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.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

It takes a village to raise a child

What do you see in this picture?  Two women, friends maybe, with identically-dressed babies?  Wrong.  Instead, a mother of twins boards a bus in Mendoza, turns to the stranger sitting next to her and asks, “Can you hold this for a moment?”  as if she’s asking her to hold a bottle of water or her jacket while she puts her wallet away.  The mother did not reclaim her baby until 40 minutes later when she reached her destination.  Amazing.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Breaking the mold

Everyone should one day take a mountain bus driven by an allergic-to-life Colombian.  It is true maniacal pleasure.  Once you get nauseated the sensation doesn’t go away; doesn’t matter if you stop reading, stare at the horizon, take deep breaths, etc.  The travel gods don’t even care if you still have eight more hours to go—they will not hear your pleas.  Tia and I learned this on our ear-popping trip with Bolivariana from Manizales to Bogotá.  To top it off we spent an hour at the side of the road watching tractor trailers try to extract themselves from each other like two very confused elephants mating.  Is it possible to put a bus company on the list of state-sponsored, terrorist organizations?

Compared to its South American contemporaries, Bogotá itself had a lot of artsy character.  Think Jackson Pollack dripping paint in front of a stolid audience of pencil-wielding automatons.  Aside from the scarf-wrapped, rocker jean-toting hipsters that dotted the brick laid sidewalks, our hostel in La Candelaria abutted a street that had various statues on the rooftops, one fishing with a squash on his line, another looked likely to jump.  Wandering down Carretera 7 
 on a drizzling Friday night, we encountered the weekly tradition of Septimazo:  a motley gathering of meat grills, Bob Ross wannabes, melted plastic sculptors, brass bands, Latin dancers (good and bad), cotton candy, and temporary TV stands featuring Asian singers, all with crowds formed in semi-circles packing the street.  Elsewhere, when confronted with the need for a better public transportation system, rather than build a metro the city simply shut down a few major streets for the exclusive use of buses.  In fact, even more roads are shut every Sunday to bikers only!  Kind of ingenious, huh, and something out of a madman’s mind?  Bogotá doesn’t play by the rules and we like it. 

Sadly, it rained down on us the entire four days we spent there and Tia was horribly afflicted by altitude sickness.  As such it won’t make our list of cities to live in one day, but not a bad place for a visitazo!

Oh, and most importantly, we found Duff beer (sí existe!).

Saturday, October 9, 2010

I think I have the black lung, pops

An hour and a half outside of Bogotá, lies the sleepy town of Zipaquirá.  An otherwise unremarkable place except for having Colombia’s #1 tourist attraction: a Roman Catholic cathedral built 200 meters underground in a still-working salt mine.  In addition to the main cathedral which holds Sunday services that can accommodate around 8000 people, there are 14 smaller chapels representing the events of Jesus’ last journey.  You can wander unchaperoned through the three different underground levels, stumbling across beautiful sculptures, secluded rock confession booths and narrow pathways leading from place to place.  Pictures don’t really do it justice but we can see why it’s considered one of Colombia’s most notable architectural achievements.

We paid an extra $5 each to take the special “miner’s route”.  Described as dark and claustrophobic, we expected to get an intimate view of the paths actual miners took.  Well, apart from the first three-minute walk, we were basically in big, well-lit spaces not much different than the rest of the cathedral.  Tear.  We did, however, get to discover that Juan has a future as a salt miner if nothing else works out.   Our guide stopped at some point and started making people take turns with a pick-axe.  When it was Juan’s turn and the guide found out we were from the U.S., he promptly said, “Oh.  Well, let’s see how an American does it!” and everyone laughed.  Luckily for us, Juan salvaged our pride by breaking the biggest piece of salt off the wall out of the entire group.  Yay for Juan!

Monday, October 4, 2010

All-you-can drink espressos = mistake

Our one day spent in Medellín was a bit anti-climactic.  We were most excited to visit the Parque de los Pies Descalzos, a park with a bamboo forest, lots of shallow pools to wade through, different-sized stones to climb, and signs encouraging you to remove your shoes.  Unfortunately, when we arrived the park was under renovation or something because there wasn’t a single pool to cool our feet in and the stones were all roped off.  Sad.

On top of that, we were discouraged from exploring much else when we saw a couple of policemen driving a man, naked from the waist down and missing an arm, off the sidewalk with the front wheel of their motorcycle.  No one else seemed disturbed by this which made us think we weren’t in the best part of town.

We quickly shoved off for Manizales, one of three towns in the Zona Cafetera where most of Colombia’s coffee is grown.  Its fresh, chilly climate was a nice change and the steep, tidy streets more closely resembled a city in Europe than Colombia.  From here, we organized a tour of the Venecia coffee plantation where we learned about the entire coffee production process, including how they export the best coffee beans and leave the rest in Colombia (unfair, huh?).  Also included in the tour price was all-you-can drink espressos.  I’m pretty sure Juan is the only person that has truly utilized that benefit.  Let’s just say, he had energy ALL DAY.

We were also in Manizales for Valentine’s Day (yes, the Colombians celebrate V-day in October) and the two girls that worked at our hostel invited all their friends over, cooked a 15-person meal, crowded out the hostel guests, and partied until almost midnight.  I really hope none of them ever get a job in the US because they would never understand why they got fired…

Friday, October 1, 2010

No, I won't pay you to splash water on me

After spending a few days in Santa Marta recharging our batteries at the hostel pool and having drunk Brits drool over the impressiveness of Juan’s bigote, we headed for Cartagena.   With its cobblestone streets, flowered balconies, impressively big wooden doors and an eroded fortress wall wrapping around the entire city, it is easy to see why people consider it Colombia’s most beautiful city.

We tried sweets from the portal de los dulces (mentioned in Love in the Time of Cholera), bought Juan some authentic Cuban cigars, and partied with Lucy and Tomas again!  I don’t know how we forgot in the short span of a couple of weeks just how many beers Tomas can drink…

We were too lazy to plan any day trips to nearby beaches, but we did motivate for a trip to Volcán de Lodo El Totumo.   When we first arrived, the 15m mound looked like a poorly placed man-made attraction.  But, after climbing the stairs to the top and lowering ourselves into the natural mud bath, it made more sense.  The mud was buoyant and extremely difficult to maneuver in.  If NASA ever needs a new zero gravity training site, it wouldn’t be a bad choice.   In order to move from one side to the other, it was necessary to create a human chain and pull each other along.  The only thing that dampened the experience was the human vultures – people who will want money if they help you down a single stair, or pretend to watch over your flip flops, or throw water on you when you are cleaning off.   

More pictures here: