Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Keep Tahoe Golden

I escaped the mayhem of The City by car, once again, and went this time to Tahoe.  Plans for the getaway had been in the works for a while since my friend Melissa had been wanting to surprise my friend Hayden, her boyfriend, for his 26th birthday.

About fifteen of us made it to the rental cabin in North Lake despite the snow storm that erupted that Friday, the first big snow of the season.  It took my friend Brent and I about six hours to do the drive, which normally takes three and a half hours, because we were forced to stop and buy chains for my tires and to drive 30mph for the last fifty or so miles.  When I asked the guy who sold us the chains why they're required in California but never in places like Colorado, where I drove sans chains through the snow on plenty of occasions, he simply replied, "Because of California drivers".  

So once all of us - save Melissa and Hayden - made it safely to the nicely furnished cabin, with its firetruck bunked beds, cheesy family ski photos, foosball table, and well-stocked kitchen, we made ourselves at home and then planned the surprise attack on Hayden.  After mulling over a number of ideas, we decided the best one was to greet Hayden on the street...in our underwear....with snowballs.  Once they finally arrived, about two hours after we had stripped down to our skivvies, we were drunk and freezing cold and ready to go.  We launched snowballs at the car and then proceeded to stand in a line and moon them.  I don't think Hayden would have had it any other way.

The remainder of the weekend was marked by: many nerve-wrenching games of Jenga; hardcore sled riding; hot tub stews (it never did get quite hot enough); Back to the Future; guitar jams; dancing; and, needless to say, a lot of eating and drinking.  I may have shaved a few years off my life between Jenga, sledding injuries, and inhaling some Black Box Wine, but I'd say they were a small price to pay for the fun that was had.  

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


My first weekend getaway of my second round in San Francisco took place just a couple of weeks after my move back out here, because even though I'm living just enough for The City, I'm not just living for The City.  It was time to escape the congestion, and a silver friend of mine, with whom I crossed paths the week before, had invited me to visit his cabin in Arcata.  Once he mentioned the words "cabin," "redwoods," and "sangria," I was pretty well sold. 

One of my roommates and I made the five-hour trek late on Thursday and met "Yo-Heezy," the owner of the cabin, and another one of my roommates around 1:00 in the morning.  Much to their delight, I brought along some Black Box wine and Sarah Lee baked goods (not to be confused with Sara Lee baked goods), and we commenced our celebration of social solitude in the unkempt but cozy cabin. 

The rain and the cool air on the following day made it difficult to leave the comforts of the cabin, but I experienced a bit of the culture up North nonetheless.  Dinnertime snuck up on us, and me and the fellas made a hodgepodge of yams and ginger, guacamole, fajitas, and sangria that left us slightly comatose.  Ironically, in an effort to revitalize ourselves and mend some of our ailments, Yo-Heezy nearly broke his back while trying to crack mine (I suppose I ate a little too much guacamole), so he was bed-ridden for the rest of the night; the remaining three, however, managed to shake our comas and adventure through the duration of the night.

With the Lost Coast Brewery as our sponsor, we built a roaring fire of aging furniture and other odds and ends in a large and rusted barrel, which we called the Barrel of Monkeys.  We were impressed with ourselves since the conditions were rather wet - though the rain had finally subsided - but our biggest task was still ahead: making the unfunctional sauna functional without doing any rewiring.  And so we put a bunch of rocks in a metal pale and put the pale in the fire and then poured water over the hot rocks once inside the sauna.  We tried this a number of times over the course of a couple of hours, and strange as it was, the first attempt, with mediocre results, was the most successful.  Once this cat-and-mouse game lost its fun, we played in the shipwreck of redwood trunks and fifteen-foot stumps just beyond the cabin, and once that lost its fun (or did it?), we retired to the cabin and fell asleep, sometime between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning. 

The next day of in-and-out of sleep, reflecting, and burnt bacon ended around midnight, when my roommate and I made it sleepily back to San Francisco, which was not so sleepy itself.  It was a lively Saturday night, but I went straight to bed, readying myself for my 7:15 barista shift the next morning.       

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Righteous Return

This year has taken me far South, far North and back to the Heart of It All, but after all of life's twists and turns the road inevitably led West again.  The great bivalve mollusc that is the World swallowed me whole and spit me out in San Francisco - The City by The Bay, the "golden handcuff with the key thrown away," and "the most cordial and sociable city in the Union."

I resisted the City's lure for ten months and then finally gave in to its charms, packed my Honda with all of my things and hit the road.  How could I let a silly thing like not having much money or not having a job lined up prevent me from reigniting my love affair?  After all, hadn't I made it work the first time, when I was starting from scratch?

I immediately moved into an apartment in the Lower Haight with some friends of a friend - four guys, as it goes - who are, so far, quirky, bright and lovable.  That they keep a clean apartment with maps all over the walls is probably enough for me, but I can certainly appreciate the distinct personalities as well: the vegan, entrepreneurial sweetheart; the hippie with crystals in his dreadlocks who loves drawing brainstorming webs on his over-sized whiteboard; the excitable grad student; and the has-his-shit-together business professional who gets off on camping and literature.

The apartment was not the only thing that fell into place; a job did as well.  A mere three days into my SF renaissance, I was hired as a barista at Mojo Bicycle Shop & Cafe.  And so, as my dear friend Alice said, I was "back into the SF groove," and boy did it feel good.  

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Ashley and I left Seward for Anchorage, where we were hosted by another Couch Surfer, Kyle, and his dog Indy.  Anchorage was essentially just a jump-off point for Denali, but we did manage to see a little bit of the unremarkable city - the state's largest and home to just over 40% of its population of roughly 680,000 - when we went downtown to grab some pizza with Kyle.

We checked the forecast for Denali the night before we left, and it said something along the lines of 63 and sunny with a very low chance of rain.  I thought, "Fat chance!", after all I had heard about typical conditions in the park, i.e., only 30% of visitors to the park get to even see Denali (Mt. McKinley) because of fog, clouds and rain.  As we drove the four hours toward the park the next morning, however, my cynicism was put to rest; there was not a cloud in the sky, and we could already see Denali, in all its glory, from 130 miles away.

Once inside the park we boarded the camper bus, because private vehicles are not permitted beyond Mile 15 of the 90-mile park road.  The bus was brimming with excitement about the exceptional weather, and even Alan Seegert, our blasé driver who has worked at the park for decades, seemed eager.  Alan carried himself much like Carl Spackler from Caddyshack, low-talking with a side-slung underbite and looking through catatonic eyes.  He told us repeatedly that whether or not we were to see an abundance of wildlife was all "sloppy luck" but that we had come to the park on what was probably the most beautiful day of the year.

We rode through about five hours of slopes and valleys shaped by glaciers 10-14,000 years ago, and along the way we saw a grizzly and her two cubs grazing along a stream and a caribou taking a drink from a pond.  The vegetation on the tundra was starting to take on burnt Fall colors, and the views of Denali made my heart swell.  The four-mile high peak, with a greater rise and bulk than Everest, evokes a certain feeling of reverence that is rare and impossible to forget.

Other highlights of the bus ride included the caribou fight that Ashley and I had when we hoisted sets of extremely heavy antlers above our heads and also the friends that we made: a couple of guys from Milwaukee, who we saved from getting left behind by the bus, and a Frenchie named Julien, who we invited to share our campsite at Wonder Lake.

Our campsite, just 26 miles from the base of Denali, was not lacking for views or good company.  Julien, so grateful that we had taken him in, perched his tent next to ours and promised us a French-themed party when we were all back in San Francisco, and a group from Seattle shared with us utensils and pulls from their bottle of Jaigermeister.  We all watched the moutain range turn into a soft pink color when the sun set around 10p.m., and thanks to sloppy luck (or maybe karma), Julien spotted the Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights) a couple of hours later.  As we watched the green lights make waves through the night sky I grabbed and hugged Julien and told Ashley that we did well in bringing him there with us.

The temperature had dropped to thirty degrees by the time we retreated to our tents, making it difficult to find sleep, but I thought it was a small price to pay for the day we had just had.  What made it even more worth it was that conditions the next morning were optimal for seeing Denali's perfectly still reflection in the pond made famous by some Ansel Adams photographs.  The bus driver that day, a guy named Chuck, told us that we were extremely lucky because a reflection that clear can only be seen about five days out of the year.  Not only did we have that good fortune; we also got to see a large bull moose, a herd of caribou, and a grizzly that walked just in front of our bus for a good five minutes.  Oh, la vie est bonne!        

Monday, September 14, 2009

Seward's Folly Makes Me Jolly

Past the Turnagain Arm (where we did not, unfortunately, see the 40-foot bore tide or any belugas), lies Seward, Alaska, named after William H. Seward, the Secretary of State who spearheaded the Alaska Purchase, or "Seward's Folly" as it was commonly referred to at the time.

A peaceable harbor town, Seward sits on Resurrection Bay and is just a few miles from the Harding Ice Field.  Ashley and I set up camp at a dinky municipal campground, heated up a couple of cans of soup - a nice change from the pb&j's - and headed to Exit Glacier.  The trail head at the glacier, like many we encountered on our trip, had bear warnings that described how to avoid bears and what to do in case of an encounter.  The matter-of-fact instructions went something like this:

Black Bear: Fight back.
Brown Bear: Curl into the fetal position.  If it starts to eat you, fight back. 
(Ohhhh okay, so if the grizzly puts my head into his mouth and starts sinking his teeth into my neck, I should maybe try to punch him in the face...  Alright, let's hike.)

So we hiked to the edge of the formidable, brilliant-blue glacier (without any bear run-ins, thankfully), and as I got close I could feel its chilly glacial breath.  There was a moment where I forgot where I was entirely, and I had to remind myself that I was here on Earth, in a magical place called Alasssska!

