there wasn’t much to do up at the top of the mountain. So we headed back down.

We walked through the park and to the grocery store where we loaded up on supplies for dinner as well as our first bottles of Argentinean wine. The good stuff was only $3 (the cheap plonk was $2) so we bought 3 for the next few nights. Perhaps not the smartest move because that night as we sat talking to Silvie and Tasha, the two English girls also staying at the hostel, we finished them off. So much for rationing. But I figure my success at the shopping was a good reason to celebrate.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

(old) Tell me why I don’t like borders. Tell me why.

because my battery was dead no photos this one is courtesy of flickr user Emi ♫ and used under CC license with much thanks

If you’ve been reading along (first I should say thank you, and second apologise for the huge lag between posts), you know I hate border crossings. It’s not the bureaucracy but the touts and scams that drive me nuts. Ever since the horrible crossing between Ecuador and Peru that dread has just gotten worse. My new plan to counteract the dread and disorientation has been 1. make sure you’ve not spent hours getting to the border, 2. get a good night’s sleep before hand and 3. exchange as little money as possible when you get there. Waking up today, I’d already broken the first two of these new rules. It was almost impossible to get much rest on the train. Between the uncomfortable seats and constant early morning stops, I think there were only about 3 hours of actual sleep. So once the sun was streaming in the windows, I decided to stop the charade of sleep. Adrian was in a similar grumpy frame of mind. But we consoled ourselves that we were heading to Argentina – not know for its pushy touts and tourist scams. Perhaps this time it would be different.

We still had an hour or so before our arrival at Villazon – the Bolivian border town – so we headed to the dining car for breakfast. It was included in the price of our first class ticket and I suppose was where the extra money went. But I can’t say it was worth it. Breakfast was eggs, breads and crackers and café con leche. Better than nothing and it helped pass the time until we pulled into the station relatively on time – perhaps our German friend from Santa Cruz had already brought the Bolivan Rail Service up to German efficiency standards. The platform was packed. Most appeared to be touts selling overpriced bus tickets to groggy tourists. A little bit of research in Uyuni had revealed that most (maybe even all) of these tickets were horrendously overpriced and that the same tickets were available just across the border for far less. So we barreled through the crowd, swatting the pamphlets that were thrust in our face and went to fetch our baggage. Here we had to fight with the locals. We could see our bags within reach but weren’t allowed to grab them without handing our tickets to the baggage handler who ignored us until he had helped every local first. When every local was gone, he turned his attention to us. We pointing to the two bags in front but he ignored us and he went looking in the baggage car coming out empty handed with a shrug until I once again pointed to the two in front and began to pick them up. I thought he was going to slap my hand for touching the bags before he had checked the tickets. And then went through the whole performance of cross referencing every number on our tickets with the tags on the bags. I guess with our lack of sleep we looked kinda shifty or something. Or perhaps he was just trying to save us from the touts because most of them had left to chase the other gringos down the street. We hopped into a cab and for $2 we were let off metres from the border post.

The street was lined with money bureaus and we backtracked to the nearest one and converted our Bolivianos into pesos. The rate was almost the real rate and it looked real after our quick examination (gently used, water marks security bands etc.) So far, so good. With cash in hand we retraced our steps to the border and joined the line up of gringos waiting to get stamped out of Bolivia. There were no locals waiting and there wasn’t another line up for Bolivans or Argentines which was a bit odd. The line wasn’t moving very fast and some pushy gringos thought they could bypass the rest of us by heading directly into the office. Now, nothing upsets a Canadian or a Brit more than ignoring a perfectly good line up (or queue if you prefer). We’re folks that pride ourselves on the orderly nature of a line up and would go to war to defend it. There were three Brits in front of us, about to join Adrian and I in our battle against the interlopers. However, bloodshed was avoided when an official with shiny boots and a gun headed them off and waved them to the back of the line. The tourists didn’t give up and pretending not to understand the official’s Spanish tried to continue into the office. But the Border guy dragged them to the end of the line which was now ten people longer than when they arrived. The three girls laughed and celebrated the victory with us. The line suddenly sped up and we were soon at the counter getting stamped out. Even better, the line slowed to a trickle as soon as we were done and the pushy wannabe queue jumpers had barely moved. Now that’s my sort of travel karma.

