Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Hasta pronto, Argentina

This is me standing on the hill behind Ushuaia, with a view down onto the city and the Beagle Channel behind. I am just about to walk onto the Martial Glacier, which you can´t see in the photo.

Tierra del Fuego´s lakes and mountains lead to inevitable comparisons with Switzerland, and here is my opinion on the matter: in Switzerland, the mountains are closer, taller and younger, meaning they are more sharp and jagged, and in general the scenery is more breathtaking. However, one thing that always struck me about Swiss mountains is that every nook and cranny of them have been explored and conquered: you hike for hours only to arrive at a restaurant serving beer and ice cream, and then take a public bus home. Here you get the feeling that the wilderness is more "wild". Sometimes the hiking trails are just narrow dirt paths, and you have to climb over roots and duck under fallen trees to get where you´re going. To get to this glacier at one point the trail seemed to disappear and we had to climb over rocks and try to find footholds to get up to it; yet this is supposedly one of the top tourist attractions of Ushuaia. Which is not to say that the Tierra del Fuego is totally isolated. In fact, new hotels and tourist shops are going up all the time and the business of taking tourists to explore, hike, bike, trek and camp is booming. In fact, this morning before leaving some friends and I explored some more of the beautiful scenery on horseback...which is sure to have me walking funny for a couple of days.

Anyway, I caught an afternoon flight and am now in Puerto Natales, Chile, getting ready to do several days of trekking (aka hiking) in Torres del Paine National Park. Unfortunately, the park suffered a massive forest fire last week which damaged a huge part of the park. Firefighters and ecologists are still trying to assess the damage and loss of plant and animal life.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Fin del Mundo

Here it is...this is the End of the World. This is a photo from the Tierra del Fuego National Park. It´s a beautiful park, with mountains all around, clear lakes and hiking trails. The trees here are beautiful: their trunks and limbs are twisted and bent to resist the harsh winds; all of the flora is hardy and strong to withstand the cold winters and summer wind. Ushuaia itself is a small, very touristy town, filled with shops where people docked for the day on cruise ships can come ashore and buy stuffed penguins and "End of the World" t-shirts, but all around is beautiful scenery in a land which feels totally untouched and where the slightly desolate landscape reminds you how far away from the rest of the world you are.

I went for a hike in the park Friday and yesterday took a 9-hour cruise on the Beagle Channel past colonies of seals, cormorants, and yes, penguins! We also passed Puerto Williams, Chile, a military base with a population of 2,500 which is actually the southernmost town in the world. Today I climbed up a steep trail and climbed over slippery rocks to touch the Martial Glacier. It is quite cold here, and I have layered on all my warm clothes, including my winter coat, hat and gloves!

Thursday, February 17, 2005


Well, it took 25 hours of travelling, but I made it from Iguazú to Ushuaia. The bus ride was fine but not quite as nice this time, although we did get to see Mean Girls, which was at least funny (and not just funny because it was so bad, like the ones I saw on the way up). I met up with my friend Celia at the airport in Buenos Aires and we came down here together. We´re staying at a really cozy, small hostel about 20 minutes walk from the center of Ushuaia, which is very small, and overrun by tourists from all over. Tomorrow we´re going hiking with four Israelis who are also staying here.

I had to do a major baggage overhaul in Iguazu. If any of you have read Bill Bryson´s A Walk in the Woods, you may remember the way his friend needed to chuck out all of the extra things they had brought, including boxes of Little Debbie snack cakes or similar junk food, right after they started their hike. I felt a bit like that as I dumped any thing I could think of into the garbage in my hostel. Moisturizer, extra socks, one t-shirt, some herbal swiss decongestant tablets, and a beach towel were among the casualties. Then I brought a little over than 4 pounds of stuff to the post office and spent $20 to have it sent home to Connecticut (via Katmandu, apparently, as it will take 1-2 months to arrive). But I´m much happier with my lighter bag. In total I now have 21 kilograms, or 46 pounds, strapped to my body as I travel. Oof.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Hey! I know that song!