Back at camp, Ashley and I made fish foil meals (delicious concoctions, usually made with beef, for which the Pat Cassedy family takes undue credit), and we made friends with some North Dakotans next door.  These fellas, not amused by my asking if people in ND speak like the characters in Fargo, were so kind as to share with us some of the silver salmon that they had caught that day.  Ash and I were too poor to charter a fishing boat ourselves, but at least we still got to reap the benefits.

The next morning in Seward was one of those wonderful times when you think, "Holy Hell, my life is good."  We found a 2-for-1 sea kayaking deal and were delighted to find that the expedition would be just us and John from Illinois, our lovable guide.  As luck would have it, the conditions of the morning were perfectly serene.  The bay was basking in warm, early-morning sun, and the wind and water were calm, which John said was rare.  We were surrounded by mountains; otters and porpoises circled near our kayaks, peeping out of the water to check us out; and a couple of bald eagles were perched regally on shoreline trees.

We beached our kayaks to hike to a waterfall and then to a salmon spawning area, and we snacked on blueberries that grew amongst trees dangling with a moss, which is known for obvious reasons as Old Man's Beard.  John was happy to have a couple of low-maintenance girls who could actually paddle, and the three of us cursed false ideals of stability, 8-5's with benefits, and mortgages.  After all, you only need the Bare Necessities...

"Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
That's why a bear can rest at ease
With just the bare necessities of life...

...And don't spend your time lookin' around
For something you want that can't be found
When you find out you can live without it
And go along not thinkin' about it
I'll tell you something true

The bare necessities of life will come to you"    

Monday, September 7, 2009

Cheechakos in The Great Land

After another night with our friends at the double-wide in Skagway, Ashley and I left Alaska only to come back in at a point further north. The logistics are somewhat complicated (especially for those of you inept at geography, you who didn't even know it was possible to drive from the Lower 48 to Alaska), but you have to travel back through Canada to drive from the Southeast Peninsula to the rest of the state. This drive was an adventure and a good sign of things to come. More specifically, we had a close encounter with our first grizzly. He (or she) was slinking across the Alaska Highway and grazing just alongside it. We pulled to the opposite side of the road and stuck our upper halves out of the sun roof to watch it from about twenty yards away. Ashley was snapping a few photos, and I was looking on with unabashed excitement. The grizzly then took notice of us and stood on its hind legs to check us out. Having heard what we've heard about grizzlies, Ashley yelled, "Sarah, go, go, go!" and I slammed my foot on the gas; our adrenaline was pumping, but we couldn't help but die laughing.

Now Alaska being the size that it is - more than twice the size of Texas (sorry Texans but you're not as big and bad as you think) - we had to crash for the night between one small "town" and the next (namely, Glennallen and Palmer), and in the morning we headed toward Seward, on the eastern coast of the Kenai Peninsula. We slid through the Chugach mountain range, and as we approached the Anchorage area, we began to see, for the first time since Vancouver, signs of development such as a Best Buy and fast-food joints. These came and went, however, because soon we were on the peninsula - Alaska's Playground - and back into nature and passing through the occasional Northern Exposure-esque "town" like Moose Pass.

Oh, The Great Land!

cheechako: a "tenderfoot" who has never spent the winter in Alaska or the Yukon

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Juneau the Capital of Alaska?

The sun rose in Skagway around 4 a.m. and shortly thereafter Ashley and I were on our way on the Alaska Marine Highway to Juneau, the only U.S. capital inaccessible by road. We slept for most of the six-hour ferry ride, and I took the liberty of using the hot and clean showers on board so as to not feel like so much of a vagabond (though in doing so maybe I perpetuated my vagabond status?).

There was rain in Juneau when we arrived, and there was rain in Juneau when we left. I can't picture the city in sunlight. From the ferry terminal, we shared a cab with a Texan and a mother and daughter from Germany to the city center and then went straightaway to our second Couch Surfing abode.

Jason Mancuso, at work when we arrived, left his apartment wide-open for us, and we were thrilled to find a Couch Surfing room with maps and postcards and Broncos, beer and Brazil paraphernalia around the apartment. But that was only the start of our positive experience with Jason.

Jason came home with a six-pack of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and after we got to know each other a bit over the first couple of beers, we went out on the town on Jason, something he says he does for all Couch Surfing guests. While strolling through Juneau, Jason pointed out pockets where he has had run-ins with bears, and he also pointed out the governor's house, where one Couch Surfer climbed the fence to jump on the trampoline that Palin had there for her kids - while she was inhabiting the place and in town!

So we met up with Jason's friend Canadian Mike for beers at a dive called the Buoy Deck (it's mostly frequented by members of the Coast Guard) and then had dinner, which for me was salmon fettucini, and listened to a soulful songstress at a waterfront restaurant called The Hangar.

On our second day in Juneau Ashley and I visited the Mendenhall Glacier, which has been flowing for almost 250 years over its 13-mile trek and which is part of the 3,000+ year-old Juneau icefield that covers 1,500 square miles of land. We hiked a few miles up and around the glacier in a moss-covered rainforest; saw a juvenile black bear hiding up in a tree after snacking at a salmon-filled stream; and tasted some of the glacial ice that had washed up on the shore. After hitching a ride with a couple from Taos and busing it back into Juneau, we got ready to go camping with Jason, Canadian Mike and Rocky, Canadian Mike's black lab.

We set out on Douglas Island, just a short bridge away from Juneau, on a 3-mile hike to a federally owned, barebones cabin called the Dan Moller cabin. The hike, an uphill battle with a system of plank steps, was enough to make us feel like we were miles and miles from town, and the scenery was gorgeous. Wild cotton and ripened berries lined the path, and the mountains were lush and eery, with an abundance of fog and mist. Jason sped off ahead with Rocky, and Mike kept Ashley and me company. He offered us some salmon berries and a melon berry, which I ate, and I kept thinking of how trusting it was to follow two near-strangers into the woods and to accept "candy" from them. I placed a lot of faith in my and Ashley's instincts and intuition and thought, "What the hell?".

The cabin was rustic but comfortable. "Twat lickr" was carved above the doorway (and numbers of girl scout and boy scout troops were carved throughout), and a propane heater kept the cabin pretty warm. The guys brought a smorgasbord of snacks and some wine and Bulleit bourbon - my favorite, in fact, because Jason was a great host and eager to please. We got to better know the guys, who acted like an old married couple, and I came to see that Jason was extremely jovial and easy-going and that Mike was high-strung and A.D.D. - a perfect balance. Jason told us about his plans to travel and to move back to Portland to be with his girlfriend, and Mike told us about his job at a salmon hatchery and his beloved Rocky (who was farting up a storm since Mike fed him homemade fish jerky). Both were personable and intelligent and made us feel completely at ease, but mostly I was blown away by how generous they could be to two strangers.

We tuckered in at the cabin, and I spooned for most of the night with Rocky, who had finally stopped farting. The next day we hiked back through the pouring rain, and Ashley and I treated our gracious hosts to pizza at The Island Pub. Mike took us back to the ferry terminal for our return trip to Skagway, and though we were sad to leave him and Jason, we knew there were more adventures further North.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Skagway, "1000 Miles North of Worry"

On August 13th it was finally time to head to Alaska - The Great Land, The Last Frontier, Land of the Midnight Sun! Ashley and I stopped to take cliche photos at the sign that welcomed us to the state, and despite the cold and heavy fog, we were giddy with anticipation and disbelief.

In Skagway, at the top of the Southeast peninsula, we stayed with a friend of a friend, Kelly Daigle, and her seven roommates in a house that resembles a double-wide, with a hula skirt as a curtain over the front door and chinsy wood paneling on the interior walls.

Our hosts told us about their adventures as rafting guides, tour bus guides, etc., and they regarded the tourists who are fresh off the cruise ships as, "Newlywed, over-fed or almost dead." I pondered a job in Skagway next summer and did a little networking in this quirky town of 800-something people, where keys are left in car ignitions; where house numbers are non-existent; and where "the odds are good but the goods are odd".

In the evening we played Russian poker with a couple of our new friends, one of whom lives in a hollowed-out, yellow school bus (Christopher McCandless-style but not quite as rustic) with his bi-sexual, German wife. We then went to the Skagway Brewing Co. - "Brew Co" for short - where most of the guides hold second jobs and where a three-piece string band, accompanied by a washboard player who looked native, played lively renditions of songs by Outkast, The White Stripes, etc.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


In the Yukon Ashley and I stayed at Robert Service Campground in a town called Whitehorse, which is home to about 36,000 people or roughly two-thirds of all of the Yukon's inhabitants. Whitehorse is a town reminiscent of the Gold Rush with "gingerbread-fretwork" buildings that look like they're part of a Hollywood Western set.

The campground, "The World's Meeting Place," lies on the Yukon River and is a sort of campground/hostel hybrid with a tarped communal area referred to as the living room, which has a bookshelves and couches and where people from around the world (and "residents" of the campground) share travel tales and food and drink.

A poem by Robert Service, the famous Gold Rush era poet and the campground's namesake, sits on the desk of the office and coffee shop; it reads:

"A Rolling Stone"
To pitch my tent
with no prosy plan.
To range and change at will.
To mock at the mastership
of man,
To seek adventures thrill!
Carefree to be, as a bird
that sings,
to go my own sweet way,
to reck not at all what
may befall,
but to live and love each day.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Driving in The Bush

On the road again, Ashley and I left Vancouver to make our way through the rest of British Columbia. We coasted through majestic mountains past jade-green rivers and lakes in the rain and the fog, and it felt like just us and the open road, which was fragrant with the smell of wet pavement. Service stations and other amenities in The Bush are scarce, and it's possible to go two hours without seeing a gas pump or even a speed limit sign (though we did see several signs cautioning to look out for horses and livestock for the next however many kilometers). Law enforcement is seemingly nonexistent, and the only sort of "regulation" we encountered was at a construction site where traffic was stopped; a man behind us dismounted his Harley and came to Ashley's window to tell us to slow down if we didn't want to get ourselves killed. He turned around to rejoin his biker friends and proceeded to smoke a doobie with them in the middle of the highway.

