Sunday, February 28, 2010

Some ole stuff

As Pete reported on our last blog post, we have logged MANY hours on many different buses throughout this journey! And most times, when we have the option, we take the night bus - it saves on money (one less night in a hostel!), and it is kind of nice to just wake up in the morning in a brand spankin' new location. We have gotten so used to opting for the night bus that we usually don't even consider the daytime option.

But as our last two overnighters were less than satisfactory (sleep wise), we instead boarded the 12:30pm bus for our nine hour journey north from Lima to Trujillo. And we are really glad we did - we had forgotten how much we actually miss out on when we sleep as the bus rolls along. We always tend to think of bus-time as "wasted", but it is not a waste when we get spoiled by the beautiful scenery that unrolls before us, or when we can bare witness to the eye-opening environments in which the locals live.

The long journey out of Lima took us through many contrasting neigbourhoods - all of them being very different from the cushy area in which we had just left. Many streets would showcase the extreme poverty of shanty towns, then the next block would have a North American style complex with big box stores and several fast food joints. People would walk up and down the busy streets, squeezing between the cars when stopped to try and sell water, food, or pool toys! We were even treated to some amazing break dancing when stopped at a light.

Then once out of the city, we passed through more very poor villages (more than half of this country lives below the poverty line), dotted along the Pan-American highway that runs almost entirely along the coast to Trujillo. We passed miles and miles of beautiful untouched beaches - driving on a road that often split sand dunes, and having sand blow right across the highway in front of us (reminiscent of snow! But, not!)

Finally, our views were obscured as dark hit and we drove on for a few more hours until we got to Trujillo - one of the largest cities in the north of Peru. We checked into our room just in time to see our friend Susan O'Connor receive her Olympic silver medal (yay!) as well as watch the last exciting few minutes of the Canadian men's hockey game over Slovakia. A great end to a good day!

On Saturday we woke up to the news of the devastating terramoto in Chile, astounded at pictures and videos showing places we had been just a few months ago. After checking in with our Chilean friends to ensure they were okay (thank goodness they are!), and sending word home that we were safe, we rearranged our plans for the day. Originally, we had debated some beach time in nearby Huanchaco, but chose to stay inland and at higher ground. We met up with our new UK friends from Lima and decided to check out some of the ruins in the area.

Most people come to Peru and envisage seeing ruins from the most recognized, major Indian tribe - the Inca's. Unbeknowest to most (and to us, before our visit) are the astounding number of ruins scattered throughout the country, from a huge number of different tribes that inhabited Peru prior to the Inca's. Northern Peru is especially rich in archaeological sites, and we were able to visit two notable ones near Trujillo.

The Huaca de la Luna is a grand temple of the Moche tribe, discovered by accident less than 20 years ago, and is still undergoing extensive excavation work. Inside, excavators have found incredibly well-preserved paintings from this tribe who flourished from 200 to 900 AD. Most prevalent in the paintings is a God nicknamed "The Decapitator" for the many human sacrifices that were made in his honour:

Looks like a friendly fellow

From the "incredibly old" temple, we went to see a "pretty old" city ("incredibly old" and "pretty old" are the correct scientific terms, right?). Chan Chan is the largest pre-Columbian city in South America - home to the Chimú tribe, who grew out of remnants of the Moche tribe until they were finally conquered by the Inca's in the late fifteenth century. It is a massive complex of twenty square kilometers, and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We did not find it nearly as impressive as the Huaca de la Luna, but there were still some interesting structures to marvel at:

After these two visits (with more to come in the next couple of days), we realized that a person could easily spend many weeks ambling across Peru (and all of South America!) exploring all of these ancient ruins. Understanding the number of tribes and their contributions to the history and culture of this continent could be an entirely all-encompassing exercise. So, what do you do when the realization hits that you are only scratching the surface, and that to really explore and appreciate all of the rich history of these regions it would take weeks, months, even years? Well, you say screw it, and walk like an Egyptian (or in this case, a Chimú?!)

Saturday, February 27, 2010


A quick note to let everyone know that we are completely safe after the earthquake that hit Chile this morning. There were tsunami warnings up the coast, but our hotel is 20km inland and we stayed in the city today instead of our original plan to go to the beach. As far as we know, nothing came of it anyways.

Thanks for your concern!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Our 6 month anniversary!

It's been a while, but I am taking a turn writing a blog post. Given that we are speeding through new cities, there is not much opportunity for me to fulfill my end of our arrangement (I cook, Dalene writes!), so I'm giving her a break to let her creative mind re-energize. Our three nights in Huacachina were exactly what the doctor ordered. After our helluva trekking trip, ugly bus ride, and Dalene's not-so-fun birthday, we arrived in our oasis,

or at least a pool with beach chairs and sun. Huacachina is like a mirage - about 5km from the bustling town of Ica, this little oasis is a small tourist haven smack dab between sand dunes.

We are unsure if people even live here, but we are certain that the secret is getting out about this little gem. The main attraction to this little place is to take a dunebuggy up to the top of the dunes and sandboard down. I did get up early one morning to climb one of the dunes and see the magnificent views, however, that kind of action was not the purpose for this stop - we just wanted rest and relaxation! We reveled in the fact that we could just take 2 (which turned into 3) days to unwind and celebrate Dalene's birthday week properly. 3 days of lying in beach chairs, enjoying the company of the parrots living at the hotel, and dining on great Peruvian food recharged us for our upcoming journey north.