Did it ever happen to you that you hear a song in a public place and you know it and you really want to stop someone and tell them that you know it? That's happened twice to me in the past 24 hours. I've been listening to the I Am Sam soundtrack a lot (Beatles covers performed by various pop artists) and last night the hostel (which constantly has music playing by the bar and on the patio out by the pool) played it. When I heard the first lines of Aimee Mann and Michael Penn singing "Two of Us" I just wanted to run up to someone and say, hey, I know this one, I was listening to it just yesterday! It's a really good cd! But that person would certainly look at me as if I was a little loca. Then this morning they played a song that we listened to last week as a vocab and listening exercise in my Spanish class. It's a good thing I have this blog...this way I can tell you about these songs, and you can think I'm crazy, but I don't have to know about it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Las Cataratas de Iguazú

I visited Iguazu Falls National Park today, and it was very impressive, with many walking trails and activities to do. I took a boat ride right underneath the falls and got soaking wet, which was lots of fun and a good break from the heat! There are actually many different falls, and you can see them all from the different viewpoints on the trails. Since I don´t have a visa to go to Brazil, I couldn´t see the view from that side, which I am told is spectacular, but I was very happy with what I got to see. Here´s an aerial photo. I also saw some wildlife: many coatis (small raccoon-like things), some iguanas and even a toucan!

The bus ride up here was actually very comfortable. It was in a "coche cama", or "bed bus", and the seats recline to nearly flat position. I slept well, enjoyed the meals provided and my iPod kept me company in between. However, the in-bus entertainment definitely left something to be desired. They played four movies total, and I took it as a bad sign that the only actor I recognized from either of the first two was Marcel, the monkey from "Friends". These movies definitely broke the rule (recently discussed on Basil´s blog) that bad films are better when screened in a confined and unescapable space. The worst one, Anaconda 2 (which now is near if not at the top of my list of worst movies of all time), was obviously a pirate copy somebody shot at the movie theater, and a few times you could actually see the silhouettes of the people coming and going from their seats. Despite this drawback, I am looking forward to the return trip tomorrow...once back in Buenos Aires, I head straight to the airport for my flight to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world.

Monday, February 14, 2005

It's not adios, it's hasta luego

I've now left Buenos Aires and I'm feeling wistful about it. I will certainly have to come back one day. In my last days, I did some more tourist stuff...went to the cemetery in the Recoleta neighborhood, which is filled with impressive mausoleums (i also finished the Evita portion of my tour by visiting the simple Duarte family mausoleum where she is buried). Yesterday I went to two markets. If you visit Buenos Aires, make sure you are there on a Sunday; the markets in Recoleta (filled with artwork and handicrafts) and San Telmo (antiques and artwork, and many street performers) are worth a couple of hours' ramble each. The market (feria) in San Telmo has a great atmosphere, with different kinds of music coming from all sides: guitar or mandolin players, reed pipe players and even a youth ensemble playing tango music. It's also filled with people dressed up like various types of statues. And if you need an antique silver fork, or a Princess Diana commemorative stamp from Thailand, that's the place to go.

Friday night I went with two friends from the hostel to a Milonga, or tango club. It was really wonderful. Though Celia and I had taken lessons (8 between the two of us) we each tried one dance with a guy who came over and asked, but we were just no good so he politely escorted us back to the table. Basically, there's a dance floor in the center and chairs and tables all around. The way it goes is people partner up for 3 or 4 dances at a time and then change. The dancing and music was beautiful. Most of the people were in their 40s and 50s, I would say, but as the night went on (we didn't get there until almost 1 AM) there were more young people. Some were all dressed up and some were in jeans and everything in between. At the end, just before it closed at 4, they picked one couple to dance solo and it was like going to a tango show. It definitely inspired me to try to learn some more. The only funny thing was that in between sets of 3 or 4 songs they would play some random song, like from the Cure or some popular band, but the craziest was that at one point they played...wait for it...Tom Waits' version of "Waltzing Matilda". (Tim, I bet you never thought anything in a tango club would make someone think of you, but there you go.)