We walked with the girls across the bridge to the Argentinean border. There was an old rail bridge that ran parallel to us, left over from the days when the Bolivian train used to continue on into Argentina. It was fenced off but it wasn’t deserted. No, this was the way the Bolivians and Argentineans apparently crossed the border. There was a steady stream of locals carrying huge bags hopping the chain link fence and crossing the border without showing their papers. It looked rather illegal but since there were watchful border guards everywhere I guess it was fine. As we got close to the shiny new Argentina border post, I have to admit getting a bit nervous. I don’t know whether it was lack of sleep or excitement over stepping into Argentina but the heart was definitely thumping a little faster and harder. Perhaps it was the fear of the unknown – Would we be forced to produce proof of exit? Would we have to pay some outrageous entrance fee? Or would they want to tax our electronics as imports? All these questions were going through my mind. And all for nothing. The crossing was painless and even the customs guy waved us through without searching our bags once he saw Adrian’s Canadian flag, proclaiming his love for Canada in perfect English. Okay, perhaps I’ll stop teasing Adrian (the immigrant) for the stereotypical flag on his backpack.

But the easy part was behind us. Now we had to go catch a bus to Salta. Rather than take a taxi I believed the guide book which seemed to indicate that the walk was a short one. Short only if you’re not carrying 25kg in luggage on your back after sleeping upright on a train. As we got close to the bus station, I was lagging behind Adrian and when I eventually caught up to him, he was already in line to buy tickets for the bus. He was trying to purchase the tickets with his non-existent Spanish. The ticket man was asking for 60 pesos for the tickets which appeared to say 30 on them. So I asked him again. The chaos of the lineup and the ayudantes telling us to hurry because the bus was leaving made it hard to hear, and now it sounded like he said 80. So I asked him to repeat it and he said 180 for the 2 of us. Behind us the ayudante grabbed our bags and was throwing them on the bus. I chased the bags while Adrian paid for the tickets. The bus was now beginning to pull away but before we could get on the baggage guy now wanted 2 pesos before he’d give us our claim tickets. I gave him a nasty look and asked him why and he told me to give him the money unless we wanted to miss the bus. So we had no choice but to give him the cash. And it got worse when we got on the bus. I looked at the tickets and discovered that this "direct" bus trip was in fact two bus trips on two different companies. And worse, the price on the tickets read 30 pesos for the first and 24 pesos for the other for a total of 54 pesos not 90. Scammed in our first hour in Argentina. It was a shock after Bolivia where we’d had a few moments with touts but had mostly been left alone and untouched as we traveled through the country. It was one of the reasons we’d loved it so much – cheap and hassle free. Now here we were in Argentina and people were demanding cash bribes from us and skimming money from our bus tickets. Wow, Argentina you have changed.

The gringo sitting across the aisle from us asked me what was wrong. I told him what had happened and he looked at his ticket. He’d paid 60 but was upset that he’d been over charged 54. But when he heard what we’d paid, he started asking other people on the bus what they’d paid. Apparently we’d all been charged different prices. Some Americans paid 75 others 70 but we’d gotten ripped off the most. Dmitri (yes, he was Greek) immediately called over the ayudante to complain. The ayudante was sympathetic and told us to complain when we got to Salta where we could get our money back. Dmitri was adamant that we all do that particularly when the ayudante told us the price should have been 25 for the first half of the trip and 24 for the second half. But to me, it didn’t make sense – the company in Salta would be a different from the one that sold us the tickets and probably weren’t even aware that this other company was reselling their tickets. There was no way we’d be getting our money back. But now I had 4 hours to stew until we had to change buses. Actually it was 5 hours because we were stopped at a customs check just outside of town because another passenger apparently had enough gold on her to raise the alarm. We were forced to wait for an hour while they questioned her and charged her an import fee. During this break, the South Africa couple behind us tried to make us feel better. They had just been in Argentina for 3 months and this was the first scam they’d encountered. But I wasn’t worried about Argentina I was just angry that we’d gotten ripped off at another border.

When we finally got to Jujuy, the other bus was already there. We had just enough time to grab our bags and put them on the new bus not before being asked for another 2 pesos from yet another baggage guy who had just lifting our bags one foot off the ground and on to the bus. Once again I refused to pay and luckily this guy gave us our bags without demanding the money. I was commenting on the cash grab, when the South Africans informed me that in Argentina it was customary to tip the baggage man (although the refusal to give us the ticket until we’d paid was unheard of – it was a tip after all). Oops, I almost felt bad but then I remembered that some joker had already gotten an extra 70 pesos out of us today and we had to recoup it somehow.

This second bus was nicer than the first and arrived in Salta on time. We immediately went to the Flecha Bus office to make our complaint. As predicted it was the El Quicacena company we should have complained to but the fact that they were selling tickets for Flecha bus was enough to anger the Flecha bus attendant, let alone that they were ripping people off in their name. We filled out a complaint form but since it was the weekend we couldn’t get much further. They gave us a formal receipt and the number of the head office. They were very nice and apologetic which was enough to make us feel better but I knew I wouldn’t be calling the number and wouldn’t be getting our money back. The amount we lost wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things – about $20 I think – and we wouldn’t have paid it, if we didn’t think that was the price for 7 hours on the bus. Plus, just having someone who appeared to care about a customer complaint was enough to make us feel better.