We arrived in Lima late in the day and were skeptical of even coming here based on other peoples dismal reviews, but we are sure glad we did. Although we were not here for the city - we were anxious to meet up with our good friend Yuri (the Peruvian with the Russian hockey name!) whom we met on the Uyuni Salt Flats tour. He has been an incredibly generous host, showing us much of what Lima has to offer. We stayed in touristy Miraflores which is not really a good representation of the poverty of Peru, the neighbourhood is quite luxurious, not quite what we expected:

But this is not what we wanted to see in Lima. We wanted some culture, something authentic off the gringo trail. Yuri took us to dine at authentic Peruvian restaurants, to see sights that not every tourist gets to see (including areas where even Yuri said that we should not be here as it is not safe, so we quickly left). Yuri even took care of our particular Canadian needs - when eating in one of Lima's finest Chifa's (Chinese restaurants, very popular here), Yuri asked the owners to change the TV channel from futbol to the Olympicos de Invierno so that we could see the Canada versus Russia hockey game. I am sure that the crowd in the restaurant was wondering what in the hell was on the screen, but they didn't change it back, so we got to see the Canadians dismantle the Russian squad (a great way to introduce hockey to our friend)!


We are sad to leave and say goodbye to Yuri, but are grateful again for our new friend-for-life!

We also made new friends from the UK who were staying at our hostel. They actually happen to be heading along the exact route we are taking up into Ecuador and Columbia so we are excited to have some travel mates for the next while. We didn't even really know it until we got here into Lima but they had been with the another group in the Colca Canyon with us (small world).

6 MONTHS!!!!

To whoever picked 6 months on our WTFWWTLGH pool - well, you lost! 6 months in today and we are still loving what every new place we visit has to offer. Lately though, we have been reflecting on the little things we do miss from home. Things we have caught ourselves saying we miss:

Dalene - dill pickle chips, a cat to snuggle with in bed, jeans, putting toilet paper in the toilet, and not having to wash underwear in the shower

Pete - free glasses of water at restaurants, dressing up, our comfy couch to watch movies on, and Guinness

And of course our friends and family who have sat on edge waiting for the next blog post and always wondering if we are safe!

After this milestone of 6 months of traveling we have gathered some interesting facts about our trip for you to enjoy:

Number of countries visited - 5

Number of countries left to visit - 9

Number of kilometers travelled - over 16,600

Number of hours spent on buses - 245 (approx 10 full days each!!!!)

Number of blog posts - 68 (including this one)

Number of times the blog has been viewed - 6,245
Number of downloaded photos - over 4,000

Number of times hard-drive crashed on computer - 1

Things that we have lost along the way - 2 pair of sunglasses (Dalene), towel (Dalene), tweezers (Dalene), umbrella (Dalene), laundry kit (you guessed it, Dalene). Hmmm... a bit of a pattern here?

So we will keep the posts coming. 6 months to go, 9 countries left to visit. The push is on, but we can't wait to see what is around the next corner!

For Nazca and Huacachina, click here
For Colca Canyon and Lima, click here

Sunday, February 21, 2010


"We are not 17 anymore", said one of our traveling companions, a few hours into our Colca Canyon trek. I had to agree, I was feeling pretty rough only being half way into our first day. The trek was definitely nowhere near as "easy" as they had sold it.

Colca Canyon, which starts a few hours drive from Arequipa, is the deepest canyon in the world. It is home to over 20 traditional villages spotted among the mountains, connected by an intricate maze of paths that can only be traversed by foot or mule (there are no vehicles!) Our route was to see us hike down the canyon and stay in the home of a local family, and then head back up the canyon to stay in the more bustling market town of Cabanaconde. Our small group of 8 included 4 other Canadians (family members from Quebec), an Austrian and our Peruvian guide, Carlos.

We began our first day with a 3:30am pick-up at our hostel. We sleepily climbed aboard, tucked ourselves into our seats and napped fitfully until we got to our first stop at the deepest part of the canyon - Cruz Del Condor. This stop was the reason for getting up so early - it is supposedly a good viewing point for Condors, but only in the morning. We have seen condors many times before on this trip, but never up close, and so we leapt out of the bus with our cameras ready. Our early morning effort was in vain however, as we managed to only see one condor, again from a distance. Glad we got up so early for THAT!

Back onto the bus for another hour to the outskirts of Cabanaconde, where our bus could go no further. After a quick explanation of the town and a hearty lunch of alpaca, rice and potatoes, we were anxious to get on our way before the desperate need for an afternoon siesta set in. Little did we know what we had in store for us! First, I will start with the positives...

We were but small dots on the vast, multi-colored canyon. We would walk with nothing but the sound of the roaring river below and the spellbinding views of the mountains around us. I have never experienced such grandeur, and felt so small against something so immense and beautiful. It took my breath away every time I looked up from the path to take it all in. We had no camera lens big enough to capture all of this, but it didn't stop us from trying:

For the next 2 days, we would be walking along the mountains on a rocky and narrow path, dipping down to the lowest level of the canyon, and then would have to make the climb back up the 3,600ft. That last part of the hike, to be done on the afternoon of the second day, scarily hung over my head the entire way before. I have never done anything like that before, and we hadn't done any kind of hiking in quite awhile - myself and a couple others were obviously nervous that we would not have the stamina to do it.

