Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Joyful reunion...

Before rejoining the tour in Bamako, Mali we stocked up on duty-free candy and wine in anticipation of lots of self-medicating.  Upon rejoining we soon realized that the one thing we agreed with Farron before leaving (i.e. which visa he would do first in Bamako) had changed.  So within ten minutes of our arrival we had to make independent plans to go to the Ghanian embassy.  Gosh, it’s great to be back…

Meanwhile, Max, who had not been feeling well for the last days in Dakar, went immediately to a nearby clinic where he tested positive for a fairly severe case of malaria and was immediately hospitalized.  Since Africa can make a hypochondriac out of anyone, we began to feel inexplicably tired and achy and, after some debate, decided to assuage our paranoia and get ourselves checked out as well.  Bet you can guess the result.  Positive.  Well, mild case for me actually.  Tia (despite having stronger symptoms) turned out to be negative but the doctor believed that our malaria pills might have skewed the test.  So we’re off of alcohol for three days (why now?) and on to our new friend, Coartem.

That didn’t stop us from cruising around Bamako, though!  Motorbikes whizzed by like swarms of bees and we often felt we’d plunge into the Niger if we weren’t careful.  We paid a visit to the National Museum for a cruise among Malian artifacts, spent a night out dancing at a Russian karaoke bar where we met a particularly racist Texan, saw Tomani Diabeté (still just as good the second time) and his younger brother at Le Diplomat and haggled with a Malian woman in the frenetic vegetable market where even our poor French was of no use and we were reduced to bartering for carrots and onions using hand signals. 

Monday, December 27, 2010

3ème Festival Mondial des Arts Negres

It seems only fair that for all the cool events we miss by just weeks, that we’d have the good fortune to be in Senegal for the third World Festival for Black Arts.  Amazingly, almost all of the hundreds of events are absolutely free.

The world-famous kora player, Toumani Diabeté, was the first performer at the opening ceremony.   Somehow the majesty of an instrument normally best enjoyed in a small and intimate room was not lost as he played standing alone in the middle of the 60,000-seat stadium.  Next up an impressive dance/theater performance telling the story of the African diaspora followed by speeches from the presidents of Mali, Mauritania, Equatorial Guinea, Senegal and Guinea Bissau and finally… Wyclef Jean??  Wyclef started his speech by complaining about Haiti not letting him run for president (“I came to Haiti and they sent me home before I was even off the plane”).   Although considering he doesn’t speak French, maybe all they told him was that he needed a visa first.  Next, he congratulated himself on being educated (“I can read.  I can write”), encouraged people to do hip-hop because they love it and not “for the bling and hot chicks” and ended with the embarrassing, “If you want to see Haiti, then just look at me.  I am beautiful.  I am strong. I am...”  Are all Haitians self-congratulatory?  I think not.

My favorite part about the evening, though, was the fake camera crew wandering through the aisles all night with their cardboard camcorders, wooden microphones and homemade t-shirts.  Je l'aime.

The parade of Burkina Faso marionettes never materialized (or we were in the wrong place at the wrong time – turns out the English schedule differs from the French on some important details).  Archie Shepp’s gravelly voice enthralled us for an evening under the majestic African Renaissance statue (apparently they’ll be spending another $7 million to lengthen the woman’s skirt at some point although arguably the money would be better spent covering her side-boob). Massimo thought it looked like something out of fascist Italy. You be the judge...

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Planet of the crabs…

Even if we never leave Ocean & Savane, the trip to Senegal is already worth it.  The beach is covered with crabs the size of my head and at nightfall as they advance from the beach further inland it looks like a sea of crabs.  I am simultaneously amazed and fearful of them, realizing we’re outnumbered.

As for the people, it’s impossible to improve on Max’s description:  “They are so beautiful.  If we give them money and power, we instantly become second-class citizens.”  It’s hard to disagree when everyone you see is tall (the perfect posture from carrying stuff on their heads helps) and elegantly sculpted with skin the color of polished ebony.