Now it was time to find the hostel. We needed a shower and to relax. Lucky the hostel was close to the bus station and even luckier that there was room available, albeit one with shared bath. The hostel was great. It was a converted house and it felt just as welcoming. The staff were super nice and made us feel very welcome. We jumped into the (hot water! high pressure!) shower and washed away the crankiness of the day. We’d survived another border crossing.

Friday, October 16, 2009

(old) It’s all about perspective.

The alarms went off at 4:30am. There was no shower but there was a good breakfast with eggs. Well, that’s Adrian’s definition of a good breakfast not mine. I hate eggs and these tasted really eggy but compared to the instant coffee and bread from yesterday it was an improvement. It was still pitch black when we loaded our gear back on the roof of the jeep and then raced across the salt flats trying to beat the sun. The rays were just peeking above the horizon when Amigo stopped the jeep. We got out and since the sun was still a few minutes from making its appearance we got to take in our surroundings. First, it was fricken (and you know I wanted to write something other than fricken) freezing – as in see your breath, stamp your feet to keep warm, sort of freezing. Once we got over the shock of the cold, we realized we were at a place where they were harvesting the salt from the salt flats. Wow, because it’s such a touristy thing to do I’d forgotten that they weren’t just a pretty place but a livelihood for locals. So how did they harvest it? Well, they had some sort of machine that cut the surface salt into blocks which they let dry out and then stacked for the trucks to pick up and take to the salt processing place. Or so Adrian found out using his amazing non-verbal Spanish abilities – I really don’t know how he does it.

I found myself wishing the sun would rise faster and distracted myself by taking pictures of the vast white landscape. This time I didn’t distract myself by taking up Amigo’s invitation to taste one of the blocks of salt. And eventually the sun slowly peeked over the horizon. Was getting up that early worth it? A sunrise is always pretty but the cold made it hard to appreciate. A sunrise only last a few minutes and in this case as soon as it was up we all huddled back in the jeep and joined the long line of vehicles heading towards the horizon. After our solitary day of rock sighting, we were back on the tourist train. The next “station” in this case was the Isla de Pescado (fish island). I asked Amigo why it was called that – as it had been a long time since there were any fish near by. He told me that the real name was actually Xqkyrtsqsfd, or something like that. (Okay that wasn’t the real name but it was in Quechua so that’s as good as I can do) but some tourists had remarked that it was shaped like a fish and the much easier to remember Isla de Pescado stuck. The island was indeed an island in the salt flats a hill rising out of the immense white expanse (photo above). It was covered in ancient cacti and coral rocks, a reminder of the time there was actual water in the area. We all followed the path up to the top of the island. There was a natural arch in the old coral rock, a plethora of giant cacti, as well as an area where the local Quechua folks performed some sort of rite but now appeared to be a dumping place for people’s extra visa and passport photos. The view was more white salt flat vastness so I decided to head down. I saw Amigo at the bottom and decided to finally ask his name. I told him I’d forgotten it and he was gracious enough to let me know what it was. Drum roll please…. “Me llama… Ruben”. Finally, mystery solved. When the others came back down I let them know. And we all breathed a sigh of relief and then promptly started using his name every time we spoke to him. I’m sure he was annoyed and confused by the sudden popularity of his first name.

Back in the jeep we headed out to the middle of the salt flats for some fun with perspective. Well that was my goal. Ever since I read another blogger’s account of their salt flat trip, I had been eager to take my own weird playing with perspective photos. It’s possible because of the featureless landscape. The others had no clue what I was trying to do as I posed Adrian standing metres behind the only prop we had – a water bottle. It wasn’t as easy as I thought but I eventually figured it out. Soon the others got into it and they all took turns “standing” on top of the water bottle while I snapped away on their cameras. I wish we had other things but either no one wanted to admit a stash of toys in their packs or we were all just too old and boring. After that we explored the small building made out a salt which, judging by the bottles and other things left in front was some sort of chapel. There was even a small table and chair made out of salt but it didn’t look up to anyone sitting on it.

But that small building was nothing compared to our next stop. By request, Ruben let us off at the salt hotel. It wasn’t just a building made out of salt, but everything inside. Ruben let us know that it was free to visit but that we should purchase something inside as a donation, since it was a private establishment. Inside Adrian found giant bars of Dairy Milk chocolate for sale and would have bought the entire stock if I hadn’t stopped him. With our “entrance fee” paid we began exploring the hotel. The table, the chairs, the beds, the bar, everything was made out of salt blocks. Pretty cool but also a little weird. But not as weird as the “museum” which was really a collection of salt sculptures from Quechua mythological figures, to a copy of Big Ben. Told you it was weird. Outside, a small wading pool had been cut out of the salt but at this temperature I can’t imagine it got much use. But it was worth it if only for the chocolate even if it did cost a small fortune.

