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.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Chile: Out of this World...Well, Out of the Third World Anyway

San Pedro de Atacama:

A beat-up, single-car train takes us from Tacna, Peru to Arica, Chile, a coastal town near the border. I can already tell that Chile is far more developed than Ecuador and Peru by the suv´s on the streets and, oddly enough, the fact that the restaurant where we have a nice seafood dinner has a well-maintained bathroom with full toilet paper and soap dispensers, and (wow!) even paper towels. The toilets, however, are still low-pressure, so it´s still necessary to throw the toilet paper in the waste basket.

Immediately after dinner we take an overnight bus to San Pedro de Atacama, located near the Atacama desert, the driest in the world. Although arriving somewhere at 7am without a clue of what to do or where to stay isn´t exactly getting any easier, we manage okay, walking around the dirt streets with our big packs and finding a decent hostel with vacancy after about two hours. San Pedro is comprised mostly of tour agencies, hostels and restaurants - catering towards the throngs of tourists that come there to experience the surrounding nature during the seemingly endless desert days.

For us, experiencing the desert is a matter of renting bikes and, after the sun has cooled off a bit, riding about 20km to Valle de la Luna. The landscape´s resemblance to the surface of the moon is striking, and we climb to the top of a dune, leaving our bikes at the bottom, just in time to watch the sunset. While most of the tourists head back to town in hired buses, we are left with our bikes; there are no headlamps or street lights, so the desert is illuminated by only the moonlight. We stare up at the sky, and the stars, thanks to the thin atmosphere, are coming out in full force. It´s slightly difficult to navigate around the ruts in the road, especially while staring upwards, but the ride is magical. All of the stresses from earlier in the day have gone up through the atmosphere.


Having realized that San Pedro is expensive and that the moonlit bike ride through the desert was more than enough to satiate us, we decide to leave for Valparaiso, the coastal town just northwest of Santiago where we´ll meet our beloved friend (Ryan) Schuster. Going to ¨Valpo¨ is a matter of taking a 24-hour bus to Santiago and then another hour and a half bus from there. To prepare for the journey, I buy two dozen postcards and a bunch of snacks. I write nearly all of the postcards on the bus and kill time talking with a friendly Canadian guy and his nine year-old daughter. Other than waves of bad odors coming from the bathroom, which we´re seated next to, and an annoyingly hyper five year-old girl who is not kept in check by her mother, the bus ride is quite tolerable. So, we´re in Valpo soon enough, and it´s a funky coastal town with feniculars, massive amounts of graffiti and other street art, and youthful, alternative culture. The hills and hipsters make me a little nostalgic for San Francisco; some say the city is the next Venice.

We make our way to Yo-Yo, the hostel where Schuster has been ¨working¨for the last month and getting room and board in exchange. We makes ourselves comfortable in Schuster´s shoebox-sized room (Schuster is out of town until the following day), and then treat ourselves to a nice dinner at a moderately upscale restaurant. That´s the pattern we´ve adopted while backpacking: treat yourself to something nice after relative suffering, i.e. enduring a long bus ride with smalls amounts of crappy food.

Day two in Valparaiso is lackadaisical. We have more delicious seafood - empanadas de mariscos and paila marina - at the fish market in the city center and kill time waiting for Schuster by checking out some of the graffiti, watching ¨Family Guy¨(apparently just as funny to the Irish as it is to us), and talking to Tim, the Chicagoan who owns Yo-Yo. Finally, after two and a half years of talking about traveling together in South America (since we studied in Prague), Schuster arrives! It´s no surprise that for dinner he takes us to a street vendor to get completos - hot dogs with loads of guacamole and mayo, another Chilean specialty. Afterwards, we drink wine and meet Schuster´s friends from the hostel and then start to pack up since tomorrow we´ll be heading to Santiago to meet Joey, Stephen´s brother and camera mule, and Sam, Stephen´s friend from film school.


Schuster and I check into a clean and comfortable hostel in Santiago while Stephen picks up the guys from the airport. Joey, coming from New York, has transported Stephen´s new camera and accessories, guide book, journal, Burt´s Bees, etc., and will be traveling through Chile with a rental car for a week and a half. Sam, coming from Buenos Aires, is joining us for a few weeks until he has to return to BA and then to the U.S. Our motley crew of strong personalities enjoys café con piernas, where mostly old business men smoke cigarettes and drink coffee served by waitresses wearing short, tight-fitting dresses that showcase their legs and barely cover their rears. Even more scantily-clad are the transvestites we pass later in the night; they´re wearing skirts that expose their bare asses, and they try to excite our interest, saying, ¨De dónde son? Rrruuuusiaa? Austraaliaaa?¨ Somehow we resist their charms (even despite the fact that we´ve been hitting the box again, boxed wine that is), and we go to a bar for beers, greasy food, and a jolly good time, as Sam would say.

Wine Country and Pichilemu:

The next day we pack into the rented Volkswagon - all five of us and all of our stuff - and head toward the Santa Rita winery. Getting there proves to be difficult because, as it turns out, Google Maps doesn´t work as well in South America as it does in the U.S. Luckily, I have a decent GPS and a keen sense of direction, and Schuster, being the fluent Spanish speaker that he is, is always happy to stop and ask for directions. We pick up a few bottles of wine (yes, bottles, not boxes) and stop at a roadside Bavarian restaurant for weiner schnitzel and other delicacies, and then we make the four-hour drive to Pichilemu.