At one point the GPS led us on a sort of wild goose chase, and we ended up going in a roundabout loop. Once back on the main highway I noticed we were behind a truck that we had passed a while back. I said to an oblivious Ashley, "Dude, we're behind this guy again," and she replied, in all seriousness with, "Do you know him?"

After many hours of driving, Ashley and I opted to sleep in the car at a Safeway parking lot in a town called Smithers, and in the morning we forged on to Highway 16 and then 37, both of which had signs such as: "Hitchhiking: Is it worth risk?" and "Girls, DO NOT hitchhike! Killer on the loose!" I think it's safe to say we were both glad to have wheels at that point.

39 miles from the Alaskan Highway, Hwy 1, we were stopped abruptly in the middle of The Bush. A highway worker approached the car window to tell us that the road would be closed for 6-10 hours. I thought, "Haha, good joke," and then the woman proceeded to tell us that an old man had driven his truck into a ditch and gotten himself killed; it would be at least six hours before the nearest coroner would even arrive to the scene. So we did what seemed like our best of very few options and waited it out on the side of the road, intending to sleep in the car again for several hours (the road-worker cautioned against sleeping outside if we were "on our monthly").

Waiting on the Cassiar Highway for the coroner from Terrace to come, we had the good pleasure of befriending a fellow named Marty Olson, a jolly, unassuming Sourdough who worked at a jade camp down the way (and who told us to "bear-ware in The Bush"). The three of us played cards and shared stories, and just as we were about to set up our grill in the middle of the highway to make dinner, traffic started to move. What was a five-hour wait only seemed like an hour. We hugged our new friend goodbye (and thanked him for the Smirnoff coolers he bestowed upon us) and carried on to the next campground.

Un-phased by the delay of the previous day, we entered into the Yukon and cruised along the Alaskan Highway, which, even more so than the highways in BC, gives you the feeling of being in utter wilderness. Wispy fuschia flowers line the road, and the few cars that you pass going the other way often have red gasoline jugs strapped to their roofs. We were thrilled when some black bear cubs scampered across the road and could sense that Alaska was just around the bend.

And now for a little vocabulary...
sourdough: someone who has spent at least one winter in Alaska or the Yukon; a person who's sour on the land but without enough dough to get out

Canadia, Eh?

On Day 3 we crossed over into Canadia, and the customs process wasn't exactly painless. Ashley and I withstood some serious questioning and had to wait about 45 minutes for the stone-cold customs officials to search our car. We thought that maybe it was the Couch Surfing bit that made them a little skeptical of us.

In Vancouver we drove straight to our first Couch Surfing host's house, where he left a key for us under the mat, and then walked to Commercial drive, where we drank local beer, ate Moroccan chicken bites and listened to live jazz at the Libra Room.

Upon our return to our first Couch Surfing abode, we met our host Rob, who has accomodated almost 200 Couch Surfers from around the globe. Rob was nice enough, and he said "Right?" instead of "Eh?" at the end of every one of his sentences. He told us that he's only kissed one Surfer and that he sometimes sleeps head-to-toe with Surfers when space is tight. We found him a little strange after these and other remarks and came to the conclusion that he probably hosts so many near-perfect strangers, most of whom are women, in hopes of finding a nice Jewish wife, right?

Sea-Town Nirvana

On the way to Seattle, along the 5 in Northern Oregon, we passed a billboard with huge illustrations of Uncle Sam on either side. Side 1 asks, "Where's the birth certificate?" and side 2 says, "I'll take God, guns and gold. You keep the change." Ashley and I had a good laugh at that.

Once in Seattle we were greeted by that evening's lovely hostess, a certain Andrea Sherrow, who's a former co-worker's friend's younger sister. How's that for a little randomness? Andi played hostess with the help of Oscar the pug and Bailey the Weineriemer, and made sure we had enough wine and cheese. She took us at twilight to Gasworks, a place to watch the city sparkle from afar and kites sail above a large sun dial, and from there we checked out the famous Seattle Troll and Fremont, a neighborhood which had, in addition to a fun mix of bars, some interactive street art - well, not exactly: the three of us thought we might be able to "sit" in a 2-dimensional graffiti chair, but we weren't too successful. And to top the evening off, Andi made us pesto from scratch at 3:00 in the morning.

The next morning was sunny and a little hungover, and we hit Sea-Town up for all of its specialties: coffee from the original Starbucks, hot donuts from the Daily Donut, fish-tossing at Pike's Place market, and cheeseburgers from the original Dick's. Seattle had us feeling divine, but the North, where we were hoping the answers would fall like leaves, was calling.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Off to a Damn Good Start

On August 5th Continental Airlines served me Mr. Z's beef jerky and full cans of pop on my way to California. This and the feeling of being on the move again was enough to leave me grinning shamelessly, and after being reunited and spending quality time with my SF family, I was on Cloud 9.

Ashley and I left The City bright and early on the morning of the 7th and took our own sweet time - fourteen hours in fact - getting up to Portland. This leisurely stroll was marked by the drive-thru Redwood (just a $5 thrill), and the hippie who yelled, "I thought you guys were Bigfoot!" when we were pulled to the side of the 101 on Avenue of the Giants.

In North Portland we were greeted by my cousin Jeff, a first-cousin who I had never before met. (Perhaps this tidbit seems less surprising when I say that I have thirty-eight first cousins, of whom Jeff was the only one I hadn't met). Jeff opened up his home to us; served us mojitos and a meal of jerk chicken, potatoes and broccoli from the grill upon our arrival at almost ten o'clock at night; and took us to breakfast and one of Bridgetown's local artists markets the next morning before seeing us off.

And I have to say that the best part of the start of the trip, trumping the scenic coastal drive, savory food and free and comfortable bed, was shooting the breeze with Jeff as if we had known each other all along.

Nowhere to Go But Up

Three months of living at my parents' house in the exurbs of Cincinnati and working as a Casker Monkey and it finally came time for my and Ashley's road trip to Alaska. The workings for the trip began with fantastical G-Chats and Facebook wall posts and turned into concrete plans once I bought a plane ticket to San Francisco and Ashley gave her two-weeks notice to our former employer.

Over the course of the summer I became obsessed with the trip and put images of Alaska on my desk at Casker to pull through each day of work. I resorted to desperate measures to save money: cleaning the bathrooms at Casker for $20 cash every Friday and putting myself on a stringent budget; I even stooped so low as to clean the house of three male friends, one of whom was my 8th-grade science teacher, for another $80 just before the trip commenced.

What can I say? This Great Alaskan Adventure became my raison d’être, and I was going to do whatever it took to make it happen. I figured I would rather scrub toilets than pass up the opportunity to drive from SF to Alaska, camping and Couch Surfing the whole way.

And so, at the beginning of August, just when I was about to reach my boiling point, I took off for the Left Coast, and the way I saw it was: there's nowhere to go but up.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

10 Things I Hate About Westside Sports Park

10. I hate the manly men acting like boys and the boys acting like manly men who play softball there every week.
9. I hate the way I feel at work the next day after having drunk your 32oz. tubs of beer.
8. I hate that your cheese coneys aren't as good as Skyline's.
7. I hate that most of your clientele are rednecks, a lot of whom chew tobacco and bring their elementary-aged daughters along for lack of a better place to put them.
6. I hate the beer bellies and sleeveless muscle shirts that overwhelm the place.
5. I hate the seriousness about the games and the high levels of testosterone.
4. I hate that this is the highlight of most of your clientele's week and that, with your being located on the Westside of Cincinnati, they're all connected through first or second degree.
3. I hate the bored and boring women that come to watch.
2. I hate that I spent so many drunken nights there when I was underage, and that you had no plans of limiting how many tubs I consumed even while knowing full well that I was underage.
1. And most of all I hate the way that, despite it all, I keep coming back for more week after week.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

"Oh, it's just a little sparrow." "C'mon Roman, it's got ears!"

My brother, his girlfriend and I stopped off at the Red River Gorge in Slade, Kentucky to do some climbing on the way to Blowing Rock, North Carolina, this summer's destination for the Cassedy family vacation. Sweaty and satisfied (from the hot, hot heat and humidity and the completion of my first 5.10 lead climb - woo hoo!), we headed through Kentucky, Virgina, and Tennessee on one back road after another to North Carolina. Understandably, before the trip commenced, many assumed we were heading to the beach, but those who know my dad well know that he would never go to the beach in the middle of the summer. Instead, our vacation consisted of a fourteen-person cabin in the mountains between Boone, NC and Blowing Rock.

Yes, we all stayed in one cabin - Mom, Dad, brother Ben, brother's girlfriend Nicole, sister Helen, sister's husband Kevin, Aunt Clare (the youngest of my dad's eight siblings) and her daughter Callie (one of my thirty-one cousins on the Cassedy side of the family) , Aunt Kathy (the oldest of the eight), Lisa (another of the thirty-one cousins) and her seven year-old son Javi, and me. The cabin was nice and spacious, with a large deck and hot tub and quality fixings (like a large buffalo head over the fireplace), and we had a grand old time drinking too much beer, eating too much food, and playing hours of board games; that's not to say, however, that there wasn't a little bit of friction.