Little did we realize either, how hard the hike down was to be. For the first three and a half hours, we went down, down, down. If climbing up is a workout for the heart, then going down is one for the entire body - there are several muscles used going down that aren't used often otherwise. The path was a mixture of soft sand, pebbles, and sometimes big steps that made it very challenging to traverse. We felt quite accomplished when we finally made it to the milestone of the bridge to get us over the river. And then the "good" news came (which wasn't in the brochure!), we had another 1 1/2 hours to go to get to our village - mostly uphill.

Our first milestone

We begrudgingly started, hating Carlos a little at this point! We went on through two villages, marveling at their simple way of life with the small mud huts surrounded by gardens and farm animals. A little canal connected the villages with crystal clear mountain water running through it. The villagers would all stop to say hello or wave from their yards as we passed.

The last hour of hiking for the day was a steep push uphill, a little foreshadowing for the longer hike up expected the following day. Exhausted from the minimal sleep the night before and in pain from all of the downhill done earlier, the hike up probably took us a little longer then it should, but we made it. Finally, we had arrived at our village for the night. And when they advertised to us that the accommodations on the first night would be "basic", boy, were they right:

Looks good, right??

Our mud room

Our dinner was made by the cutest little Peruvian woman over an open fire. When we thanked her and told her it was "muy rica" (very delicious), she said "yummy?", showcasing the little English she knew!

Our group having dinner

As Pete and I crawled into bed for the night (at 8:30!) in our mud brick room, we struggled to get comfortable in the sloped bed with a rock for a pillow. It was then that we had it all figured out - the reason that they got us up at 3:00am and made us hike a painstaking 5 hour trek on the first day was so that when we realized what our accommodations were, we wouldn't care, as all we would want to do anyways is sl......zzzzzzzzzzzzzz...

Up at 7am the next morning and we began our second grueling day by filling up on heaps of pancakes. Carlos pulled no punches this time, our second day was going to be more difficult then the painful first. We were spoiled with a fairly flat trail for the first half hour walk to another village, stopping several times so that Carlos could offer explanations as to life in the villages, the flora and fauna surrounding them, and some history.

And then, the tough part began. Another 2 1/2 hours of downhill, but this time the image of a crystal blue pool beckoned us. We did this section much faster then we had the day before, and were rewarded with the "Oasis", a large complex built by several tourist agencies complete with pools, kitchens and cabanas. After comparing blisters and bruises upon our arrival (my whole left big toenail is bruised underneath from my toes hitting the end of my shoe on the downhill), we quickly changed into our swimsuits and dove in.

Pete was the first to jump in!

We had three hours to kill here, so after a refreshing dip, we all relaxed under some shade while Carlos made lunch. For me, it was also a time to contemplate the final stage of the trek - the dreaded ascent of 3,600ft. For 50 soles (~$16), I could hire a mule to carry me up the entire trek. Or, I could put my tired, wrecked body through one more challenge. I had to make the decision now.

We dined on soup and spaghetti and as a group we discussed our options. Rather than hire a mule to carry any individual one of us, we instead agreed to split 2 mules, and they would carry up our packs. Shedding those 5-6 extra kilograms of weight would make a big difference, and turned out to be the best $4 each of us ever spent!

We were scheduled to leave at 3pm, but with some ominous looking clouds rolling in, we decided to leave earlier. And so, at 2:15, we were on our way. Painful uphill step after painful uphill step, we began. We checked with Pete's altitude watch every so often to see how far we had come, and calculated what pace we were on - after about a quarter of the way, we figured we should finish in 4 hours.

I quickly learned for myself to go against the old adage of "don't look down" as we walked along the cliffs - I found that I preferred to say "Wow, look at how far we've come!" instead of "Holy shit, look at how far we have to go!" But when we reached the halfway point, I actually felt pretty good, and ready to make the push for the top. Even though my stops for rest became more frequent (the higher altitude we got, the harder it was to catch my breath), I was determined!

And then, the rain began. It had been drizzling slightly since about a half hour in, but it started to get a little harder. We all zipped on our rain jackets and vowed to endure, the clouds were not going anywhere. Fog rolled in such that we could no longer see the valley below us, we were right in the middle of the rain storm.

At this point, Pete had dropped back to walk alongside with me, instead of up ahead with the others who were more in shape. He knew I would need his encouragement to get through the last little bit, and a few minutes later, I was so glad he was there. WIth about 600 ft left to go, we were startled by a scream coming from behind us. Three members of the Quebec family were just making their way up the incline we had just passed when mud came streaming over the side of the cliff above, landing right on top of them. They quickly jumped back to the edge of the cliff that wasn't being hit. A guide from another group who was close to us came back around the corner and yelled at Pete and I to get to the side and hug the wall of the mountain while he continued down to help the other group. And then we could hear it - water came rushing around the corner and engulfed our path. What was once our trail was now a stream of mud and water. Panicked, Pete and I held tight to the wall until our guide had made his way back down and told us it was safe to move to the corner and begin climbing again.

Our muddy path, seconds after the water hit

With images of devastating landslides happening in other ares of Peru coming to mind, our adrenaline kicked in. We barely stopped for breath and worked our way upstream - trying to avoid walking directly in the water and stick to the drier edges (not always possible), and always mindful of being close to the edge of the cliff that dropped off into the fog. One wrong step, or an unexpected rush of water could have been perilous. It took every remaining ounce of energy we had to focus on how to get up that mountain safely. The rain continued to pound hard, but we pushed our way hard to the top, gaining time and actually finishing the entire trek in under 3 1/2 hours.