We spent Juan’s birthday at the Doudj National Park.  To say we were underwhelmed at the beginning is an understatement – the Pantanal was 10 times cooler – but when the boat rounded a corner and we saw thousands of 20 kg pelicans hanging out on a narrow concrete slab, we were sufficiently impressed.

We experienced the three-part Senegalese tea ceremony each night (amére comme la mort; doue comme la vie; miellé comme l’amour), marveled at the more-or-less tame sea hawk perched just feet from our dinner table, and made friends with the hotel’s chocolate lab puppy.  The kicker:  all of it costs the same daily rate as bush camping on the truck…

More pictures here:
St Louis - Senegal

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Our type of bush camp...

After too many sleepless nights and the promise of a Christmas dinner back home in Longreach, Amy jumped ship and took the 3am London  flight out of Nouakachott.  Meanwhile, the truck’s itinerary for the next seven days involved nonstop driving and desert camping every day in dangerous Mauritania.  Not a problem.  But no showers for a week with no plans to stop at anything interesting?  No thanks.   So we’ve taken matters into our own hands.  

Enter the noble Italian heroes: Massimo and Massimiliano (yes, we realize how amazingly Italian these names are), followed by their faithful sidekicks: Tia and Juan.  M2 came up with the idea to leave the truck for a 10-day visit to Senegal and fly back to meet the group in Bamako, the capital of Mali.  We didn’t take much convincing.  A 7-hour drive from Nouakchott, four of which we spent in an impounded car that the driver bribed a policeman to borrow (genius) and three of which we spent packed like sardines into a mini-bus with a goat tied on top, is the first French settlement in Senegal:  St. Louis.  

Crossing the border with M2, we can see why people get the impression that tourists are easy targets.  When I asked Massimiliano (Max) if his pockets were allergic to money, he replied, “I had only 20 euros in my pockets but I feel like I paid the whole world.”  For example, they probably would have paid our pirogue driver the original 8000 ouagiyas he asked for, if I hadn’t pointed out that the book said we shouldn’t pay more than 200 each.  Which, by the way, got me in big trouble with the friend of the boat driver.  “I do not look in a book when I visit your country, I listen to your advice!”  Promptly followed by him invading my space to grab my book, me asking him not to touch me, Juan saying, “Leave my wife alone” (in French), and then the guy saying, “Yes, I prefer to deal with the men.  Here, we don’t deal with the women.”  Wow.  We ultimately settled on 2000 but only after the Mauritanian policeman we’d bribed…er, paid…for border assistance intervened.   Ultimately it was probably a fair price since Massimo alone had 80 kg of baggage.  Across the river at Senegalese customs, after Tia had the passports stamped, Juan was told, Toi, t’es bon, mais ta femme parle beaucoup (“you are ok, but your wife talks too much”).  

After arriving at Ocean & Savane and examining our stilted huts built over the river, we strolled 100 meters to the beach on the other side of the hotel and there wasn’t a person in sight.  Back at the hotel, the bar was stocked with cold beer and French wine.  Max promptly announced, “Tonight, I bush camp.”  And we laughed at the thought of where the truck was now.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Juan Auld Jose and Tia Mint Jill

We always love being welcomed into a country by cheats.  Although, to be fair to the cheats, they came highly recommended…  When we arrived in Nouadibhou, Farron announced to the truck that our campsite/hostel would provide the best exchange rates.  So we took our remaining Moroccan dirhams (approx. US$110) and exchanged them immediately upon arriving.  Getting lost in the cross rates in the moment, we accepted the Mauritanian ouagiyas and went back to our room to double check the rate.  We were completely shocked to find that we lost about $27 on the transaction.  When we complained to the hostel owner we found that the man who made the exchange didn’t work there— in fact, he was nowhere to be found.  Farron (who changed his money elsewhere!) compared this to taking him up on a restaurant recommendation and not checking the prices.  Upon which Tia retorted, “No, it’s like you giving us a recommendation for the cheapest restaurant in town and it turns out that every other restaurant is cheaper.”  And even then, no, because you can still expect an expensive restaurant not to take your money and run away!

After this fiasco we only had a few hours of daylight left, which we spent drinking contraband beers in a strictly dry Muslim country.  How, you might ask?  Only one wily Australian (read: Amy) and the owner of a nearby Chinese restaurant will ever know.  Then we were off to Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania.  We arrived at the Auberge du Sahara around 5pm and immediately hopped in a taxi to head for the fish market.  Every day in the early evening, fishermen bring their catches to shore and we walked across the rough concrete floors thick with fish scale slush while cutting a wide path around the cleaver-wielding men to avoid being sprayed by entrails.  Behind the market stretched a picturesque beach lined with brightly colored boats, parked as close as cars for a mile.  Men worked in lines, rolling their boats into their spots atop old helium tanks and wrapping up nets as long as fifty of them.  Women with impossibly good posture sauntered by, balancing buckets on their heads, while adorable children stumbled alongside gawking at the white people.  The night ended with Amy treating us to a joint birthday dinner of surprisingly pleasant sushi and fresh fish (and cold beer) at La Salamandre.  Things were beginning to look up…

Unfortunately, Tia woke up with hundreds of bed bug bites from the mattress and when she confronted the hostel owner was told, “Many people complain about them, but what am I to do?”  Incensed and working on little sleep, we were starting to get sick of not having the power to do anything since she was already paid by African Trails.  Meanwhile, it was our turn to cook for the group that same night.  So we ended up buying pizza across the street and concocting a plan…  

Saturday, December 11, 2010

I have a .45 and a shovel, I doubt anyone would miss you...

Twin statues of ostriches in a roundabout signaled the end of Morocco (and of supermarket parking lots) and the beginning of Western Sahara.  Technically not a country since Spain decolonized in the 70s, Western Sahara was alternately claimed by both Morocco and Mauritania and is now undergoing a referendum to choose whether to become independent or part of Morocco.  Humming along the endless, dusty, desert road, one can see why Spain left.  Aside from sand dunes (and iron ore, evidently) there’s not much here.  Still, the beaches where we stopped were stunning and our campfires under the night sky were lit up by the stars.  The few hills in the distance would shimmer like mirages and at times appeared to be floating freely in the sky.  Somehow we still ended up having lunch on a beachside cliff overlooking garbage heaps: a credit to Farron’s uncanny ability to always serve a cake with icing… made out of trash.  Mmm yum!

I kept thinking that if Tia wanted me knocked off this would be the place to do it— no international laws and I doubted the U.N. peacekeepers would intervene.  If my family ever reads this entry please send help (and water) soon.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the vast majority of people on the truck are treating this trip as if it were free.  Ergo, it would be rude to complain about anything.  Our conversations often go something like this…

Tia:  I can’t believe the truck leaks everywhere.  Through the roof, the windows…even the floorboards into the luggage compartments.  I expected my tent to leak but not the truck.

Gustav:  I love the truck.

The parts of Morocco we’ve actually seen, we’ve really enjoyed.  Marrakech, Fez and Casablanca all had amazing outdoor markets full of butchers fulfilling orders on the spot, colorfully-embroidered shoes, horses carrying insane amounts of goods, snake charmers, dirty spices and leather goods.   Volubilis and Rabat had amazing ruins and Casablanca the fifth biggest mosque in the world.  Unfortunately, Farron only ever allots 1-2 hours in any place interesting.  We spend the vast majority of our time parked in Marjane (imagine a Super Target or Big K) parking lots.  Not a joke.  Instead of stopping in any of the amazing, dusty, off-the-beaten-track towns for lunch, we go to commercialized shopping centers for expensive imported food.  And then hang out there for HOURS.  Why does no one else seem bothered by this?!