Let's take, for instance, the many games of Scattergories that were played. Some were played peacefully (even getting so lenient as to nearly allow Aunt Clare to receive points for "Kingdom Ruling" when "K" was the letter and "College Majors" was the topic), while others were not. The games that were not so peaceful typically involved a Cassedy male (Dad, Ben or both), and hell was raised when the game became a little too subjective in their eyes. I, not totally innocent when it came to stirring things up, would not go down without a fight when "Pool" was not accepted as a body of water that started with letter "P". (Look up "body of water" on Wikipedia if you're curious).

What also made things interesting were simple things like lights - yes, like lamps and track lights - because there was often disagreement about whether or not some of what seemed like hundreds of lights should be turned on or off. The older folks turned them on to see what was written on their Apples to Apples cards, and then Ben would turn them off, insisting that we didn't need so many lights.

And of course there was sleeplessness. Those of us who were trying to sleep past 8 a.m., especially those of us sleeping in the loft, were rudely awakened by the sound of Dad trying to break apart frozen hash browns on the kitchen counter top at whatever hour. And the most memorable sleepless night was the last night when, at 3 or 4 in the morning, I awoke in the top bunk of the loft to the sound of a bat's wings vibrating frantically around my bed. As it was zipping around, I assessed the possibility of the winged creature being just a butterfly or a bird, and once I realized it was in fact a bat and once it came a little too close to my face, I unexpectedly yelped. Nicole, having noticed the bat while laying in the bottom bunk, was the only one to get out of bed when I yelped, and the two of us went downstairs to safer ground and grabbed a spatula and some other kitchen utensil for protection - I felt like John Candy in The Great Outdoors. After having had a laughing fit over the ridiculousness of the situation, Nicole and I fell asleep next to the TV, bat-fighting utensils in-hand.

There are other things that made the vacation a little more sour: Dad getting impatient with me while playing Scrabble for (strategically) using all of the time that the hourglass gave me and Dad yelling at me (and I mean yelling, even going so far as to tell me I should get my own cabin next year) when I told my mom that Kevin and I were going to play beer pong on the kitchen table. Conversely, there are other things that made the vacation a little more sweet: the scrumptious brownie cake I baked on Callie's 23rd birthday; Javi's reading to everyone from his book of tales of goblins and his dancing to our a capella rendition of Michael Jackson's "Thriller"; and kebabs and fireworks on the 4th of July.

Would I do it all over again? Yes - but I think on the next trip I'll take Dad's advice (for once) and get my own place. That way I won't have to worry about waking to the banging of frozen hash browns on the counter top in the morning, and I'll be able to play as much beer pong as I want. If nothing else I'll at least have an escape plan.....and maybe a tennis racket, just in case I have another run-in with a bat.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Chance Encounters of the Praha Kind

The last few days have left me feeling very nostalgic for Prague, where I studied for a semester in the Fall of 2006. A year prior, my junior year at the University of Colorado, I didn't think much of leaving the States and thought I would surely move back to Cincinnati after graduation to start a career and to get settled. Then, something must have clicked, and I decided to study in a country that I had previously known next to nothing about (all I had heard was that Prague was beautiful and that the beer was good and cheap), and where I didn't speak a lick of the language or know a soul.

Little did I know that this arbitrarily planned experience would have such a profound impact on my life, and in hindsight, it seems a lot more serendipitous than arbitrary. My nostalgia begins with Charles Bridge and Old Town Square and favorite hangouts like Cross Club and U Sudu, and to me, right now, Prague seems like the most beautiful, romantic city in the world, where it's easy to feel like you're living in a dream. But what makes me the most nostalgic is not Prague's amazingly preserved architecture, history or charm; it's the people I met - those that became instant friends under unique circumstances; those that made me redefine what's important; and those that led me to new places like San Francisco and South America.

What's crazy is the timing of this nostalgia. My friend Kelsey is compiling a book for her brother who is studying abroad this coming fall, and she asked me to email her some recommendations for Prague. Naturally, while remembering my favorite places in Prague to make good recommendations, I was pining for the city and the people it led me to, and with them still fresh on my mind, I had a chance encounter. Enjoying a beer on a Friday night at an outdoor cafe in Covington, Kentucky, I saw in my peripheral vision a young man walking out of the line of tents from Goetta Fest, and his tee-shirt looked familiar (though I didn't think twice about it); suddenly, he approached me and asked if I recognize him. Low and behold, it was one of my friends from Prague, Adam Siemiginowski, and he just so happened to be wearing the tee-shirt we received at our graduation ceremony at Charles University in Prague! Adam and I said, "Jak se mas?" and "Mam se fajn" and caught up on life, and it was the perfect outlet for my sentimental feelings.

What are the chances of me running into one of the 85 kids I studied with in Prague at exactly that time and place? I would have previously said something along the lines of one in a million. I'm no statistician, but I guess it was just meant to be.

[Czech it out: http://www.prague.tv/]

Casker Monkey

The Casker Company is a family business that started from scratch three generations ago and evolved into one of the top two wholesalers of watch parts in the country. I have worked at Casker a few times over the years and certainly did not expect to be back there after my last stint about five years ago, when the term "Casker monkey" came to be. As it turns out, if you quit your well-paying, white-collar sales job in San Francisco to go backpacking in South America for a few months, you may end up making sacrifices like working at Casker - C'est La Vie.

As a Casker monkey, one of my many tasks is to package the watch parts, which come in bulk from Asia and must be broken down. And so, it is possible that for an entire afternoon, or maybe an entire working day, I will be counting out spring bars, putting them in packs of twelve, making up gasket assortments or checking the inventory of the most recent shipment of watch movements. In addition to packaging, I answer the phones and fill orders for watch parts and am forced to try to answer questions about an Omega balance complete, a Hamilton stem, or any other kind of watch part that probably means as much to me as it does to you. This kind of blue-collar work, the packaging aspect in particular, was why my siblings, cousins, and I used to liken ourselves to child laborers or monkeys and why we were on the brink of insanity for hours on end.

What's more interesting than the nature of the work, however, is the environment at Casker and the people - the monkeys if you will - who work there. Imagine going from studying and backpacking abroad and trying to associate yourself primarily with open-minded, worldly people back to the simpleness of the Midwest, which seems to come to a head at the Casker Company. Talk about reverse culture shock! There is a distaste for most things foreign at Casker that has been almost as eye-opening as the perverse culture of San Francisco and the poverty of large parts of South America. A small-town co-worker of mine tells me about her trip to France, saying that she'll probably never leave the country again because she was so put off by the fact that they did not speak English. Another co-worker tells me how nervous she is to attend a soccer game in Chicago that will - gasp! - be largely attended by Spanish-speaking people (the opponent being Honduras), and time and time again, I overhear other co-workers say, "I hate foreigners" when they get off the phone with someone who doesn't place an order in perfect English.

It's not the opposition to, or even fear of, things that are foreign that's most shocking about the simple-mindedness of some of the Casker monkeys; it's the simple living and lack of social intelligence that's really striking. I have pretty well given up on asking co-workers on Monday mornings about what they did over the weekend, knowing that most answers will revolve around yard-work of some kind. And there's one co-worker in particular (we'll call her Shirley) with whom I never attempt to strike up a conversation about anything whatsoever. She, however, will come talk to me about anything and everything without any solicitation. Such "conversations" are comprised mostly of Shirley talking and laughing without much response from me, and she rambles about topics such as: 4H Club and the goats that she's been raising and is anxious to show off at the fair; the start of her step-daughter's period (that the girl started it at the grandmother's house and that the grandmother nor the mom were willing to go spend three or four dollars on a box of pads); and friends that Shirley has on Facebook, including a girl she knew from high school who's mother constantly told her how stupid she was. One of the most memorable Shirley quotes, in the midst of a discussion about another co-worker's daughter's breast implants, was, "Didn't they ever tell her more than a mouthful's a waste?" and she walked away bursting with laughter that showcased her bucked teeth.

There are times at Casker when you wish you could play the "I don't speak your language" card so you're not forced to "partake" in conversations about a step-daughter's period, but then again, maybe it's best to grin and bear it and to remember that it takes all kinds of people to make the world go round.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Back to Life, Back to Reality

Who says that life is over after a life-altering backpacking adventure that, looking back, seems like nothing more than a dream, just like most great adventures? While living at my parents' house in Cincinnati (mowing the five-and-a-half acre lawn on a zero-turn riding mower to earn my keep) and filling orders for watch parts part-time for $10 an hour doesn't exactly sound glamorous, it's been anything but mundane.

While I can be quite critical of Cincinnati for its simple-minded folk, stagnancy and lack of my kind of entertainment and culture, Cincinnati is and always will be home, and I am happy to be spending time here. With my own room and a full-sized bed, a mother who attends concerts with me and packs lunches for me before I leave for work (and who has dinner ready at 6:00 every evening), and the ability to get in my car and go, what more could I need as I transition back into the real world?

In addition to experiencing the culture shock of returning home, I have, in the last month and a half, rollerbladed through the muck and the mayhem of the in-field at the Kentucky Derby - my favorite recent discovery; fortuitously become a "groupie" of an up-and-coming band called Low vs. Diamond; done my first lead-climb at Red River Gorge, Kentucky; hitchhiked my way home from a bar on a bicycle (yes, a bicyclist biked me home from a bar, as in I sat on the seat while he, a complete stranger, pedaled at 1:30 on a Friday night); and, with the help of some good friends, started an impromptu dance party at a pizza parlor in Chicago. These things and more have made post-backpacking life far from dull, and it's a good thing, too, because otherwise I might not have survived simultaneous splits from South America and my on-and-off-again boyfriend of three years. Sure, these were tough hurtles to get over, in conjunction with my dismal outlook on the job market and the World in general (ever-mounting tensions in the Middle East, nuclear testing in North Korea, and a general closed-mindedness of people all over), but a slew of mini adventures, good family and friends, and a little bit of optimism can go a long way.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Brazil: The Best for Last, Perhaps


On March 25th, I say bye to Stephen, who's catching a flight back to the States from Buenos Aires the following day, and I also bid farewell to Jayne, as I am leaving Valizas and making my way to Brazil. It's on the bus to Chuy, the border town in Uruguay, where the reality of the situation sets in: I am on my own. No Stephen. No Schuster, no Jayne. No Spanish, soon enough. It's just me and the familiarities of backpacking. It's an estuary where the tides of terror meet a river of liberation, and I'm not sure whether I'll sink or swim.