When the top of the mountain was just a few feet away from us, we stopped. One of the ladies from Quebec started crying, and I started to hyperventilate and cry alongside her. All of the adrenaline, fear and lack of oxygen caught up with me such that I was overwhelmed by the fact that we had made it. There were no high fives, no round of celebratory hugs for having finished the climb. We were scared, freezing cold, and tired. We had another half hour walk to make it to our hotel, and we couldn't do it fast enough.

When we were finally in the comfort of our hotel room, I quickly got into a warm shower while Pete wrung the water out of all of our clothes and hung them around the room to dry. I put on everything dry that I owned and crawled into bed. I skipped dinner, and didn't emerge until morning. It took me a couple of hours to stop shivering, but I slept a good solid dozen hours before getting up in the morning. A warm bed had never felt so comfortable to me.

And now, a couple of days later - I am dry, warm, and relaxed. All of the scariness of those last few hours has passed, and looking back, I feel pretty good. There are many of my friends who could do that trek without problem, but for someone who is not used to that, hiking up that 3,600ft section of mountain is a big accomplishment. Not bad for someone who just turned 17 X 2. I'm pretty proud of me. High five.

(P.S....but NEVER again!)


Or, so I had hoped!

Being the brainiac planner that I am, I thought I had it all figured out! A few hours after our return from Colca Canyon, I booked us on a cushy overnight bus to Nazca. In the morning, we were to get off the bus and head straight to the airport for a 30-minute flight over the bizarre Nazca lines, and then back onto the bus for a short ride to a small town in the middle of the desert known for it's relaxed atmosphere. Sounds like a decent way for a girl to spend her birthday, right?

When we got off the bus from Colca, we were still pretty exhausted and sore from our experience and in hindsight, could probably have done well with another night in a bed in Arequipa. The buses in Peru are not near as cushy as in Argentina, and Pete and I put together only a few hours of sleep between us. We were pretty cranky when we emerged and were shuttled off to the airport.

Didn't help our situation that when at the airport, our tour group made us wait 2 1/2 hours before our plane actually took off. We watched people shuttle in after us and get on their flights directly, yet we had to wait for some other walk-ins to come in and complete our group (they wouldn't take off with just 2 of us on the plane, not economical). We were not happy.

Finally, we were in the air in our small Cessna with 4 other passengers. The pilot took us over one of the great mysteries of South America - the Nazca Lines. They are a series of bizarre geoglyphs of animals and shapes marked in the sand from over 1,000 years ago. Some are up to 200m in length and are created in a single continuous line. There is much debate over why they were created - some believe they were to mark underground water resources, others believe they were astrological signs - the most popular theory is that they were made for religious ceremonies.

Nazca Line - The Monkey!

I made it through seeing most of the shapes before the bumps and turns of the small plane got to me. I vomited. And then again. Oh, and one more time, for good measure. I spent the last few minutes of the flight with my head between my knees, which is the only thing that kept me from wretching again.

We landed and rushed out of there. Back to a hostel where our bags were being held, and I quickly brushed my teeth before we made our way to the bus terminal of Nazca for our 2 hour ride to Ica. The trusted, comfortable, and air conditioned bus of Cruz Del Sur was booked solid - we had a choice to either wait 3 hours for the next one, or hop on the more economical (less reputable, less comfortable and non air-conditioned) in 30 minutes. We chose option B, and made it to Ica safely. I actually don't even remember much of the ride, as I was passed out most of the time.

Finally, a short cab ride from Ica and we made it to our destination - our oasis in the desert - Huacachino. It is a very small town just over a sand dune from Ica, and is a tourist destination for sand boarders. Our hotel room has a comfy bed, private bathroom and a pool outside our door. After what we've just been through, that is all we need. In fact, we just added another night to our stay in order to really enjoy these comforts.

Oh, and to re-celebrate my birthday. I call DO-OVER!! For 2010, February 21st is going to be my birthday. The 20th sucked! Nobody should have to puke on their birthday unless it's from consuming too much cake, alcohol, or a combination of the two! I plan to make good on that today.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

¡Hola Peru!

A question for you all...

Would you spend an extra $800 for a direct flight...or endure 3 days of travel?

$800...or 22 hours on an uncomfortable bus, trying to sleep while Barney Rubble snores in the back row, going without 3 meals because they are just that inedible, sitting right beside a boy who vomits all over his pants with about 6 hours yet to go? Oh, and had part of my backpack taken off, rummaged through, and then given back - apparently the robber saw nothing of interest.

$800...or trudging through one of the biggest cities in South America with a 10-15kg pack in 35 degree heat, with a 5 am wake-up call to get on a plane that makes three touchdowns in horrendous wind before finally getting to our destination?

We chose to save $800, and endured all of the above. Ask me what I'll do next time.

One plus on this trip, however, was some amazing scenery as we crossed the Andes dividing Argentina and Chile. Sick of pictures of mountains yet? We aren't!

Our windy road down!