After the salt hotel, we stopped one more time at a little town just on the edge of the salt flats. And by town I mean a collection of souvenir stalls and some high-end hotels. I headed straight to a display of alpaca wool hats and gloves and picked out some for both Adrian and I, not as souvenirs but as necessities. And cheap necessities too, at only $3 each. Finally my head and hands were warm after the 3 freezing days. The rest of the gang bought more than their fill and then it was back to the jeep and on our way to Uyuni. But now I had a request. I wanted to stop at the Uyuni train cemetery. It was exactly what it sounded like, a cemetery full of old decaying and rusting old locomotives. That’s right more decay. I think it was a bit out of the way but if we could see it on our way into town then there was no reason for Adrian and I to stay in town and we could immediately (try) to head to Argentina. I don’t think the others were as enthused by the detour but when we got there, Adrian and I didn’t care. Amongst the wind-blown rubbish were hundreds of rusting train parts and probably just as many tourists climbing over them. My camera battery was flashing red but it lasted just long enough to get enough shots to make me happy (although I could have taken more). I’m sure the others were happy that my battery died because when we made our way back to the jeep, they were already waiting.

And then it was into Uyuni. Thanks to the early hour it was barely noon. But that gave all of us time to figure out our onward travel plans. Tony was going to stick around for a night. While Kai, Anna and Bart were all trying to head out that day. And we were, well originally we had said that if we couldn’t shower in the morning we’d stay the night in Uyuni but now that we were in the town even feeling gross and icky wasn’t enough of a reason to stick around. So we decided to let the availability of train tickets decide our fate. Ruben dropped us off at the train station and then took the rest to the ATM, promising to come back for us. The station was empty as was the ticket office. Eventually a man appeared to tell us that there were plenty of tickets available for tonight’s train. So that was decided we were heading to Argentina tonight. We opted for first class tickets figuring that a bit of comfort after the last four days and within 5 minutes we were booked in. Now it was time to wait for the others to come back.

As we were standing in the shade outside the station, we saw some familiar faces across the street. It was Stuart and Max from Santa Cruz. I went running down the street after them to say hello. They had just arrived and were shopping around for a cheap salt flat tour. I told them that the one-day tour would be enough. But our reunion was cut short by the return of the jeep. We said goodbye (once again) to the lads and climbed back into the jeep for the short ride to the bus company offices. While the others bought their tickets to La Paz and Tony checked into his hostel, Ruben unloaded all of our luggage. When all that was done we thanked him, gave him his tip and said goodbye. We may not have been able to remember his name, but we really did appreciate everything.

Then it was just us without the guide. We decided to stick together and have lunch in the main square. We followed the others with our big bags (they had been able to check their’s at bus company) to the first tables we saw. They were in the sun and, of course now that I’d bought woolly hats and mittens it was baking. The menu was a bit of a shock. The prices were more like Chile than Bolivia and after Adrian and I had told the others how cheap Bolivia we were going to have to literally eat our words. But it was food and drinks not cooked by Ruben and that was worth it. (Sorry Ruben). After lunch the others went out to explore the town while Adrian and I stayed put, and getting a chance to chat to Stuart and Max who passed by as well as two British girls at the table next to us. We started to talk about food we missed and when one of the girls mentioned Cadbury’s chocolate I gave her the rest of the giant Dairy Milk we had and immediately became their best friends. Travel karma.

Adrian and I realized the café was actually part of a hostel and he asked if we could use their shower. They charged us $2 but it was the best $2 we spent and now we were ready to take the overnight train, except it wasn’t leaving for another 8 hours. We were sick of schlepping our bags around so we headed to the train station to ask if we could leave them there. The station master told us he wasn’t supposed to but told us he didn’t mind helping us out. We assumed he was dropping a hint so we gave him a small tip and just hoped our bags would be there when we got back. Then it was time to join the rest of the group. Adrian and I had decided that we wanted to try the infamous Minuteman Pizza that so many people had raved about and the others said they’d join us. Adrian went off to use the internet and said he’d join us shortly. But as the rest of us were searching for the pizza place which wasn’t sign posted I realized he’d never find it. I waited for 20 minutes and then went out to find him wandering the streets looking lost. After dinner and an exchange of emails, Anna, Bart and Kai went to catch their buses while Tony, Adrian and I went back to the internet. It was time to do some research to prepare for crossing the border – like buses from the border, places to stay in Salta, and most importantly the exchange rate between the Boliviano and the Argentinean peso. That helped pass the time until it was time to catch the train and for Tony to head to bed.