In Chuy, I have about five hours to kill until my bus leaves for Porto Alegre, Brazil, the majority of which are spent at an internet cafe. Strangely enough, the point-of-departure for the bus is at the customs office on the highway, and I end up waiting there for two hours for the bus that's an hour and a half late. The only people around are a few customs officials, one of whom looks after me by inviting me inside for a glass of Pepsi and reassuring me, when I'm sure that the bus is not coming, that the bus will arrive. He and I shoot the breeze for a while, and finally, like he said, the bus arrives.

When we arrive in Porto Alegre in the morning, I realize, now that it's light out, that the three Swedish soccer players from the hostel in La Paloma - Hannah, Lina and Therese - are in the seats right behind me. They, too, are heading to Florianopolis, and so the four of us catch another eight-hour bus together and, once in Florianopolis, we share a cab to the Barra da Lagoa neighborhood on the other side of the island of Santa Catarina.

The girls have a reservation at a hostel in Lagoa, and, as we find out once we arrive at the hostel, they have no more space for yours truly. Down on my luck, I leave the hostel to go to a nearby bed and breakfast, but I am approached just outside by a guy who has an apartment for rent. Taking my normal approach to solicitors like this, I tell him no thank you and that I already have a place to stay. My ears perk, however, when he says that the apartment is only 25 reais a night (that's roughly twelve dollars and ten reais cheaper than the hostel). He also tells me that it's just up the hill from where we're standing and that I can come take a look and then decide. I make a snap judgment and follow him up the to apartment, slightly reassured by the fact that the neighborhood is safe and that what's-his-face is saying hi to neighbors as we pass.

The available apartment, as it turns out, is the one that costs 30 reais a night (still cheaper than the hostel), but I would have two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom all to myself. It's clean and fully equipped with all new fixings; I can knock on the door of what's-his-face and his mother if there's anything I need. Yes, I'll take it! I tell the Swedes about the apartment, and they move in with me on my third and final night there. They would have moved in earlier, but they had already committed to two nights at the hostel.

The apartment is not the only great thing about my time in Florianopolis, the fishing village with a big surf scene. Alongside the lagoon, old men play dominoes and little kids play soccer, and surfers and sun bathers spend hours at the beach. I often alternate between reading on the soft sand and body surfing in the emerald green water, and I climb around on the boulders that line the shore, one of which is perfect for diving into the water.

I spend a fair amount of time with the Swedes but am not too excited about their company since they speak in Swedish most of the time. Finally, though, on my last night in town, the night we share the apartment, they start to speak more in English and apologize for using any Swedish. We have wine and beer and listen to music at the apartment, and the four of us go out for a big seafood dinner. Our conversations are more meaningful than previous ones, and I find out that Therese is a videographer for the Swedish version of "Idol," that she and Hannah travelled with and fell for a couple of Israeli guys early on in their trip, and that Lina is a music fiend. The four of us horse around on a playground after dinner, and they are impressed by my ability to fling myself far off the swingset. Back at the apartment, I share a bed with Lina, who snores loudly, and I can't help but wonder, despite the bonding and good fun, how they chose who got to share the bed with the American.

São Paulo:

It takes about two hours just to get to the main bus terminal in Florianopolis because of bad traffic, and I´m stuck with a guy named Peter or Petr or Pedre, a creepy older man who´s a beach vendor, one of the guys who walks around trying to sell sunglasses. He won´t stop talking to me and asking me questions, and every time he asks me something, like ¨Did you know you can buy a English/Portuguese dictionary?¨(duh), he says my name and rests his hand on my forearm. When we finally part ways, he tells me that he will always remember this date as the day he met Sarah, and he suggests that we exchange email addresses. This is when the Language Barrier Card comes in handy. ¨Computador? Por qué? No entiendo.¨

An overnight bus gets me to São Paulo in the morning, and my first impression of the city is that there are a lot of people (it´s the fourth largest city in the world, in fact), many of whom are homeless, and that there are a lot of autobody shops. I am also struck by the fact that in the metro station, where trains run every minute or two to accomodate the masses of people, two locals ask me questions in Portuguese, as if I, with my big backpack and all, would have a better clue than they would. I guess I do a pretty good job of not standing out as a gringa because this is the first of many instances of Brazilians talking to me Portuguese and assuming I´m from here.

Like the thorn bushes that line many of its sidewalks, São Paulo is prickly, and I´m a little nervous the whole while I´m there because Brazilians and foreigners alike warned me about how dangerous it is. It doesn´t help that I stay the first night in a hostel that resembles a Communist Bloc apartment building and that I´m the only person in the eight-bed dorm room.

São Paulo, despite its prickliness, turns out to be a great four-day stop. I spend quality time with my friend Kendra, who´s teaching English in São Paulo, and I even go to one of her lessons with her. The two of us catch up, and I realize how much I had been needing to be with one of my girlfriends. We eat sushi and gnocchi (as it turns out, SP has the largest Japanese and Italian populations outside of Japan and Italy), and we thwart the advances of creepy, old Brazilian men.

On my last day in the city, I do some touristy things with a group from my hostel, led by Jimmy, who works at LimeTime, the hostel, but who´s from San Francisco. We visit a cathedral, eat some açai, go to the top of an old bank building that towers over most of the rest of the gigantor city, and visit an outdoor market. There, people sell everything from batteries to x-rated cd´s, and when the cops drive through they swiftly make their pirated merchandise invisible. It´s swarming with people and bubbles are floating through the air, and I´m walking through it like a zombie. Later in the night, though, I find energy in some Portuguese-style pizza, and Kendra, Jimmy, the owner of the hostel and a bunch of others play card games, have some beers, and go out for a night of dancing at a place called Fun House, which, with its hipsters and good dj´s, makes me nostalgic for San Francisco. I drink caiprinhas and bust some moves to electronic music until 4a.m. or so and stay up all night to catch my 8a.m. bus to Trindade.

Trindade and Paraty:

Trindade is part of Rio de Janeiro state and the Emerald Coast of Brazil. I make a ten-minute stop in Paraty before catching a bus there, and the ride, only forty minutes, is quite titillating because the driver whips around tight turns and speeds up as we approach hills to try to catch some air. The people in the back of the bus yell "Woooo!" and egg the driver on even more.

Trindade is a bite-size town with laid-back locals, "where jungled hills meet beautiful beaches". It's still making its way into the backpacker circuit, and so it's a sort of beneath-the-radar paradise that's not yet been tainted by tourists. I stay at a hostel called Kaissara that's owned by a guy named George who's from near Liverpool. The hostel "maid," a Brazilian babe named Eli (pronounced Ellie), shows me to my bed, and then he walks me down to a massive rock on the beach where we sit and watch the waves crash. He speaks in Portuguese and I speak in Spanish, achieving some level of understanding, and then he treats me to a Coke and a pão de queijo. Back at the hostel, I meet George, who, like the hostel owner in La Paloma, walks around in his swim trunks most of the time and who does a great job of making me feel at home.

The next day George takes me with one of his friends who's visiting from back home to the piscina natural, natural swimming pool, where we do a bit of snorkeling and climb around on the boulders. After a quick boat ride back to the main part of town, George takes me to a lookout point and to a spot that offers a couple of boulders that are good for plunging into the aqua-colored water.

In the evening, George and I play cards, and I beat him at his own game, Shithead, a couple of times. We have beers with Ignacio, a lawyer from Buenos Aires who now works as a restaurant manager on a small island off the coast of Spain, and a group of twenty year-old Norwegian guys. Also joining the group is Renato and his hundred-pound lab named Jorge. Renato is enjoying the freedom of retirement (he used to own a company that makes some 30,000 pairs of women's jeans every month) and the fact that his wife is out of town, shopping in New York. He drunkenly talks about his beloved dog ("Isn't he beautiful?") and his love for Las Vegas, where he typically visits four times a year and where, on his last visit, a fifteen-day trip, he lost $10,000. The group goes to a beachfront bar that's owned and run by a guy who walks around in his boxers, showcasing his many tattoos, and that has old records and posters covering the walls. There's a warm ocean breeze, good music is playing, and the caiprinhas are flowing. What a night.

On my last day in Trindade I go with Ignacio to a beach called Praia Brava. It's a large crescent-shaped stretch of sand that hosts only us and couple of other people. The water is warm, and the waves are large and perfect for body surfing. Ignacio offers good company and introduces me to some bossa nova, one of the musical flavors of Brazil. I lie on the sand listening to the jazz-infused samba, and I feel an overwhelming sense of, "Wow, life is good." The day gets even better when we hike back through the jungle past some waterfalls and along another larger beach, stopping for some beers along the way. We grab dinner at a per-kilo restaurant and then pick up the fixings for more caiprinhas: cachaca (Brazilian cane liquor), passion fruit (a nice alternative to limes), ice and sugar. More caiprinhas and more cards, and this time we play several games with a couple from the U.K., including a game which involves shouting and making gestures. The mixture of the drinks and the silly card games makes Ignacio, who claims to be shy, extremely giddy, and I can't help cracking up myself.