On the plus side:  Juan and I are rockstars at putting up our tent, we managed to cook a killer Thanksgiving dinner despite the conditions, Carol cooked grilled cheese for my birthday, and it’s finally starting to be a bit warmer at night.

Definitely check out Amy’s blog for more insight on this trip: amyjeanmurray.blogspot.com

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick

Our Western Africa trip got off to a bumpy start.  Farron, our driver, did not meet us at the airport as planned and we were shuttled to a Marrakech hotel by non-English speakers with no information.  We didn’t mind much because we got to spend the night catching up with Amy…  (I met Amy in a data room on a property investment deal in Sydney and instantly liked her.   That she decided to join our African adventure is further proof that I have impeccable taste).

Farron arrived the next morning to inform us that our transport for the entire trip (it’s hard to know what to call our beast of a truck) was still in Spain because Moroccan authorities would not let him drive a tourist vehicle across the border without tourists (or Moroccans pretending to be tourists…or inflatable dolls).  The good news = five days spent in hotels.  The bad news = a re-routing of the trip that ultimately loses us a bit of time down the road.  We later learned that the border “mistake” cost the company about 5,000 Euros.  I call this the cost of karma.   You can ask me why later.

The players for our 10-week adventure:  An ex-maximum security prison guard from Canada with a heart of gold and a fiery wit, two Milanese businessmen who teach us dirty words in Italian whenever they aren’t busy flirting, a Portuguese surf-shop/bar owner who left his wife behind even though she wanted to come (he claims he didn’t want to endanger her, but this reason seems increasingly suspicious as we get to know him), a couple of English psychologists, two girls that just finished Teach-for-America stints (Amy has nicknamed one of them “the Devil”, a title she more than deserves), a quiet Swede, a cynical Scot, a 21-year old German soap-opera star (well, “star” might be a bit of a stretch) who is teaching himself a fourth language on this trip (yes, I am appropriately shamed), an Irishman who is quickly getting sick of us asking him to pronounce the number three (“tree”), a 19-year old kid that has been saving for the trip for two years by working at a supermarket in England, two Alaskans in their 60s, an adorable eye doctor currently working in Borneo, a gay (always drunk) Kiwi, an English woman with a penchant for Fijian men, an Aussie that I still like even though he bought a guitar on the second day of the trip (thankfully  we don’t have the type of group that wants to sit around the campfire singing), a Swiss-German who  keeps to himself, another cute Canadian, and a thoughtful Englishman that is always off taking pictures of birds (Kaedon would like him).

With the exception of the Devil, we have been pleasantly surprised by the people on the trip.  Still, I wish we had the right to vote people off just in case.

More on Morocco later, but as a preview, I'm in love with the walls of colorful shoes...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Further proof I have the best friend ever

We finished off our South Africa trip with a stop in Oliviershoek, nestled on a pass overlooking the stunning Drakensburg Mountains, and a whole day devoted to souvenir shopping for Helen in Durban and then we were off to London for a few days of real life before our African adventure.

Little did I know that Juan was more sneaky than I could have imagined and a surprise was waiting for me at the airport.  Claiming that his friend, Tom, had generously offered to pick us up at Heathrow (in addition to letting us crash at his place for three days), it didn’t seem strange at all to be hanging out at the airport for a bit.  I vaguely remember him acting a bit preoccupied but I absolutely did not know he was watching for Danielle, whom he’d coordinated a surprise visit with.  Seeing Danielle strolling to the meeting point far surpassed any excitement created a few moments earlier when we saw paparazzi running after a sun-glassed, recently nuptialed Russell Brand…

We spent our first night wandering around London, drinking cider at an English pub followed by wine and room service at our hotel.  Posh hotel, wine and best friend = best battery recharge ever.