Pichilemu is a surf town with a circus, a beachfront half pipe, canopy tours (a.k.a ziplines into the ocean) and plenty of other tourist attractions. We decide, however, to stay the night away from the crowds, and we find an area of beach where we can camp for free and where there´s no one else in sight, unless you count a few cows and a rabbit or two. We return to town briefly for empanadas and burritos and then we head back to camp to make a fire under the full moon. Sam tells us stories of juvenile delinquency in Phoenix; Schuster talks about the latest and greatest car models and kickboxing techniques; and Joey makes us gourmet snacks. We drink the wine from Santa Rita and fall asleep to the sounds of the ocean.


It´s a long drive from Pichilemu to Pucón, a sort of resort town in the Lakes Region of Chile, and tensions in the car are escalating. It´s high season, and it seems after much trial and error that all of the accomodations in Pucón and the neighboring town of Villarica are occupied. Hostels, campsites, cabañas - you name it; everything is packed, and it doesn´t help that it´s around midnight. We debate sleeping in a field of cows but then finally come across a campsite that has space for us. It´s a damn good thing because it seems like we could have killed one another by now. We set up the tents and pass out.

In the morning we couldn´t help but notice the smoking, snow-capped volcano that looks down on Pucón and that you can clearly see from our campsite. In town I eat some delicious shawarma, and Schuster and I find for the five of us a sort of house within a house that will serve as our abode for the next couple of nights. Pucon is starting to look really good, despite the troubles it gave us at the start.

In the afternoon we make ourselves comfortable on the black sand in a somewhat secluded area of the beach on the picturesque lake, which also has views of the volcano. I say ´somewhat´secluded because one of those inflatable speed boats passes nearby a few times, carrying a wild bunch of what I presume to be Argentine guys. One of them moves his arms up and down, almost as if doing the wave at a baseball game, and he shouts ¨Wooooo,¨ with each lethargic wave. Sam joins in at one point from the shore, and I find it hilarious. We all wait for one of them to fall out of the boat, but it doesn´t happen.

Back at our little apartment, with its own kitchen and a large grill for us to use, we make dinner with fresh Chilean fish and a lot of other tasty fixings from the supermarket. Joey, being the chef that he is, takes charge while we just help with the preparations. It turns out to be a feast and maybe the best meal I´ve had on the trip thus far. We revel in our excess, eating way too much, drinking a lot of boxed wine, and, I must confess, smoking post-dinner cigarettes. Then, to top it all of, we go to a nearby bar with a rooftop patio to have some drinks. It´s the perfect sending off for Joey, who will be leaving the next morning to make his way back to Santiago and do so in a fashion that´s more suited toward his budget, not toward that of backpackers.

So Joey is gone and the three of us spend another night in Pucón, and on our last day there we take a rowboat out on the lake for about two dollars per hour. I guess the price is what made us choose the rowboat over the small sailboats, the jet skis, and the kayaks, and though we struggle with it a bit, we make our way out to a good spot for cliff jumping. The sun is shining, the volcano is still smoking, and the water feels great. It´s not a bad way to spend Valentine´s Day.

Puerto Montt, Castro and Chiloé:

Our bus breaks down, and so we have the misfortune of staying the night in Puerto Montt before being able to get to Isla de Chiloé. From what I can tell, Puerto Montt is only good for its function as a major transportation hub, as the gateway to Chilean Patagonia. We decide after much deliberation to go with a solicitor from the bus station to a residence where we will sleep and do nothing else. In the a.m. we get a bus to Chiloé, which reaches the island by way of a ferry, and pretty soon we´re in Castro, the main town on the island. It´s a peculiar town that sees a lot of rain and, on the day that we´re there, a couple of brilliant rainbows. Our hosts for the night, at a hostel painted pastel purple, are as peculiar as the town. There´s a hippie-chic woman who owns the hostel and a frisky black cat and a Argentine hippie named Hernan, who has a rat tail (very typical of the hairdos of Argentine men) and, more importantly, a lot of homemade puppets. We share máte with Hernan, and later on we make pizzas from scratch with another hostel guest who´s a bit neurotic. The pizzas are followed by a wine-infused puppet show by Hernan, which is uninhibited and eccentric, just like him.

I wake up and almost wonder if the delectable pizza and fanciful puppet show were elements of a dream. The boys and I make the short trip to the town just outside of Chiloe National Park, get off the bus in the pouring rain, and run to the nearest hostel. Hostel Darwin is owned by a German ex-pat who is very well put together, who likes to blast Manu Chao and classic American rock, and who serves up too-good-to-be-true homemade bread and seafood dishes. We become so full and comfortable in the hostel that it's difficult to head back out in the rain. Nonetheless, we do a hike to, through and back from the national park. The park has about a million shades of green thanks to the varieties of moss, ferns, and trees, and there´s hardly anyone else in sight. The rain, which has turned into more of a mist, adds to the chimerical ambiance.

After a couple more savory meals and a good night´s rest at Darwin, we hit the road again. We return to Puerto Montt with the intention of connecting from there to destinations further south in Patagonia, but, upon realizing that travel to southern Patagonia is infrequent and difficult in Chile, we decide to try it from Argentina instead. Unfortunately, our bus to Bariloche doesn´t leave until the next morning, so we´re stuck in Puerto Montt for yet another night.