¡Hola Peru!
Our heavy landing at the airport in Arequipa woke us both up with a jolt, as did our first steps into this new country. Gone are the chic, modern streets of Buenos Aires - we feel like we have stepped a bit back in time to the beginning of our trip when we arrived in Sucre, Bolivia. There are many similarities between the two cities, and it didn't take us long to feel right at home. After the disappointment of leaving Argentina and three days of exhausting travel, we felt re-energized to step back into an environment that is so new and foreign.

We unloaded our bags at our very nice, clean and cheap hostel (Yay! We are back in the land of CHEAP!) before beginning our desperate search for a good meal. We began our four block walk to the main plaza and were welcomed into Peru in a quite unexpected way - by being pelted with water balloons! We got hit twice, one smashed near us and got us only slightly wet, while I then took another one smack on my right hip. Across South America, it is "Carnival" time, with many countries and cities celebrating in their own ways. Here, it is celebrated by whipping overfilled water balloons or spraying foam at anyone who passes by - and I do believe that as gringos, our targets are bigger. I'm glad I only got the water, and not the foam, although some seemed to enjoy it:

We reached the main plaza without further incident, and were immediately overwhelmed with the architecture. Three of the four streets are lined with two tier, large arched walkways that contain many cafe's, tourism agencies and souvenir shops. On the final side of the plaza is the Catedral - an incredibly impressive structure that takes up the whole block. Originally built in the 1500s, it has been destroyed several times due to earthquakes and fire, and was rebuilt as recently as 2001. The inside is not quite as impressive as other churches we have seen, but it's overall dominating presence in the city is definitely something to see.

Inside the Catedral

Catedral at dusk

Arequipa is known as the "white city" because of their use of sillar, a whiteish volcanic rock that has been used in many of their buildings. We've seen much of it on our tours throughout the city, including our long visit to the Monestario Santa Catalina. Built in 1579, it is a massive 20,000 sq ft that housed nuns from all over - they built their own private rooms within; and were shut off completely from the city. The many buildings and streets within the complex were a large maze, Pete and I explored every corner for over 2 hours, snapping a couple hundred amazing photos as we went!

There is a lot to see in this city, and so for our final day, we hired a private tour guide to take us to all of the sights.

Beautiful vistas of the city!

Our most memorable stops of the day, however, involved a grouchy llama and a helpless guinea pig!

First was a store that exclusively makes and sells garments made from alpaca, llama and vicuña. Nothing special, we've seen it all before in Bolivia, but out back they had caged animals that were part of the attraction.

We wandered back, and Pete found himself in a staring contest with a llama.

Well, Pete lost that staring contest after the llama decided he had had enough... and spit his cud right in Pete's face!

I wish I had been taking video. The driver and I continued laughing about it for the rest of our trip!

I did finally stop laughing, however, when we stopped for lunch and Pete indulged in the most famous of Peruvian delicacies - cuy (guinea pig!) It is supposedly a very nutritious rodent. Ugh, the key word there for me is "rodent". I watched in horror as the waitress brought out a wholly fried guinea pig. It still had it's claws, eyes and teeth.

Pete said he enjoyed it and that it tasted just like Kentucky Fried Chicken! He didn't quite finish it though - he got to the head, pulled the skin back, and saw a beady little eye staring at him. That's when he had enough. I'm pretty sure I am a vegetarian now after watching that.

It has been an eventful few days in beautiful Arequipa, and tonight we are resting up for our disgusting 3am departure tomorrow. We are off on a 3 day, 2 night trek through Colca Canyon - the deepest canyon in the world! It will be a challenge given that we are back into high altitudes and there is one very steep portion to the climb. But it will have to satisfy our trekking appetite given that Machu Picchu is definitely closed through March. A big disappointment for us, but it just gives us one more reason to get back down here...

Curling in South America!
Pete and I have been checking ESPN South America the last few days to get some Olympic coverage, but all they have been showing is the bialthlon and cross country skiing (snoozefest). Thus, we were both pretty shocked to lay down today for our afternoon siesta, flip through the TV channels, and stumble upon Olympic curling and Kevin Martin's bald head!

Listening to the broadcasters coverage of the curling is most entertaining - I don't think they really have much idea of what is going on. In the first end, they seemed to be quite perplexed by Kevin Martin throwing his last rock through the house, commenting: "¿Un poco rapido, no?" (a little fast, no?) They obviously are not aware of the concept of the blank end!

Much of their chatter has also been on the Norwegian's John-Daly-style-pantalones. Probably wise for them to stick to talking about fashion (or, lack thereof, depending on your taste).

Hmmm...once our Spanish is better, perhaps this is a new career path for Pete and I? =)

Friday, February 12, 2010

¡Chao Argentina! (sniff, sniff)

It is with a heavy, HEAVY heart that we board our bus out of Buenos Aires this afternoon.

These two country mice have fallen deeply in love with the tenth biggest city in the world - whodathunkit? It is the first time in all of our travels that we can emphatically say that we don't want to leave. We have spent 10 nights in this city and 57 in the entire country. We have gorged on some very incredible food, met some very amazing people, and had some very unforgettable experiences.

We are not ready to say Chao. In fact, we just plain don't want to. But, in order to finish our travels and make it back to Canada in time for the wedding, we have to get a move-on (damn you Phil)!