We spent the next day replenishing my dirty, stretched out wardrobe.  Oh, how I love H&M.  That evening our plans were ruined by the idiotic woman behind the desk at our hotel who informed Juan upon arrival that no one under the name "Lackey" was staying in the hotel. We waited in the lobby for an hour drinking wine sold in the glass (amazing) before we finally tracked him down at the restaurant.  We later bribed the night receptionist with Toblerone for her name ("Linda") and details (Latvian and not so bright: "Lights on but nobody's home").  Too bad London isn't the sort of place you can get someone fired for ineptitude.

I couldn’t have asked for a better 30th birthday present!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Ponies with superpowers

We took a small detour from our South African coastal tour to satisfy Helen’s one advance request:  pony trekking in Lesotho.  Nestled islandlike in the middle of South Africa, Lesotho is a mountainous country with stunning landscapes.  The people are proud despite being poor, which makes sense when you realize that they withstood the Zulu warrior army during the difaqane (forced migration) that displaced numerous other ethnic groups in South Africa.

We got an early start from Aliwal North (where we spent a lovely night at Conville Farm watching the most patient dog ever put up with a puppy hanging all over him), and arrived in Lesotho just after one.  We spent the afternoon looking at crafts in Teyateyaneng, where Helen finally found something worth buying – tapestries woven by hand on huge looms by Basotho women.  Good choice.  Next we were off to the Malealea Lodge for pony trekking.  After driving on heavily-potholed roads that the Hot Dog barely handled, into the middle of nowhere, we did not expect to find an expansive lodge with a fully-stocked bar, hot showers and impeccably clean and well-sized rooms.  Our first night around the fire was dominated by an incredibly drunk professional photographer from Jersey who considered himself an expert in, well, just about everything.  Near the end of the night, said man also threw a beer can across the fire which hit a Dutch girl in the face.  As he stammered that he hadn’t meant to hit her (I still can’t figure out where the can was meant for, though, if not her), her friends didn’t hesitate to say with disgust, “Go get a drink of water” and “It’s time for you to leave.”  Awkward.

Pony trekking the next day was amazing.  We went to a waterfall where a local man was playing a handmade instrument while wearing a fluorescent orange construction outfit (?!) and to see some San rock art (a little faded but still pretty cool).  Most impressive, however, was the sure-footedness of the horses as they climbed up and down pathways covered in rocks.  Luckily we were warned ahead of time that as long as we didn’t look down and panic but trusted our horse, we’d be fine.  Too true.

On our way out of the country we were stopped by the traffic police who pointed at our backpacks in the back seat and said they weren’t allowed.

Juan:  it is clothes.  We must have clothes.

Traffic police: Come with me. [Points to a sticker on the front windshield].  Five passengers only.

Juan: We are only three passengers.

Traffic police: You have bags as passengers.  This is not allowed.  You can only have luggage in the trunk.

Juan (while eyeing the incredibly small Hot Dog): We are sorry.

Traffic police: You may go.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Holy Kudu!

Nestled past the picturesque Garden Route, Addo Reserve is home to one of the biggest herds of captive elephants (about 450).   Having done the drive-through safari at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, I obviously knew what to expect.  You drive in past a security gate, take a break to browse over-priced, gift shop kitsch, grab a bite to eat in the restaurant, and then through another gate onto a paved road surrounded by stubby trees and dry brush.  This time, though, the animals weren’t crowded into a football-stadium-sized field and the tourists weren’t bumper-to-bumper feeding the monkeys Kit-Kats as they clambered onto their hoods.  No, it was eerily quiet at 7am and nary a car to be seen on the winding roads.  We watched patiently, desperately even, for any movement in the distance, a patch of color that didn’t quite fit, hoping not to be the unlucky few that managed to travel so far not to see anything.  A few horned heads ducked, distinguishing them from branches, and then we watched as a herd of kudu retreated from us. 