With no sun beating down on us it had turned cold again and the waiting room was not heated. Nor was there anywhere to sit. As the people piled in it warmed up and the luggage room was officially opened. Phew our luggage was still there. And almost on time the train arrived and we headed out. I failed to notice any difference between the first class seats and second class. The seats were far less comfortable than bus seats and there were no blankets. There was however a TV playing a really bad Bolivian talent show, really loud. From our perspective, the TV was a minus but the Bolivians in our car seemed to love it. But we were so tired that we soon fell (almost) asleep.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

(old) Salt flat rock city

As the sun rose, I wiggled my toes, then my fingers. They were fully functional no hypothermia and frostbite for me. Actually, for all that drama I was surprisingly warm and toasty unlike Adrian who had accidentally kicked off his blankets in the night and woke up with his teeth chattering. And unlike our driver who I saw sleeping in the back of the frost-covered jeep when I slipped out to use the loo. But maybe that sun would mean a warmer day. The bitter wind had disappeared and that definitely helped. A warm shower would have really helped too, le sigh. At least none of us were able to shower so any b.o. would be impossible to trace. Breakfast was just as simple as our accommodations had been: bread and coffee and the only milk on the table was chocolate milk. It actually made the instant coffee taste pretty good – a cheap and easy mocha I guess. Adrian sat at the table and patiently awaited the arrival of some eggs but when the driver started the jeep he knew he was out of luck. We jumped in the back again this time to start the day. Our day of rocks.

Our first stop was a group of red rocks that we’d seen a hint of in Villa Mar. The centrepiece was called el Mondial or World Cup and I suppose if you squinted it sorta looked like the trophy. There were also a few of those rock trees I’d hoped to see. Not actual petrified trees but wind-eroded rocks that, once again, sorta looked like trees when you squinted. The rest of the gang went climbing up the cliff but I wasn’t up for that and headed towards the cave further back. Along there was one rock formation that reminded me of the Easter Island heads that we probably wouldn’t be visiting (too expensive). Just beyond them was a cool cave that had been carved out of the rock by the wind. Inside the wind had created these swiss cheese niches that lots of birds were now using as ready-made nests. Cooler than the view from the top would have been, I think. Although as a non-climber and hiker, I may have been biased.

We regrouped at the jeep, climbed in and then drove for an hour on rough roads across the desert not seeing many other jeeps. Actually, we didn’t see any other jeeps, surprising considering yesterday’s race to the parking spots. I guess the other groups had all chosen to the lake route. When we stopped for a break in a small town I wondered if perhaps we should have chosen the lake route at all. The view along the route was unique but the barren land was getting a bit samey. And the town was another small one with nothing to explain why we had stopped. There was some weird chicken sculpture in the town square and on the gazebo there were odd cartoon paintings of a very sickly looking Minnie Mouse and Goofy complete with Nike branding. Perhaps this was where we were supposed to contemplate the evils of copyright infringement. Or perhaps the driver just wanted a break from us as none of us could find him when we wanted to leave (5 minutes later) and had to wait until he materialized (30 minutes later). He didn’t really offer an explanation and we piled back in so he could drive us to another non-descript small town so we could stop for lunch. I’m not faulting the towns, they were tiny outposts in the middle of the desert, just curious why we were stopping.

Lunch was soup, rice and llama and there was plenty of it even if it wasn’t the tastiest. Good thing we were all getting used to bland food. The highlight of the meal was dessert. It was Jello (or jelly to you Brits) and none of the Europeans knew what it was. They watched as Adrian gleefully grabbed a serving. His enthusiasm enticed Bart to give it a go but he was less than impressed. Oh well, I guess jello won’t be taking off on the Continent any time soon. Meanwhile, Kai went to check out the accommodations at this place. He reported they were a step above the ones we’d had last night but sill nothing like the pictures we’d been shown when we had booked. Somehow we all started to discuss the driver’s name which we still didn’t know and now it was too late to ask. I decided that Amigo would probably get his attention and probably confuse him less than shouting out Rubregenerto.

After lunch it was off to our next rock formation outside of town (photo above). Yup, more rocks but at least these ones had an interesting story. The locals had used to use one of the natural shelters as a church until they’d gotten the money together to build an actual one. Considering how far from the small town these rocks were, I’m not surprised they were such bad cartoon painters. They had to spend all their time walking too and from church rather than perfecting their painting technique. Amigo stopped the car and began leading up up one of the tall rock faces. Kai, Anna, Bart and Adrian followed him while Tony and I ditched the hike to check out the church. It didn’t look like a church but the nature of this shelter was still super cool. A circular area carved out by the wind, big enough to hold the locals for Sunday service, although without a roof I can imagine rainy days made services uncomfortable. When Adrian came scrambling down from the lookout point I took him to see it. Just beyond the church there was another sheet of rock –really it was as thin as a sheet of paper. Despite that and the giant crack down the middle of it, it was still upright. Better yet there was a human-sized hole at the bottom of the crack which Adrian promptly jumped into so I could take a picture of him. Then he made me do it, but it was kinda scary. It seemed like it would come crashing down on me at any moment. Of course, as Adrian was quick to point out, it had been there for hundreds of years and wasn’t likely to come down in the next few minutes - touch wood.