I am about to head off to see some very large waterfalls in the 90 degree heat. Stay tuned for a report on the bus ride up here.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Everything I know about Argentina I learned from Andrew Lloyd Webber

Today was my last full day in Buenos Aires and I am really feeling sad about leaving! It took a while to settle in, and for most of the past few weeks I have been anxious to get on with the traveling, but I´ve grown attached and it´s hard to go. Anyway, I had a few things left to see so after another tango class this afternoon I took off for the Palermo section of town to see the Museo Evita, a museum about the life of Eva Peron.

For those who don´t know about Evita (and didn´t see the movie) here´s a little recap: She was born outside of Buenos Aires in 1919, moved to the city at age 15 to pursue her dream of being an entertainer and became a star on the radio and in movies. She met and later married military leader Juan Peron, who was elected president in 1946. They had huge appeal to and support from the working class, and dedicated themselves to improving conditions for workers (popularly called "descamisados" or "shirtless") Evita was their sweetheart because she also came from a very poor background and held a lot of contempt for the priveliged classes, who in return resented the power she had in government affairs. She died in 1952 at age 33, just after Peron had been elected to a second term. (The term only lasted until 1955, when Peron was deposed and had to take exile in Spain. He came back, though, and was elected president again in the early 70s, and when he died less than a year later his third wife Isabel--Eva was his second--took over briefly as president).

Anyway, I´ve seen both the play and the movie "Evita" and know the soundtrack pretty well, so I went to the museum to see how Eva´s real life compared to the image created by Weber. I was actually surprised at how accurate it seems. The best part of the museum (which consisted in large part of large-print quotations from her autobiography and personal items such as hats, shoes, first communion certificates and childhood photos) was a video montage about Evita´s communication with the people. It had footage of Peron and Eva speaking from the balcony of the Government house, and yes, the people were chanting "Peron! Peron! Evita! Evita!" It also seemed to me that some of the lines from the songs were actually taken from her speeches.

It was interesting to see the footage and to realize just how influential a couple the Perons were. Millions of people flooded the streets to support them and then to mourn when Evita died. But then consider that a 26-year-old entertainer who came from a poor background married a popular, strong military leader and made real changes in the country: feeding poor children, offering job training, building homes for the poor, improving working conditions. In fact, imagine a mid-80´s Madonna becoming first lady and imagine how that would shake up American politics, or any country´s politics for that matter.

So, that is your Argentina history lesson for today. I´ll try to get online tomorrow to tell about the tango club I went to last night, before I head off on a 18-hour bus journey to Iguazú Falls.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

My feet

I have been giving my feet a workout. I think I´ve had a total of around 6 blisters, including one which is somehow underneath the skin on the ball of one of my feet, as strange as that seems. I walk a lot, obviously, so they sometimes get tired. And today I did something a little crazy which will surely have immediate painful effects for my feet: I bought a pair of tango shoes. I am taking some lessons, and I have no good shoes to wear. I had to buy some, so I figured I might as well buy real ones. It´s a totally crazy thing to do, especially because now I have to carry them in my backpack where space is at a premium. Also, I will almost surely never ever wear them again (so look for them on e-bay shortly after I return) but actually I kind of like them, and they certainly make me feel like I can dance. I´ll see how my next class goes and let you know.

I have mostly been wearing one particular pair of sandals, and as a result my feet have developed a particular pattern. Here is the photo if you want to take a look. The feet don´t look so good in this one, because it was hot and they´d recently been dipped in the aforementioned Rio de la Plata, which you can see in the photo.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Uru - who?

Solving a geography question that (let's face it) many of us have asked ourselves, I traveled to Uruguay this weekend, thereby discovering where it is. It is actually just a brief ferry ride away from Buenos Aires, on a very nice ferry with restaurants and duty-free shopping and pinball machines. I spent the ride there basking in the sun on the top deck, and the ride back sniffling and blowing my nose from the cold I got, probably from the cold-hot-cold-rain-sun dance the weather was doing last week.

