Saturday, December 5, 2009

(new)A familiar face in a familiar city

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

(new) Muchas Gracias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

(new) Testing my patience and my innards.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 30, 2009

(new) Instant karma’s gonna get ya.

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

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

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

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

It didn’t.

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

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

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

Friday, November 27, 2009

(new) A wonderful wonder of the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 26, 2009

(new) Three countries one day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

(new) Dead lazy.

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

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

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

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

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