Amigo called us all back to the jeep and we were off along the dusty roads once again. The dust really picked up but it wasn’t because of the jeep. The wind had caused a minor dust storm in our path. We quickly closed all the windows and the vents but we could still taste the dust in the jeep until we got through it. Just on the other side of the cloud was another small town. Originally it had been a little stop along the railway tracks but now it was 90% deserted. Adrian and I were excited at the prospect of the ghost town but we were alone. We jumped out and began exploring the empty buildings. If 10% still lived here we never saw them and the only evidence was the neglected cemetery which had a sprinkling of recently (recent as in the last year or 10) laid decorations. There was no sign of life except for the water leaking out of the water tower and a distant cement factory that was just as still as the town itself. Adrian and I would have stayed longer but we could feel the others getting antsy.

The rest of the afternoon was a lot of driving and more rocks and more small towns. We stopped at one for almost an hour and once again we couldn’t figure out why. It was obvious we had all had our fill of rocks and small villages but I was still glad we weren’t doing another day of lakes. Eventually Amigo resurfaced. I’m guessing the breaks were mostly for him as we were covering a lot of distance today and it couldn’t have been fun to spend that much time behind the wheel. In fact the last leg of the day was a long one on really really bad roads to our accommodation. The road ended and the sand changed to hard packed dirt with white frosting that was salt (but at least not ice) We were headed to the salt flats and the supposedly good accommodation, the one we assumed we had seen in the photos. On the horizon we could see the white glow of the flats but that was tomorrow. At San Juan we turned right and around a big hill. Behind it was an even smaller town and just beyond it a hill with the hostel where we’d be staying. Bart admitted that he didn’t think he’d find a pub here either.

No there was no pub but when we walked into the building the first thing we saw was a dining room with a bar. The boys were immediately pleased and we were all a bit more optimistic. But alas our room was another dorm room. It did however have a shower. Adrian immediately saddled up to the bar while I waited for the hot water to be turned on so I could scrub off the last two day’s dust and grime. The others went out to explore the small town. They were back before the hot water was on and went to join Adrian at the bar. Soon the shower was ready and I jumped in. It was probably the best shower ever and I made sure to leave plenty of hot water for the rest of the gang.

Dinner was an improvement too. There was a big spread of soup, rice and chicken. Yes I’m expressing excitement about rice and chicken. There was even lemon cake for dessert. So the accommodation wasn’t the greatest but the food wasn’t anything to complain about. We tried to convince Amigo to eat with us but he told us the guides always eat together. Oh well at least there wasn’t going to be any awkward name moments. But before he left to hang out with his fellow guides he asked us if we wanted to get up to experience sunrise on the salt flats. Since there was nothing much to do once it got dark and we knew we’d all be heading to bed shortly after dinner, we thought why not. Of course that meant we had to get up at 4:30 am to leave at 5. Oy vey. But even with the bar we were all in bed by 9pm.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

(old) Cold showers and hot baths.

It was a rough start to our tour when we woke up to no hot water and no breakfast in the hostel. Since we could see our breath we skipped the cold water shower and pulled out some cookies to tide us over until we got the breakfast the tour company had promised us. And looked forward to the hot water shower we’d get tonight. We didn’t let it get to us probably because we were getting out of San Pedro before we went bankrupt. The tour office was just a couple of blocks down the road. There was already a small crowd waiting although at this early hour no one was feeling particularly talkative. Or perhaps they hadn’t had their hot showers either.

Right on time, a guide appeared and shuttled us over to a waiting minibus. There were twelve of us in total but we weren’t all traveling together. This was just the bus to the border where we’d be separated into our different tours, depending on how long we had signed up for. Chilean tour companies aren’t allowed to got into Bolivia and vice versa and since we were only 20km from the border this journey was going to be a short one, that is until we got to the Chilean border post just outside of town. The two Colombians onboard had forgotten to bring their tourist cards with them and we had to wait a half hour while the driver took them back to their hotel to fetch them. Then it was back on the bus for the drive past the turn off for the Argentinian border past some volcanoes to the Bolivian post another 45 minutes away. Even the word post is perhaps too strong a description. It was just a hut in the middle of the desert. There was nothing in sight in either direction except a burnt out bus shell yet the Bolivians had taken care to put up a free-standing gate across the road, perhaps not realizing that the hard packed desert on either side of the road was probably easier to drive on than the potholed road they were blocking.