The morning after, I reluctantly leave Trindade and Kaissara and head back to Paraty, where I spend a couple of hours walking around the historic center with its white colonial buildings and colorful doorways and shutters. In the afternoon I catch a bus to Angra dos Reis, from where I'll take a boat to Ilha Grande.

Ilha Grande:

Getting a boat from Angra dos Reis to Ilha Grande on a Sunday evening proves to be rather difficult. I missed the only ferry of the day, and the private boat that I was supposed to take gets pushed back once, twice, three times before being canceled altogether due to not having enough people to make it worth the owner's while. After sitting at the boat terminal for about four hours, I'm close to giving up and going to find a place to stay in Angra, but I team up with two Brazilian women and two Brazilian men and my persistence pays off. Paula, one of the optimistic and charismatic Brazilian women, searches and searches for someone to take us over and finally finds a young guy named Peter who's willing to take us for fifty reais a pop. The two bonehead guys we partnered up with only had 60 reais between them so the three of us women pay extra for them, and I figure it's my good deed for the day. Despite the expense, the trip is great, and I keep telling myself that patience pays. We ride on the tiny boat, passing around a couple of joints and watching the reflections of lights from small towns on the water. An hour and a half later, around midnight, we arrive in Abraão, the primary town on the island, and I make my way to my waterfront hostel, where I sleep like a baby.

The weather on the island, unfortunately, is rainy, and I hike for two hours in the pouring rain to a town on the other side of the island. At points, it's raining so hard that the water is running off my eyelashes, and rainwater is squishing in my hiking shoes. Luckily, I find a couple of Norwegian girls who are also nutty enough to do the hike and who are good company. Once we arrive in the Dois Rios, we find it to be a little ghost town; misty rain, only a couple of signs of life, the remains of a large prison, formerly home to Brazil's most notorious convicts, that was imploded in 1994, and a mass of vultures sitting watchfully on the beach. We rush back to Abraão so as not to get stuck hiking in the dark, and after some much needed showers we meet up for dinner on the beach.

Hoping for some sunshine on my last day on the island, I ride in a boat to Lopes Mendes, touted as one of the top beaches in the world, or in Brazil anyway. A sizable group of people makes its way to the beach, walking through the jungle past some monkeys with tiny circular faces who leap from tree to tree, looking curiously at the passers-by. The sand is soft and the water extremely clear, but there are gray skies and a few drops of rain. I decide to take the advice of some guys from São Paulo and check out Praia Santo Antonio, a smaller beach nearby, and I'm delightfully surprised when, after hiking twenty minutes to get there, I see no one else in sight. I have the beach to myself, and the sun is starting to shine through the clouds.

After getting a boat back to town, I go with my roommates - three cute-as-can-be Irish girls and a tall and friendly Canadian guy - to the hostel BBQ. There's all-you-can-eat chorizos, steak, chicken and fish, and salad and cheap beer, and in true Sarah Lee fashion, I eat way more than is necessary and stuff myself to the brim. A dance party erupts on the hostel patio and after dj'ing for a few songs, I decide, mostly in part to my beer and food coma, to hit the sack.

Rio de Janeiro:

A few hours by boat and van, and I'm in Ipanema, one of the nicer neighborhoods of Rio, which is the Marvelous City indeed, but not without a price. My first evening there is spent running errands, and I end up paying 30 reais for laundry (keep in mind an exchange of 2.2). The hostel is the most expensive of the trip at 45 reais a night - still a fair rate but pricey when compared to the $7/night hostels in Ecuador at the start of the trip. The hostel, Harmonia, is nice anyway, and I end up spending the rest of the evening hanging out with its Swedish owner, an easy-going guy named Rob, who pours me a couple of glasses of red wine while we listen to my newly purchased bossa nova cd and talk about traveling and the people (cariocas) and places of Rio. The only thing that sours the night, other than the cost of having my laundry done, are the two girls that come into the dorm room at 5:00 in the morning; they turn on the lights, rummage through their things, and talk in normal voices about how one of them got rejected at the bar, all for about half an hour. Talk about good hostel etiquette.

Determined to get out of the hostel the next day, I do a tour of the city that includes Tijuca National Park, Corcovado and Cristo Redentor (the Christ statue), and little bits of Lapa and Santa Teresa. The tour is led by a very enthusiastic guy who looks and acts like a New Yorker, which makes sense since he lived in the Bronx for eight-years as a kid. I'm normally not too keen on tours, but this one is good since the guide is informative and since getting around to see the sights on your own can be just as expensive and a little dicey. So the guide takes us through the 32 square-kilometer Tijuca rainforest, the largest urban forest, to the platform from which hang gliders and paragliders take off. From there we go to Corcovado, the mountain that Christ sits atop, and there are so many people, most of whom are taking ridiculously cheesy photos, that I feel like I could puke. From Corcovado we descend back into the city, passing by a few favelas in Santa Teresa and visiting the colorful, tiled stairs in Lapa.

After the tour I meet up with an Italian girl who I was put in touch with by Jimmy (Remember, the guy who worked at the hostel in São Paulo?) and her carioca friend, Julio, for rodizio-style pizza, where you pay a fixed price and where waiters come around throughout the meal offering different types of pizza (rodizio is to Brazil as dim sum is to China). Back at the hostel, my sleep is interrupted again by the same girl who woke me up on the previous night - only tonight she's having sex with one of the guys from our dorm just a couple feet from the bottom of my bed. Gross.

A little frustrated by the last two nights of interrupted sleep in the dorm and slightly annoyed that it seems to be taking me a couple of days to adjust in Rio, my bad luck starts to turn around on the third day. Because the hostel is overbooked and because I've won Rob the owner's favor, I am moved to a private room that is normally occupied by a hostel employee who's currently out of town. A private room where I don't have to be disturbed by drunken girls and sex in the wee hours of the morning? Woo! I spend time at Ipanema beach during the day, navigating through the hordes of umbrellas, beach chairs, and barely covered beach-goers., and people-watching and playing some beach volleyball. And in the night time a bunch of us - the Italian and the carioca, a few people from the U.K. and Nicholas, my French friend - go to Lapa to check out the nightlife. While one can easily make a party on the streets, with makeshift bars and loads of young people all over the sidewalks, we decide to hit up Rio Scenarium, an old, three-story colonial house, decorated with mannequins and other stage props and antiques, that now serves as a nightclub featuring live samba music. The band of the night is lively and the party in full-force, so we stay out late, and then I retire to my private room.

I spend more time at the beach on Saturday, watching the paddle-ballers and foot volley games (like volleyball but with no hands!), and I take advantage of the fact that there are vendors everywhere in sight, buying a sarong and a couple of beers. Walking down the beach with beer in hand, like many Brazilians do throughout all days of the week, I make my way to Punta Aproador, a massive rock that juts out at the end of Ipanema Beach where people gather to watch the surfers and the sunset.

After a mellow Saturday night, I decide to get up on Sunday morning, Easter Sunday that is, and attend mass at a beautiful church down the street. I try my best to recite everything in Portuguese, and I can't help but notice a few of the differences between masses at home and this one in Rio, one of which is the fact that there is no order what-so-ever to the Communion service. Everyone gets up at once, and no lines are formed. It's chaotic, and it's so South-American. After mass, I venture to Sao Cristovao with a couple from the U.K., who have been traveling the world together for three years, and with Johan, my friend from Denmark. It's a sketchy neighborhood, but the fair there, which happens every weekend, should not be missed, according to Rob. The fair takes place in a large open-air arena, and it offers cheap and tasty food, delightfully tacky goods such as cd's and hair accessories, and a few stages of live music. It's a bizarre scene, with some people opting to sit in chairs around a television screen that's playing a concert instead of enjoying the live music, and those that are "enjoying" the live music are dancing energetically but with stone-cold looks on their faces. Absurdities aside, it's probably the most authentic thing I'll do in Rio; there are no other tourists to be seen.

That evening, I am determined to go to a baile funk, the famous favela party and home of Brazilian funk music, which is supposedly raw and lyrically dirty and nothing like American funk. I am not drawn to the idea of the music as much as I am drawn to the fact that the baile funks are where it's at, the party of the cariocas. I'm told that 95% of the party-goers are locals and 5% are tourists, and what's more is the fact that some of the venues can hold up to 10,000 people. It also helps that there are tours to the funk parties, which are supposed to be good if not for transportation alone, and that they're supposed to be relatively safe - no guns allowed, phew!

So before I know it, there's fifteen to twenty people from the row of hostels going to the party and packing into the utility vans that will take us there. It's a fun group, with Johan; a guy from Quebec named Ian, a couple from Russia who's been living in New York for some years, and a group of friendly Australians, among others. Just outside the club we have some drinks at the makeshift bar and get friendly with a group of locals, who insist that we take a round of photos with them. We then step inside the dance hall, and I am startled by the fact that it resembles a huge toilet; there's a strong stench and a layer of grime on the floor, and the toilets themselves are...well, let's not go there. What's also startling is the fact that the place is pretty empty. Our group of gringos makes up almost half of the crowd, and our waiting around for a little while to see if the party starts bumping is to no avail. The music is pretty good, but it's not enough, and half of the group heads back to Ipanema. Johan and I, determined to celebrate his 21st birthday, go to a bar that's packed full of backpackers and that plays American pop music - a stark contrast to the baile funk. Ian the Quebecois, on the other hand, stays all night at the funk party, trying and succeeding in hooking up with a local honey, and finds out that the place had cleared just before our arrival because of a shooting. I have to say, it's a little unnerving. What happened to the no guns allowed rule?