Our final week in Buenos Aires, and Argentina, has been a busy and eventful one. We took advantage of the fact that we were sitting still for awhile to continue our Spanish studies and we hired a private teacher to come to our B&B to teach every day. What a difference this little bit of focus made for us! Not only did we get to learn new things and also get answers to many questions that have plagued us since our last class in Bolivia, but it also increased our Spanish-speaking confidence tenfold. We realized that we have actually picked up a lot more then we thought along the way, and we both feel more willing to flex our Spanish muscles rather then deferring to English at every chance we get. We both feel a renewed commitment to learn!

With our afternoons taken up by Spanish, we spent most of our mornings exploring. Besides spending much of our time wandering through the designer shops of Palermo, we also visited the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires where an Andy Warhol collection is temporarily on display. The exhibit had quite an astounding array of his art and personal effects, as well as contrasting works from Argentinian artists of the same era. As with all art displays, so much of it was beautiful to us, some was very confusing, and a few others made us wonder if our three and four year old nieces had been there to add their personal touch the day before. So cultured, we are!

One of the other major tourist attractions we visited was actually a cemetery - La Recoleta contains some of the most famous Argentinians, including several presidents as well as the grave of the illustrious Eva Peron. It exists as a walled city within the city, and we spent a good hour just wandering down the little streets, in general awe of the lavish displays of wealth in the exquisitely ornate mausoleums.

Eva Peron's gravesite (shared with her brother)

This isn't the first cemetery we visited (the other being in Sucre, Bolivia), and it was an entirely different experience. This felt almost like we were perusing a North American suburb neighbourhood where each neighbour is trying to outdo the other with a newer Lexus - but in this case, the competition is in the form of who has the bigger angel statue. While wealth was also apparent in Sucre, it at least actually also had the feel of a cemetery - with large, full trees casting shadows, and more space to actually stop and pay tribute to any given mausoleum. Instead, La Recoleta invoked no feelings of solemnity, just awe of how the dead were still intent on keeping up with the Jones'.

While our days saw us soaking in culture and the language, our evenings were mostly about the food! Our neighbourhood of Palermo holds an abundance of diverse restaurants, and we took full advantage. We indulged on Thai, Vietnamese and Indian our first few nights, while our remaining two saw us taking in our last few bites of what we love most - Argentinian beef. Just down the street from our B&B is the best steakhouse in all of Buenos Aires, as evidenced by the throng of people waiting outside every night. We joined the throng for two nights in a row and were treated to champagne and grilled sausage while waiting for our table!

Waiting for steak with our new friend Margaret!

The steaks, abundant garnishes and atmosphere made it well worth the wait... would do it again tonight if we were here!

And so, while reliving all of these wonderful (and yummy) memories of the last week, we are also preparing ourselves to say goodbye. It is time for the top five lists! We have given it some serious thought over the past few days as to what items make the top five things to love and loath about this country, and this is what we've got:

Top 5 things we loooovvvveeee about Argentina
- The people! This country is full of the most generous, helpful and thoughtful people we have ever met. We have so many examples of when random Argentinians went out of their way to help us that they are the number one reason why we are so in love with this country.

- The beef! Yep, we're sorry to say, but it kicks Alberta's world-renowned ass. There have been no "hit and miss" steak experiences here - from the nicest restaurant to the smallest Ma & Pa establishment, all have served up melt in your mouth steaks for an incredible price.
- The diversity! Similar to Chile, this country has it all - from the glaciers and snow capped mountains of Patagonia to the northernmost point of the Iguazu Falls, and everything in between. There is no shortage of astounding sights and activities.

- The transportation! How is it possible that the bus service makes our top 5? This is how...full lay down beds + free wine + hot dinner + shots of whiskey + inexpensive tickets = the best way to travel across this huge country on a budget.

- The culture, the wine, the ice cream, the weather, the pastries, the tango, the parks, etc. etc. You name it, we probably loved it. This list could go on forever!

Top 5 things that are meh about Argentina

- Bedbugs are not just meh, they are pretty downright disgusting. And while I know that it is not exactly an Argentinian phenomenon, this is where we got bit. Luckily, we got rid of them fairly easy. Unluckily, the scars remain.
- The postal service. May seem like a silly thing to comment on, but it was a big deal to us for a few days when we were trying to send a package home. Because it was more than a letter, we had to actually take it to a customs official, who's availability was hit and miss. We ended up having to take it with us on the bus from Salta to Puerto Iguazu, and then almost missed getting it sent from Iguazu. A huge pain in the backside.
- Pete and I disagree on this one, but I really dislike the late dinner hour. Most restaurants don't even open until nine, with the regular dinner hour being at ten! There is one plus: the towns and cities are buzzing with activity well after sundown, but I usually have such a hard time sleeping after such a late dinner that I strongly dislike it. And then, it's hard to get myself out of bed until double digits. And then, we often ended up eating almost four meals a day just because they were so far apart. Not the healthiest practice we've had to endure.
- Caca. As in, dog poopy. It is a big problem in Buenos Aires, as well as throughout the country. Have some respect for your country people...clean up after your pooch!

- ¿Propina, por favor? We are not opposed to tipping people for good service (in fact, Pete has historically been a chronic overtipper), but when people aggressively ask for tips for every little thing, it gets quite annoying.

(Side note...this top five meh list was a stretch, there is little to dislike!)

After 57 days of immersing ourselves in this glorious country, we are sadly making our exit. Late this afternoon we board a 20 hour bus to Santiago, where will catch a flight on Sunday morning for Arequipa, Peru. We have become so comfortable here that we actually feel somewhat nervous about this next step and the bit of culture shock that it will likely cause. However, onwards and upwards...