We were given forms to fill out and then waved into the hut one at a time to pay our entry fee. The fee was a surprise since we hadn’t needed to pay one at the Peru-Bolivia border and when I raised my eyebrow at the $2 they wanted they showed me the official-looking seal in my passport that my money bought. Our border crossings in Central America taught us that individual border posts are good at coming up with official looking receipts for fees at supposedly free crossings. But rather than protest I reminded myself that $2 was a lot less than the useless bus tickets we’d had to buy to get into Panama or the $150 the Americans had to pay.

Once we were all paid up and stamped in we were divided up into three groups – those doing a one day tour, those doing a two-day tour and the 6 of us who’d signed up for the full 3-days to Uyuni. Unfortunately for us 3-dayers, our jeep had yet to arrive so we huddled into the bus to protect ourselves from the bitterly cold wind that was blowing across the desert. The cold got to Adrian’s bladder and with nothing except the burnt out bus to hide behind he ran off to do his business. He returned quickly breaking the ice with the rest of our tour mates by providing a full report of his journey.

“Don’t go back there,” he warned the rest of us.

Apparently the burnt out bus was the local toilet for everyone crossing the border and was a minefield of excrement. It must have been bad because Adrian didn’t even ask for the camera so he could take a picture. Either that or he knew I would have denied his request. Before he could launch into more detail, the jeep arrived saving us from the cold as well. The jeep driver jumped out and began loading all of our bags up on the roof of the jeep. He did an amazing job of fitting it all up there and even more amazingly, the vehicle didn’t topple over under the weight. Now it was time to fit all of us in the vehicle. Adrian and I hopped into the back and let the skinny others share the middle and front seats. Our driver was just about to launch into his introduction when Adrian interrupted him to ask about breakfast and was distressed to hear that it wasn’t coming for a while. But at least it silenced him long enough so that we could all introduce ourselves and let the guide begin his tour.

Up in front was Kai, a young German guy on a three-month whirlwind round the world tour. In the middle was Tony, an older German guy on an extended vacation in Bolivia and next to him Bart and Anna a Dutch and French couple (respectively) on a 6-week vacation of South America. Our guide didn’t speak English and his name would become the subject of much debate amongst us over the next few days. Was it Ruben? I heard Brugen? I thought he said Robeto? Even Kai who was half-Spanish didn’t catch the name as he stepped in to act as translator for all of us. Instead we just avoided any situation which would require us to call the guide by his name.

Our first stop was the park entry office where we had to pay our entrance fee. Adrian asked if this was where we were having breakfast but Ru-bregen-erto just shook his head and with a small smile said no. Anna and Bart went to the take advantage of the washroom located in the office thinking it a better option than the bus at the border. But judging by their expressions when they came back, perhaps not too much better. With our entrance fees paid we piled back in the van and headed to our first site, Laguna Verde. Amidst the dusty desert, it was a perfect aqua colour that reminded me of Llanganuco in Peru. Our driver drove past the other tour vans and headed up to a ridge overlooking the lake so we could take it in. It was the perfect spot but not perfect enough for Adrian who once again asked if this is where we were having breakfast. And once again our guide shook his head no although this time there was no smile.

After we’d all had our fill of the view, we piled back into the jeep and drove to another small lake remarkable only because of a small flock of flamingos camped out nearby. Adrian was about to ask if this is where we were having breakfast but I stopped him. Of course this was where we were having breakfast. There was a small hostel just over a ridge with a good view of the lake and an empty dining room. We may have been in the middle of nowhere but breakfast was already an improvement over the typical bread and jam we’d been offered at other hostels. This place had cheese and it was real cheese not the weird feta-mozzarella cross we’d had for the last 7 months. Adrian was finally happy as were we since we wouldn’t have to listen to him ask when we were going to eat. Thanks to the leftover bread on another table we had plenty of food. Kai left us to scout out the bathrooms and accommodation and it wasn’t promising. We hoped that our luck would be better tonight. We paid one last visit to the flamingos before getting back into the jeep.

It was another hour until our next stop which Rubregenerto told us were called the Dali rocks. This was a bad name since we all conjured up images of rocks that looked like melting clocks or cities on giraffe legs and when we got there they looked like a bunch of boulders in the sand. I think the guide sensed our disappointment because he quickly moved on and promised us we’d love the next stop. We were headed to the hot springs although considering how cold it was outside I wasn’t sure how fun or how hot the springs could actually be. When we pulled up I was encouraged by the sight of 5 others already in the springs steam rising up from around them. However, that still didn’t solve the problem of the blustery cold wind that we’d have to fight before we got into the water. I was about to point out to Adrian that there was also no place to change into our bathing suits but when I turned around he was already in the midst of stripping down and jumping into his trunks in front of our group and the 20 others standing nearby. He jumped into the water and repeated ad nauseum “nice, nice, nice”. Well if he didn’t care neither did I. But I did care about exposing my bottom to everyone. So I wrapped a towel around me and somehow managed to change without flashing everyone then ran into the water before hypothermia set in. Kai joined us but the others passed. The water was indeed hot and super relaxing but with all the minerals I don’t think it was the best choice as a substitute shower. We soaked in the bath as long as we could mostly because the idea of getting out of the hot water and into the freezing cold was so unappealing. But eventually, our guide told us time was up. It was still freezing and the wind on wet skin meant certain wind chill frostbite. I sucked it up and quickly managed to get changed back into my dry clothes without exposing my bare ass to everyone else and without getting my dry clothes wet. Quite an achievement.