Right on.  The day continued and we saw ostriches, zebras, mongoose, jackals, elands, buffalo, tortoises, warthogs, lions, and a whole lot of elephants, breaking into the When I Was a Young Warthog when appropriate.  Meanwhile, Tia became progressively more excited each time she could tick another box on her list of animals to see (note: lawyers adore lists).  When we met a South African family with precocious, British-accented children midway through the day that asked us if we’d seen any elephants we secretly rejoiced that we weren’t the suckers that: (a) slept in, (b) showed up at the hottest time of day, and (c) were truly nonplussed that wild animals wouldn’t just wander up to their car and say hi.  Again, note my use of lists (happy wife = happy life).  Don’t feel too bad for the family, though.  We saw them later at the restaurant and they’d seen plenty.  The precocious 13-yr. old girl bragged about how they also saw so many tortoises on the pavement earlier that she could just walk over and pick them up.  Pick them up?  Have you not been reading any of the signs with that £50,000 per year public school education, girl?  Our previous sympathy now gone, we told them about the pride of lions we saw lounging around a watering hole earlier that day.  Eat that, animal-abuser.

Frequent rewards for our vigilance kept us hooked until the park closed at 6:30pm.  Spending yet another day driving around in Hot Dog, however, threatens to make us all fat.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Best. Day. Ever.

Ride an ostrich: Check.

Watch meerkats hug each other: Check.

Witness Juan’s mom embarrass him in front of gritty South Africans: Check.

Our day began at 5:30am in Oudtshoorn when we met up with Devey Glinister for a tour of a local meerkat colony. Helen lost no time at all in announcing loudly to the rest of the group that she was Juan’s “ mommy.” I’ve never seen a stern Rwandan laugh so hard.

As the sun began to heat the meerkat’s sleeping mound, they starting popping out one-by-one to soak up the rays with their impeccable posture. It was a particularly eventful morning too – we were lucky to witness the shaming of the family slut, Molly. After returning from a three-day love romp with a bachelor meerkat, she had to endure being peed on by her younger siblings and triple-teamed in her fights to resume her rank. Seeing meerkats hug each other and then take turns as sentries while the others forage, though, is definitely a top ten wildlife experience!

Next up, the Cango Ostrich Farm. Apart from learning all the facts (their eyes are bigger than their brains), meeting a dwarf ostrich (only one is born every 20 years), and holding a newly-hatched baby, you can hug , kiss, get a neck massage or ride an ostrich. I opted for three of the four (Betsie only kisses boys – a fact for which Juan did not appear particularly grateful as he held the ostrich food pellet between his lips and cowardly covered his eyes). Riding an ostrich wasn’t as easy as it looked on Swiss Family Robinson but certainly just as fun.

Next up on the bucket list: learn to throw knives, read The Brothers Karamazov in the original Russian and study Kung Fu in China with a Shaolin monk…

Monday, November 8, 2010

Outdrunk by a 68-year old lady

Fate is against me.  How is it possible after missing wine tasting in Mendoza, then getting my tolerance back up in Buenos Aires, that the second we step foot in wine country again, I get sick?  Whatever karmic thing I messed up, I’m sorry!  Please Bacchus, forgive me.

I stayed in the car while Juan and Helen visited Stellenzicht where an Afrikaans lady that spoke four languages casually (including (click)-zosa) served them pinotage, a wine varietal unique to South Africa.  Next we were off to Morgonhof and Kanonkop.  We enjoyed the old monastery feel of the former and the Murano glass display and 5-liter wine bottles at the latter.  We finished off at Chamonix Estates with a cellar tour and some wine tasting in an old blacksmiths’ shop.  Dinner at the affiliated restaurant, Mon Plaisir, was divine.  Escargot, duck confit and steamed mussels with a perfectly executed chocolate fondant.  Yum yum.  

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Beware of farm boys...

