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.