Just beyond the springs was another hut. This was our lunch stop. Inside it was filled to the rafters with folks from other tour groups. The room was just a dining room and the food was provided by the tour companies and there was a definite difference. The Japanese had a major spread while others were eating rice and not much else. Our tour group fell somewhere in the middle and considering the cost it was pretty good. The best part of the stop (after the bath in the hot springs) was courtesy of one of the older Japanese women. She pulled out a bag of origami peace cranes which she proceeded to hand out to us backpackers. She didn’t speak any English but understood everyone’s garbled version of Domo Origato (I stopped myself from adding Mr. Roboto, disappointed aren’t you?). It was such a simple gift but we all loved it and I wished there was a Canadian equivalent to break the ice as we traveled – Timbits? Hockey Pucks? Touques? Not quite the same. Although I wish I’d had a touque at that moment – it was freezing.

It was time to get back in the jeep and this time we all changed our seats which meant poor Tony was crammed next to Adrian in I in the middle. Oh well, at the very least we warmed up quickly. But it was a short cramped ride as not too far from the hot springs we pulled up to a field of smoke and boiling mud. Signs warned that this was a dangerous field of volcanoes (photo above) and I suppose it was although the volcanoes were only an inch or two across although constantly erupting. The steam-smoke was a noxious sulphur mix that made it hard to breath and hard to enjoy the warm so we headed to a windy spot to view the field. That required us to walk over suspiciously unstable parts of caked mud and I expected us to fall through into the boiling mixture just below the surface. Of course we didn’t and Adrian accused me of being as melodramatic as the warning signs. However, warning signs aren’t common in Bolivia so I figured they must be there for a pretty good reason. Too many boiled stews of tourists was my best guess. At this point the driver called us over to make a decision. We were headed towards the Laguna Colorado and afterwards we could go in one direction and stay in a refugio with no electricity or running water and tomorrow we’d see more lakes and the arbol de piedra or we could go in another direction and stay at a better place with lights and water (and a shower) and tomorrow see other rock formations. Faced with the prospect of roughing it we all voted for the nicer option. Although I was a bit torn because I wanted to see the rock tree that I’d seen in photos. However, the guide told us that we’d see lots of rocks like the arbol. So I felt better and I’m sure I’d feel even better after that shower.

Laguna Colorado was a giant pink lake covered in flamingos. But these weren’t ordinary flamingos they were super smart. Or at least it appeared that way. The closer we tried to get to them the further away they got without appearing to move at all. Somehow these birds could bend the laws of physics. We all tried to get close to them but nothing worked until the convoy of Japanese tourists pulled up at the opposite end of the lake causing the birds to motionlessly move right in front of us to get away from them. Good for us but bad for the Japanese tour group – perhaps they should have tried giving the flamingos some of those cranes.

The guide then told us it was time to go to our accommodation for the night. It was another hour of driving to Villa Mar – weirdly named since there was no sea anywhere nearby. But that wasn’t the only disappointment. Our “deluxe accommodation” was a six bed door and the showers were there but none of us could figure out how to get them to work. Not at all what we expected. This was the first time we were staying in a dorm on our trip so we warned the others about Adrian’s snoring. Oh well, nothing like a sleeping on top of each other to ensure our group would bond. Just behind the guesthouse a woman was washing clothes in the stream oblivious to the fact that it was freezing. Just beside her llamas grazed on the bit of grass growing on either side of the trickle of water. It was pretty but it was also too cold to explore so I hid back in the room trying to get some blood and feeling back into my fingertips. If the rest of the trip was like this I was in trouble - I only had that long sleeve polo shirt and a windbreaker and this was full fleece weather. The others headed into the village to explore (and look for a pub Bart said half-jokingly) while Adrian headed up to climb the rock cliff that circled the village. But everyone returned in time for dinner. Bart hadn’t found his pub but Adrian had found a store selling beer by candlelight so we created our own pub atmosphere over our soup and spaghetti. It was probably just the alcohol but for a brief moment I was actually warm so I left the others and crawled into bed fully clothed hoping to wake up with all my digits unfrozen.