Monday, February 8, 2010

Much ado about everything

We are 4 days into our Buenos Aires adventure, and I need a nap.

I say this even after sleeping in until almost noon, and without even going near one of the all night dance clubs yet (they don't even get hopping until 2 am, which is normally WAY past my bedtime). There is so much to see and do here, that I am forcing myself to stay in and start writing it all down this afternoon, lest I forget the details after too long!

The Cranberries! Buenos Aires! The Cranberries in Buenos Aires!!

It was one of those pinch-myself-moments to see one of my favourite bands from the 90s, live in concert, in what is now one of my favourite cities in the world. Live music is such an emotional experience for me, especially when coming from a band whose songs were an anthem for my University years. There were definite tears in my eyes as they played Linger and Dreaming My Dreams, and even the popular rocker Zombie.

Our seats weren't the best, being almost directly left from the stage and quite a way back, given that we arrived a bit later then intended and it was rush seating. Who knew, that in such a laid back country, that the band would actually take the stage at the EXACT time the tickets said they would? Pete and I applied our usual Canadian concert strategy - show up just before the posted time in order to catch the opening band, and then wait an hour for the headliner - but we got there with only about 10 minutes to spare before Dolores O'Riordan and the crew took the stage.

It was a tremendous show, O'Riordan showing she hasn't lost any of her spunk over the years, and the crowd responded enthusiastically. It was quite an interesting crowd and so different to what we are used to back home - no hooting or whistles in between songs, instead the Argentinians like to employ a lot of synchronized clapping. And I mean, A LOT of synchronized clapping. In between songs it would get so strong that it would sometimes ruin the beginning of the following song.

When we learned that The Cranberries were putting on a show in BA, we had planned our whole route through northern Argentina and Uruguay to be sure that we were here in time, and the show did not disappoint. It was even worth the half hour wait in pouring rain for a cab afterwards, in which we both were soaked to the bone when we finally made it back to our room. Would have done it all again the next night if there wasn't so many other things yet to do!

La Boca
One of the really enchanting things about this city is the distinct neighbourhoods within it. Even though BA ranks in the top 10 cities of the world in terms of population, it just doesn't feel that way. As we move from barrio to barrio, each stands out with a different personality that makes it feel like we are visiting numerous cities instead of just one.

One of the more popular areas to visit is La Boca, made famous by the brightly coloured metal siding on many of the houses, painted that way during the boom years of the late 1800s when there would happen to be leftover paint from the shipping barges. Unfortunately, the area is now so touristy that there are a multitude of tacky souvenir shops and cheesy picture ops with tango dancers. Still pretty to visit though!

Real Tango!
We met our new friend Margaret in Uruguay - a San Franciscan now living in Buenos Aires, she works instructing English teachers by day, and by night, she lives to tango! After having heard of our witnessing a tourist dinner/tango show our last tour through town, she promised to show us some REAL tango this time around.

Saturday night we met Margaret for dinner and pumped her for some behind-the-scenes information on the local tango scene. There are many quite astounding traditions to the dance, and after making her talk about it for almost two hours, we had to see it in action. She had brought along her tango shoes, and so took us with her to a nearby milonga she had planned on attending.

Milongas are essentially traditional tango dance parties, usually with lessons given before hand. On any given night there can be twenty or so going on throughout the city, starting after midnight and sometimes going until dawn. We arrived just in time to see the last bit of lessons, although some of the participants looked like they have been doing it for years. Pete and I sat shyly watching from the sidelines, not willing to move a muscle should it be mistaken for wanting to actually try to dance. Apparently there are only about 8 or so moves to tango, but the combinations available are endless. It looks very hard to this rhythmically challenged couple!

After the lessons were over and the lights turned down, Margaret commented: "Now all the bullshit begins," and it really got interesting. The milonga actually operates similar to a junior high dance. Nobody just goes up to the other and ask them to dance, it is all done via eye contact. It is initiated by the female, who scours the room and tries to catch eyes with someone that she would like to dance with. If the chosen fellow accepts, he nods his acknowledgement, and they meet on the dance floor. The couple is then committed for four songs, until the cortina plays - a brief interlude of another style of music. If the female doesn't want to continue dancing, she thanks her partner and it is over. She returns to the sidelines and begins scouting her next potential dancer.

There are all kinds of rules and intricate details about the flow of the evening that are quite amazing. We watched in awe for about an hour at the many couples that crowded the dance floor and got lost in their movements. Margaret, being a newby in town, took a little while to find a partner and get started. But after that first dance when she could show her skills (I know nothing about nothing, but she is GOOD!), she was set for the evening. We left her to dancing and returned back to our room well before dawn.

Pete asked on our walk back: "Do you think we could ever do that together?" Margaret had told us that there aren't actually many couples who dance together, because there is so much intensity in the dance that it can just give the pair one more thing to fight about. Seeing as we have friends that won't even let us CURL on the same team together, perhaps tango stays off our to-do list!

Futbol and football!
We woke up to rain yesterday morning, again, and were worried that one of our most anticipated activities - another futbol game - would be cancelled. This time, it was to be the REAL deal, a league game featuring one of the more popular soccer teams in the city, River Plate (BA has an astounding two dozen teams, the most in any city of the world).