A short 7-hr. flight from BA on a Malaysia Airlines plane that maneuvered like a skyscraper turned on its side, we arrived in Cape Town and back into the English-speaking world.  My mom (Helen) flew in the same night and we picked her up from the airport in our hot dog Hyundai.  The Conifer Cape B&B we stayed at was owned by former musicians and the place was filled with cool art, Cezanne, Rothko, et al, an old piano, and an outdoor garden.  Tia immediately detoxed from travel in the claw-foot bathtub and, little did we know, ended up using the rest of the hot water for the next 36 hours.  Figures that the first nice place we stay during our trip turns out to be worse than the lead pipe sticking out of concrete in Cartagena that still managed to produce warmth.

In the meantime, my mom began her quest to find the best deal in small African crafts by exploring local trade stores and the stalls at Greenmarket Square.  Much browsing but no buying (after all, what can one do with a giant beaded elephant or wildebeest chair framed with gold-painted wood?).  We took trips to the V&A waterfront and posed in front of the four statues of South African Nobel prize winners.  Table Mountain formed a spectacular backdrop for the city – too bad strong winds meant the cable cars weren’t running.  The three trips we took up to the base of the mountain to be informed of this fact weren’t in vain, however, since one of the store owners told Tia all about South African “farm boys”: muscly charmers who will steal a girl from right under your nose.  Needless to say, I went back to the hotel and quietly excised any barnyard tours from our itinerary. 

Saturday, November 6, 2010

This is what we do while you're at work (Part II)

For my birthday present last year, Juan promised me tango lessons.  When we insisted to the flamboyant Aussie at Arthur Murray (yes, the same dance company of law school fame) that he teach us something Dancing with the Stars-cool he resolutely pointed to a tiered, poster board of names and told us that when we made it to the gold level in 10 years (ten years!) we would learn stuff like that.  Hmm…overpriced lessons with nothing rock star sexy to show from it?  No, thanks.  We already spent six weeks, and a pretty pound, in London for the privilege of walking, stiff-legged, around a dance room.

Realizing that we’d be spending time in the birthplace of Argentine tango, we figured it’d be worthwhile to wait nearly a year for some authentic lessons.  There are plenty of tourist traps for people with the same idea so, after researching a number of options, we settled on DNI Tango.  It was a quarter of the price and they espoused a system of dance that involved technique, one-on-one dancing with an instructor, and yoga.  All of the instructors are fun, young twenty-somethings that look like Penelope Cruz.  Yes, I kept a close eye on Juan and secretly wanted to be friends with all of them. 

We didn’t learn anything super fancy, but we’ve got the ochos and sacadas down flat.  And perhaps, more importantly, Juan has learned to lead and I have learned to follow.   If only that extended to real life, Juan would be a happy man.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Watch where you step...

We met a French-Canadian couple in Mendoza that swore that Buenos Aires was just like Paris.  Other people have simply called it “European” (which I guess just means generically old, but classy?) but it’s clear that everyone who has visited it has loved it.  Naturally, we arrived enthusiastic, despite having to spend the first day searching for US$300 to use as our apartment deposit (nobody, even Amex, would give us dollars).  Our first forays into our barrio, San Telmo, were somewhat underwhelming.  Streets were plain, buildings were unremarkably modern: it felt like we were lost in a half-size version of NY, somewhere in Midtown.

Eventually stumbling across the much-lauded cobblestone roads, we spent more time with our eyes peeled to the ground to avoid the copious amount of dog poop everywhere (Tia has a bad history with this) than taking in the art deco facades and wrought-iron terraces.  People would trot by with their dogs, do their business, and the most conscientious of them picked up the remains with a paper towel and tossed both into the street.  Not to mention there was a garbage strike going on so sometimes rounding a corner we’d find a rancid-smelling pile of plastic bags that local storeowners continued to add to, unperturbed.  Yep, Paris has got nothing on this city.