Feeling like I need more favela fun, I opt to do a tour of the slums the next day. (No, I am not completely crazy - I decide to this before finding out about the shooting at the baile funk). The tour is led by Marcelo Armstrong, the "pioneer" of favela tours in Rio, and we make two stops: one to Rocinha and one to Vila Canoas. Rocinha is the biggest favela in Rio with 60,000 inhabitants, and Vila Canoas is home to roughly 2,000 people. Upon entering Rocinha, we pass a huge heap of garbage, sprawling chaotically next to and onto the street, and the garbage collectors stand by idly, shooting the breeze. Marcelo informs us, unnecessarily, that garbage collection in the favelas is a major problem.

On our way in the van to the heart of Rocinha, Marcelo gives us the low-down on favela life, driving home the points that we are not unsafe in the favelas and that they are not as bad as the locals make them out to be. I don't, in fact, feel unsafe in Rocinha, and I often have to remind myself where I am, and it seems that many in the slum are trying to maintain "normal" lives. No one pays much attention to us, and there are things like doctors' offices and school supply stores that you don't expect to see in a community that is run by drug dealers. Speaking of drug dealers, we naturally talk about the drug trade and how it affects everyday life in the slums. The dealers range in age, generally from seventeen to twenty-five years, and despite their young age, anyone who has any sense will side with them over the cops, who could, arguably, be just as corrupt. Marcelo also explains that the reason there is no crime in favelas like Rocinha (and that all muggings happen outside the favelas) is because anyone who does anything to attract the attention of the cops and, thus, tamper with the drug trade is in a very bad spot: opposite the drug dealer and likely to get killed. This explanation seems logical, but I can't help but think that there's more to the story. I confirm my suspicions later when a random cab driver explains to me that the favela tour guides pay off the drug dealers.

Drugs aside, the favela is swarming with moto-taxis, electrified with bundles of exposed wires, and made up primarily of brick buildings and shacks (yes, brick; not cardboard) that are piled on top of each other. The second favela, Vila Canoas, is more mellow, and we have the opportunity to walk through the maze of narrow alleyways, in which it's hard to tell what time of day it is. We also stop by the local school that is funded primarily by the favela tours - a good thing because it helps you to feel like you're not just exploiting the locals by taking part in the tours. The school is full of excited students (though they're pretty much oblivious to the tour groups by now), and it even has a new computer room and, believe it or not, a photo of Barack Obama on one of the classroom walls. It might go without saying, but the school's m.o. is to give kids from the slums a chance at obtaining a higher education, which, unsurprisingly, is mostly only accessible to the children in the wealthy neighborhoods just outside of the favela who can afford private education.

So the favela tour is over, but Johan's birthday celebration is still going strong. A group of eight or so backpackers goes to a churrascaria, which is the steakhouse version of rodizio-style eating. The formula is almost deadly: an all-you-can-eat buffet with an assortment of salads, sushis, hummus...you name it, and rounds upon rounds upon rounds of delicious cuts of beef and lamb; not to mention the caiprinhas and the company. Our group is sauced up, and we create quite a scene in the moderately upscale restaurant. There are about a dozen birthday toasts, half of which are, for whatever reason, directed to Ian the Quebecois, instead of Johan, and the Aussies are practically yelling the whole while we're there, especially when demanding something in English from the wait staff, who, curiously enough, are amused, not annoyed, by our antics. One of the Aussies invites me to the restroom to do a line (I politely decline), and the girl from the U.K., the one who had been keeping me awake in the dormitory but who has since grown on me a bit, starts to panic after a couple of hours and tells us all that she's manic depressive. Nothing can top dinner, and after a few drinks and dances at a nearby nightclub, I call it a night, determined to be well-rested for my big climb the following day: a multi-pitch route up Pão de Açúcar, also known as Sugar Loaf - the perfect way to end my South American adventure.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Uruguay: Not Myuguay

Colonia and Montevideo:

It´s not easy leaving my comfortable little life in Buenos Aires, but Uruguay calls, and so Stephen and I say goodbye to Daniela and Marcelo and to Schuster as well, who will stay in Buenos Aires a while longer and then go his own way at his own pace.

The Buquebus ferries us from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. Colonia is a picturesque town with cobblestone streets, a lighthouse, and Sycamore trees and mopeds everywhere you look. Its cafes spill over the sidewalks and onto the cobblestone, and this, the oldest town in Uruguay, is a good indicator of how tranquilo life in Uruguay is.

After spending just a few hours in Colonia, we take a bus to Montevideo, the country´s capital city. Montevideo seems stuck somewhere between the small beach towns in Uruguay and a full-fledged city. (It´s no Buenos Aires; that´s for sure). Horse-drawn buggies collect trash, passing well-dressed business men as they go. The beaches are mediocre, and the only thing to speak of, based on my two days there, is the Port Market. There, at a number of parillas, hefty men (grillmasters, if you will), serve large slabs of meat and chorizos, pulling them off the grill and plopping them onto your plate. Tourists and business men alike go to town on the asados, helping them down with some cold beer. The funniest to watch of them all is Stephen, the born-again carnivore, who can´t decide if he´s delighted or absolutely disgusted.

Punta del Este and Manantiales:

Punta del Este is known for being a resort town that draws in people from all over the world. Argentines, many of whom own summer homes in Punta del Este, cannot say enough about Punta del Este. I, however, am not too impressed. Sure, it has decent beaches, but it could just as easily be a big development in Florida; not to mention that our hostel, equally unimpressive, is the most expensive of the trip thus far, even though high season is over.

Manantiales is about thirty minutes north of Punta del Este. The hostel and nearby beach offer relaxation and, more importantly, a chance to finish my tax return. It´s good riddance and too bad that I didn´t realize earlier that I would be receiving a sizeable refund, as I may have extended my trip.

La Paloma:

La Paloma, or at least our hostel there, is a manifestation of the buena onda of Uruguay. The hostel is run by a sixty-something man named Ricardo and his two younger, surf bum counterparts, and it sits just across the street from the beach. Santiago, one of the younger owners, checks us in, and he wears nothing but his swim trunks the whole while we're there.

Due in part to the small group staying at the hostel - roughly ten people from Sweden, Australia, Germany and the U.S. - we receive first class treatment from our hosts. They join in the soccer matches on the beach, and it's the first time I've ever seen a sixty year-old man (Ricardo) do a headball, and a good one at that. Ricardo also takes it upon himself to man the fire pit and the grill in the evenings, and he serves up delicious caiprinhas, the national drink of Brazil, from the bar. It's tempting to stay the week, like the brother and sister from Boulder and the three Swedish soccer players, but it's onward to Barra de Valizas to meet my aunt Jayne.

Barra de Valizas and Cabo Polonio:

Jayne, who's residing in Valizas for a month and a half and the only gringa around, meets us at the bus stop and shows us to the duplex of her friend Milton, where we'll stay for a few days. The cozy hippie cabin smells like an antique store and has knicknacks on the walls. The town itself, with about 200 residents, is also hippie. The streets are of grass and sand, and the "potholes" are patched with rocks and hay by volunteers; all of the public utilities, in fact, are done by volunteers, and the only form of government to be found are a couple of police officers who are probably not really needed. Horses graze on every block, and the locals wave and say hello as you pass.

Milton, the owner of the cabin in which we're staying, is from Valizas, but he lived as a hippie in the United States for twenty-two years and in Mexico for four. He tells us about the fishermen in Valizas, who just recently dug out the delta of the river to create an estuary to attract more fish; about the nearby magnetic strip in the ocean that has caused compasses to fail and many ships to wreck; and about living out of a backpack and being homeless for twenty-six years. He also talks about the book he has self-published: an account of his ten year search for inner peace, which he tells us is necessary to be at peace with the world, and the impact of the environment on spirituality. Milton is well-spoken, and he hardly resembles a hippie, with sophisticated, tortoise-rimmed glasses and a Coca-Cola hat that covers his thick, well-kempt, pearly-white hair.

Besides listening to Milton's stories and philosophies, we get a first-hand glimpse into Jayne's day-to-day life in Valizas. How about doing a little "dead bug" in her yoga studio - a comforter on the grass - after having some wine and tea, and why not a good body surfing session in the afternoon? The ocean is browned from the waters of the river, and we ponder whether the newly formed estuary attracts sharks; we enjoy the surf nonetheless. In the evenings, we make dinner and sip more wine, and I'm eager to hear Jayne's plans for me, which include starting a travel photography workshop. It's encouraging, especially at this juncture, when I can sense the end of the trip is near and when I am dreading a harsh reality of fruitless job searching.

On the second-to-last day in Uruguay, Stephen and I make the trip to Cabo Polonio, the neighboring town that's inacessible by road and that wouldn't be in existence if not for the government's plan, some years back, to plant pine trees along the coast in order to break up the monotony of the sand dunes. A local ferries us across the river from Valizas to the dunes (not completely wiped out by the pine), and what could be an hour and a half walk to Cabo turns into a four-hour walk. We stop to admire the ponds and boulders within the dunes, run down the largest of the dunes, and, back at the shore (where the beaches are empty except for a couple of passers-by and some cows), we jump into the brown and then emerald green water to cool off (a visible line divides the ocean water that's mingled with the river water and that which has not). Cabo itself is not bad, but the journey there was a lot more fun. The journey back to Valizas was interesting as well, with a 4x4 ride along the beach and through the pine to the main highway and then hitch-hiking with a family from Valizas back to the center of town .

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Argentina: Where the Culture is as Pungent as the Mate


The bus ride through the Andes to Argentina is beautiful, especially from our panoramic seats in the front row of the top floor. We arrive in Bariloche at night and shack up at one of the institutional HI - Hosteling International - hostels. In the daytime, we move to a hostel two doors down that's not as clean but a little more relaxed. Both hostels have bidets in the bathrooms, but, as it turns out, they're in pretty much every bathroom in Argentina and Uruguay. For those of you who don't know, a bidet is a basin with a spicket, right next to the toilet, that cleans the genital area and the, uh, inner buttocks. Apparently they're quite popular in a lot of South American and European countries, but I'll just stick to my regimen of using toilet paper and cleaning well in la ducha, the shower.