The sun peaked through in the afternoon and we were good to go. We also met up with a high school friend of Pete's! Alex and Pete haven't seen each other since graduation, but via the wonders of Facebook, they reconnected and we all just happened to be in this city at the same time.

The four of us (Pete and I, and Alex's friend Kristal) bought a package through our B&B that included transportation to/from the game, and beer and pizza beforehand. We arrived to the massive stadium (capacity of 65,000) well prior to the game start, and were treated to the theatrics of the "hooligans" of River Plate as they got ready to see their team play the out of towners from Rosario. Diehard fans climbed over the barb wire barriers to hang many banners, some of which look like they have been hung at every single stadium game this century. At the far end of the stadium were the most vocal of the local fans, the most enthusiastic being those that showed up just ten minutes before game time. They marched in beating drums, chanting, jumping, and of course, synchronized clapping! Stopping only for half time, they were on their feet constantly and kept the crowd hopping - easily drowning out the small contingent of fans from out of town cheering on Rosario. In fact, whenever Rosario fans even tried to make a noise, or when Rosario held the ball, or when a call was given in favour of Rosario, the River Plate fans would all whistle in unison, so loudly as to hurt eardrums.

Some of the tunes they sang still play in my head today, and will likely be there for some time. Here is a brief video clip taken during the final minutes of the game, note that most of the noise was coming from the opposite side of the stadium!

Unfortunately, all of this hoopla was for nothing, as the game ended without one goal being made. Being the hometown fans, we were left in the stadium for 20 extra minutes while the Rosario section filtered out (allowing them a head start to get safely away)!

We were let out in time, however, to get ourselves to a local pub and watch football with actual scoring - the Superbowl! Our gringo roots shone brightly through as we cheered on the Saints through the last quarter of the game. We did have to laugh a bit at some of the displays of the fans there (wee little banners!) compared to what we saw live just hours before. A totally different game, and world.

We have almost one more week in this amazing city before we pack up for Peru. Coming up next: we head back to school, tour a cemetery, visit Andy Warhol, and get in touch with Ritchie Valens. Stay tuned!

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Tragically Un-Hip

We arrived back into glorious Buenos Aires on Thursday evening, freshly relaxed from our beach vacation and ready to explore all that this city has to offer.

After enjoying our two days in the historic neighbourhood of San Telmo on our last tour through town, we decided to mix it up this time and secured a room in Palermo - the "hip" area in Buenos Aires, known for it's boutique shopping and hopping nightlife.

WOW...are we out of place! We went for dinner last night at Sudestada - a Thai/Vietnamese restaurant that would hopefully satisfy our intense cravings for something different then the traditional Argentinian fare. In comparison to all the other people dining there, the only thing fashionable about us was our late appearance. We sorely stuck out from the crowd of beautiful, trendy people that this city is known for. Our practical travel clothing and sensible shoes just didn't cut it. I suppose it is telling that my shower flip-flops also double as my fancy going-out footwear (they are gold metallic!)

In the last five months, we have become quite used to not fitting in, but usually for other reasons - like not catching a joke when it is spoken beyond our level of Spanish, or simply by the color tone of our skin. This time, we can actually do something about it. And if part of experiencing Buenos Aires is to partake in some of the trendy shops, then I am all about getting the whole experience! It is probably a very good thing that my 60 litre backpack is probably 59 litres full, but there is room to squeeze in a few goodies.

We have about 10 days here which will be spent taking Spanish lessons, seeing another futbol game, extensive touring, tangoing, enjoying exceptional food, seeing a concert of one of my favourite bands from the 90s, and of course...a bit of shopping!

Our last two days in Uruguay, spent back in our favourite spot of Colonia, were marred by continual rain. We managed to slip out in between showers to see a friend that was also in town, but for the most part we were forced to stick within our hostel.

We used this time to figure out a question that has been dogging us for the past few weeks, now that we are almost done Argentina, what next? Add in the complicating factor of needing to come home this summer (Pete's brother Phil is getting married in September!), and we have had an awful lot to think about.

What we have decided (for now) is that we are going to severely pick up the pace, heading due north. Given our aforementioned desire to settle down here eventually, we are going to spend most of our time on the remainder of this trip touring the places that we think may be serious contenders for putting down roots.

This means that from the time we leave Buenos Aires, we will have about 6 months left before we are on a plane home (probably from Mexico), with about 8 countries of interest left to see (and some will remain completely unseen for now). That is a lot to do in such little time! It feels weird to have given ourselves a deadline, but at the same time, our dream of owning our little casita on a beach is now that much closer.

Very regrettably, we also now have to put aside our desire to do more volunteer work. We had scouted out an opportunity in Peru and also were going to look hard in Colombia. While we are extremely disappointed to not be able to follow through on that for now, we know that from our experiences down here, our desire to help those less fortunate is now rooted deep within us. It is something we will carry within and act on wherever we do go.

So, all that being said, where to next?? From Buenos Aires, we will be making our way to Arequipa, Peru! Our original hope was to spend some more time in northern Bolivia, starting with the capital city of La Paz before moving to Peru. However, due to some severe rain that has caused flooding in that area as well as devastating landslides in eastern Peru, we will have to forego that this time around. We are very upset to miss out on the much-anticipated stops of Lake Titicaca and Machu Picchu...but we have to save something for next time, right?