Still, much like NY, it takes some time to find your rhythm in BA.  Local stores that made fresh Italian pasta daily became a quick favorite.  The wine was fantastic and we had a bottle nearly every night (as if that were an unusual circumstance).  We shopped for cheap, hipster clothes in Palermo and spent hours wandering the Sunday antique markets in San Telmo, looking yearningly at the old watches, jewelry, maps, phonographs, and other amazing junk that we could no longer afford, much less fit into our backpacks.  Cafes and stores usually left their doors locked and required shoppers to ring the bell to enter, which, once you get over the resentment of being locked out, is kind of funny—like you’re always coming over to someone’s house.  I even stopped watching men sideways whenever they leaned forward to kiss me hello (Tia’s hairstylist got a good, confident man kiss from me).  By the time I figured out how to order a decent espresso (ristretto) we were starting to feel like locals.

It may have helped that it was our first solid 10 days without hopping on a bus or plane, but we ended up, like all the other drones, loving the city, dog poop and all.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

A single day back across the border to Brazil and we’re reminded of so many things:

The Good                           The Bad                                           The Ugly
Fresh lime juice                    Oily food                                        Adult braces 
Espetinhos                           Hot dogs for breakfast                    Open-back shirts
Friendliness                         Waiting in line/taking turns                Cake for breakfast
Use of thumbs up                 Driving in lanes                               Butterfly tattoos
Sugarfree juice                     Turnstiles on buses                         Playboy logos 
Cheese bread                          

When we weren’t laughing that stepping over an imaginary line results in drastically different food and behaviors, we were wading through tourists to admire the Brazil-side of Iguaçu Falls.  We basically understood what all the fuss was about and took lots of waterfall pictures that all look the same.

In light of my previous posting, it was ironic when on the bus back to town, a 5-year old child boarded, confidently and without hesitation squeezed herself between my knees to balance, and then promptly fell asleep for most of the 40 minute ride.  Ha.

Oh, and thanks to Laura, the absolutely crazy (in a good way) owner of the pousada we stayed at, for advising Juan that you can either have one woman or two women which ultimately turns into zero women when one of them finds out about the other.  Wise words.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wine, wine, everywhere and not a drop to drink

Well, so we arrived in Mendoza hungover (if you have to ask, it had to do with an upgrade on our flight and too many hours spent in the lounge).  In retrospect, not the best way to start a three-day wine-drinking spree…  Our “airport pickup” car rental turned out not to be at the airport but actually back in the city center where we had started, already late.  A few hours later, after mastering a traffic system rife with unwavering drivers and absent of stoplights, we were happily on our way to wine taste in Maipú valley.  Having only time for one winery, we visited Trapiche, where an 18-year old girl gave us our first lesson on Mendoza wine with the self-assuredness that only youth can provide.  She would use words like “solemnity” to describe the feature Malbec and, at my suggestion that the wine tasted like asparagus, replied with a simple, “No.  No, it does not”.  Damn you, Sideways

Feeling much more energized the next day, we hit the road early and drove an hour south to the Valle de Uco.  Vineyards were much more spaced out here, placed alongside rolling hills of aspen farms and fields of flowers with the Andes providing a picturesque backdrop.  Much more impressive than Maipú, which had all the suburbanness of Palo Alto and vineyards where the Baja Fresh should have been.  The vineyards required advance reservations and the Spanish tours were one-on-one giving ample opportunity to learn about their wine-making process; unless of course you were Tia and, despite understanding very little and having picked up a cold, you obligingly listened and carted your husband from vineyard to vineyard.  Does David Yurman have a line of jewelry for such an occasion?  I hope so. 

The day ended back in Maipú at Catena Zapata, world-renowned for its Malbecs, where we rolled up to an Aztec temple that served as its tasting room.  No res.  They could obviously smell class in our cargo pants.  Anyway, our tongues were too numb and lips too purple by then so we retreated back to the city center to enjoy some well-missed haute cuisine.  Definitely a fun place and we wish we could have spent more time there.