Saturday, December 5, 2009

(new)A familiar face in a familiar city

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

(new) Muchas Gracias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

(new) Testing my patience and my innards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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