Bariloche is a resort town smack in the middle of Argentina's lake district. Saint Bernards sit in the square, with small barrels around their necks, waiting to pose for photos so that their owners can make a few pesos. Chocolate shops, the most popular of which is called Del Turista (for the tourist), serve dulce de leche-flavored ice cream, and chalet-type hotels accomodate summer tourists like us and skiers in the winter time. Is this Argentina, or did I somehow end up in Switzerland?

We take a bus out of town to one of the many lakes, sit beside it and eat our packed lunches, and do a hike through the forest to a small waterfall. Unfortunately, our Ecuadorian friend Henry is not around, so we can only look at the waterfall - no repelling today. Back in town in the evening, I watch some skaters at the ice rink that sits just above the lake, reading my book and thinking about tomorrow: my 24th birthday. Wanting to rest up for the occasion, I put myself to bed early but am aroused at midnight when the guys barge into the room singing ¨Happy Birthday¨. Insisting that we go out for at least a drink, they take me down the street to the casino, essentially a banquet room that, unlike Vegas, is brightly lit and relatively quiet. The guys buy me a Whiscola and give me a hundred pesos to play Black Jack. When we leave the table I am up thirty pesos (roughly ten dollars), and it seems my birthday is off to a good start.

The next morning, a little sad about being away from home and with few expecations for my birthday, I am, needless to say, ecstatic when Stephen surprises me by taking me to a five-star hotel called Edelweiss, where a suite with views of the lake awaits us. I spend most of the day in the robe and slippers that come with the room; I undwind in the jacuzzi tub; I watch ¨Ghostbusters¨and U.S. television programs; and I drink a free bottle of champagne, compliments of the hotel. It's the perfect break, just about halfway through the trip, from the bunked beds, dirty bathrooms and paranoia that come along with the hosteling way of life. In the evening, Schuster, Stephen and I go to meet Sam, his girlfriend, his girlfriend's sister and her friend at a restaurant on a street called el 20 de febrero, my birth date. As we approach the restaurant the power on the block goes out; I sit in the candlelight eating my delicious steak dinner with a few friends and a few near-perfect strangers, and I must say that it's not half bad for a 24th birthday in Argentina.

The morning after we enjoy the plentiful American-style buffet and the swimming pool at the hotel, savoring the last moments. It's back to hostel world mid-day, but the transition is easy because Sam and Schuster have found one of those jewel hostels. It's lakefront and clean, and it has a bar that brews its own blonde and stout beers. A short afternoon trip to Lago Llao Lao and the Llao Llao resort is the perfect topping to the day.

El Bolsón:

Schuster, Stephen and I say farewell to Sam, who's now in the hands of his girlfriend, Kate. Then the three of us go farther south to El Bolson, a magical little town that makes me feel nostalgic for Boulder. Located in a mountain valley, it's full of artesans (hippies) and microbeers. It's in Bolson that the Argentine culture starts to become apparent - the mate (mah-tay) gourds, the crazy pant styles (some with Rasta stripes and some with really baggy inseams that I call ¨poopy pants¨), the rat tail hairdos, etc. Our trio sets up camp at a campground on the parameters of town, makes foil meals for dinner and watches a couple of hang-gliders floating next to the flatirons that disappear into pink clouds. After dinner we go with the couple from the campsite next to ours - an Argentine woman and a glassblower from Eugene, Oregon - to the microbrewery down the street. The only disturbance in Bolson are the birds that screech at night while we sleep. One screech comes from a distance and another comes from the next campsite, and then suddenly it sounds like there's a god-awful bird inside the tent. I feel like I'm in a Hitchcock film.

On day two in Bolson the boys tackle a big hike, and I decide to do something more mellow. After spending a few hours using wi-fi at a cafe, I'm supposed to meet the couple from the campsite (the Argentina and the Oregonian) at the bus stop and do a small hike with them to the Enchanted Forest. I wait for them for a while and just when I come to the conclusion that they're not coming, an artesan (hippie) approaches me and asks me if I'd like to join him for a walk down to the river, where he's meeting his friends. I have nothing else to do, and the weather is perfect so I say, ¨Porque no?¨ Beto the Hippie and I cross the river on a pedestrian bridge and walk along a footpath for about an hour, speaking in Spanish the whole way. I keep wondering where he's taking me and if it was a bad idea to go along with him, but then I tell myself that he's pretty sedated and shorter and skinnier than me - I can kick his ass if need be. We reach a swimming hole and take a quick dip, and pretty soon we're in the little hippie commune where he lives. It's made up of a dilapidated house, a bunch of tents, some puppies, and a ring of friendly hippies who are passing around the mate gourd. I say hello to everyone and purchase a ring from Beto, not necessarily because I like his jewelry but more because I'm helping him toward purchasing his bus ticket to Mendoza. The two of us walk back to the main road and grab a ride in the back of a truck to the center of town. I say farewell, to Beto's dismay, but I spot his dreadlocks later in the evening when walking with Schuster and Stephen to grab some pizza; he's barefoot and juggling in the lawn of the main plaza, fraternizing with the other artesans.

Parque Nacional Los Alerces:

The three of us venture farther south to the national park that sort of falls beneath the radar for most people. It´s great news for us because we're able to camp for free just next to the lake, and we see all but a handful of other people the whole while we're there. We swim in the crystal-clear lake and make foil meals for dinner again, and at night, the star show is quite possibly the best I've ever seen. It's even more stunning for Schuster, who's been under Los Angeles smog for most of his life. On day two we do a hike through a forest full of bamboo up to a series of waterfalls, and then we head back to Esquel, the town closest to the park. I make a last minute decision, after having been on the fence for a couple of days, to go ahead with Schuster to Buenos Aires instead of going to see the glaciers and Ushuaia with Stephen. My money is starting to get low, and I've already had to cancel Colombia out of my plans for this trip; the bulk of Patagonia will have to wait as well. Schuster and I say bye to Stephen, who will meet us in Buenos Aires in a couple of weeks.

Puerto Madryn and Peninsula Valdez:

Puerto Madryn is lackluster. In fact, the only thing to speak of is the nearby Peninsula Valdez. We take a tour to the peninsula, despite our typical opposition to guided tours, and we see a variety of wildlife that make it worthwhile. While we didn't have the fortune of seeing beached orcas (it's feeding season for the orcas, and there's roughly a three percent chance that you will see them snatch sea lions up off the beach), we did see roadrunners (or the Argentina equivalent anyway) and armadillos, and a large number of sea lions, penguins, and elephant seals.

Buenos Aires:

After the peninsula tour, Schuster and I go for about seventeen hours in two buses to Buenos Aires. The pampas outside of the city are beautiful, and the gauchos that occupy them are just as intriguing. On the edge of the city are shanty towns or villas miserias, but they quickly give way to high-rise apartment buildings and other signs of affluence. After just a couple of minutes, I can already tell that I'm going to be head-over-heels for this city.

In Palermo, one of the nicest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, we go to the 23rd floor of an apartment complex to meet Daniela and Marcelo, Schuster's aunt and her boyfriend slash husband. The two of them take us in with open arms and show us to the guest bedroom, where, for the first time in months, I am able to take the things out of my pack and put them in drawers - what a feeling!

I stay with Daniela and Marcelo - kind as they are - for just over two weeks, during which I confirm the fact that Buenos Aires is a city after my own heart. Not only do I experience the hospitality of two very warm and interesting people; I also experience the culture that oozes out of the city's pores, and I even take some Spanish classes. Daniela and Marcelo give us keys to the apartment and show us (mostly me) around the city. They treat us to ice cream and other delicious foods, and we cook for them a few times in a meager attempt to repay them for their kindness. Marcelo is a die-hard River fan, in the rivalry of the city's two futbol giants, and he speaks to me in extremely fast and colloquial Spanish, explaining to me that I will learn better that way. Daniela takes me to one of the places where she does the tango, and I am mesmerized by the dance's rituals and seduction. I am endeared to Daniela because of the way she smokes cigarettes without inhaling and because of the way she, when speaking English, always says ¨he¨and never ¨she¨.

Spanish classes are great because, unlike the way I was in most of my college courses, I am eager to learn. I have several individual lessons, which are mostly conversational, and several group lessons, which only have three students: a German guy who speaks Spanish with a French accent, a smiley guy from Monterey, and me. Before and after classes, I spend my time poolside at Daniela's apartment; getting to know Schuster's family, including his two grandmothers who live in Buenos Aires; catching up on American cinema (a nice return to a little bit of normalcy); checking out the city's modern art museum, parks and tree-lined avenues; and dabbling a bit in the nightlife.

I must say that I've discovered I fit into the park culture of Buenos Aires more so than the nightlife culture. Most Argentines start partying at midnight, hit the boliches (discos) around 2:00 or 3:00 and then party until 7:00 or 8:00, or until 11:00 if they feel like going to an after-party; they then sleep away a big chunk the day and go at it again. I tried it a few times but never made it past 3a.m. and never saw the inside of one of the boliches; who knew I was such an old lady at twenty-four? The park scene can be experienced at ¨normal¨ hours and, in my opinion, is just as exciting. One park is full of groups of teenagers with mate gourds and thermoses in-hand; break-dance circles; competitive soccer games; old men playing chess; dog-walkers with twelve dogs at once; and the list goes on. Why not spend the day at the park and then go to ¨Palermo Hollywood¨ for a nice steak dinner? Or there's always the option of drinking a bottle of whiskey, going out to a midnight dinner at Middle Eastern joint called Sarki's and then calling it a night once you're so full of whiskey, wine and hummus you can barely walk.