I went to Colonia, which is a small town of about 22,000 people, with tree-lined streets and lots of little shops and restaurants. It was a nice break from the traffic and noise of the big city. I borrowed a bike (a one-speed mountain bike a bit too small for me, so my knees practically hit my wrists as I rode) from the hostel where I stayed, and rode along the river for a while. When I say river, I mean the Rio de la Plata, which is actually extremely wide (you can´t see across to Argentina) and very brown and ugly. It´s very unfortunate, because "Rio de la Plata" sounds like a very pretty thing. They actually translate it as "River Plate" which is really not a good name, but it´s better than "Ugly Brown Polluted Mess" which would be more accurate. My opinion sunk even further when I was bitten by a very nasty ant while sitting on the river bank.

Anyway, I am now back, enjoying my last 5 days here, taking more Spanish classes, and meeting more people-everyone I know now in the hostel is either French- or Spanish-speaking, so my language skills are being given a good workout. Look for more photos to come in the next couple of days. Plus if you´re good, maybe I´ll post some pictures of me taking tango lessons (i started yesterday, and let me just say that I don´t have the gift).

Friday, February 04, 2005

Madres de la Plaza de Mayo

Edit: Here is the photo. I had to make it a link because it was messing up the blog format.

Yesterday I saw the demonstration of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, which is an organization of mothers (madres) whose children "disappeared" and are suspected to have been kidnapped and murdered by the dictatorial government in the 70s. This is the only ongoing demonstration against these atrocities. The mothers sometimes hold photos and wear handkerchiefs stitched with the names of their loved ones, called "desaparecidos" or "disappeared ones". They are pretty old now, so often they are called the "Abuelas", which means "Grandmothers", which seems somehow a little bit cruel to me since presumably some of them never got the chance to become grandmothers.

Click on the photo for some other pictures of the demonstration and of Buenos Aires in general. You may have to tilt your head to the side to see them correctly...none of these internet-cafe computers have the necessary software for me to be able to edit the photos on Flickr.

EDIT: this lack of appropriate software also seems to prevent me from posting photos the right size.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

The Luck of the Irish

For the past three nights there have been a couple of guys from Dublin staying in my room at the hostel. Although I have to say I use the word "staying" in the loosest possible way. Each night they go out to dinner, come back, change and go out to the very popular Irish pub Kilkenny. Then, around 5 AM, one of them stumbles back and when I get up to go to class he is sleeping soundly. I can only assume his mate made a new friend at the pub and no longer needs his space at the hostel. This morning they had to be at the airport this morning at 5, so they planned to stay out all night and go directly to the airport instead of bothering with sleep. Indeed, I was awakened briefly at 4 AM when they (both, this time) came back to retrieve their belongings and head to Rio, where the last I heard they had not yet been able to find a place to stay, and where Carnaval starts today. Looks like at least one of them will probably be sleeping on the beach...

Anyway, they have been amusing me for a few days, and I thought I would share this fun little anecdote with you.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Weather Link

I´ve added a new feature to this blog: a link at the left which lets you see how the weather is where I am. Just in case you´re curious.

Clases de Español

Enough about wacky beef products. It´s about time for an update on my activities. It has been unseasonably cold here in Buenos Aires. Saturday night provided a spectacular thunderstorm, which I loved. But I loved it a little less when the rain continued for two more days, and the chill brought on by the rain is still in place. Yes, I know, many of you in the northern hemisphere are making crybaby sounds, or doing that little violin thing with your fingers (playing "my heart bleeds for you").

Saturday I went with Celia, the French girl staying at my hostel, to a soup kitchen/children´s center she volunteers at. We helped serve the food and then played with the kids for a few hours. The point is to have a sort of enforced playtime, which is desperately needed, in the hopes of sheltering them from the situation at home: their neighborhood is a slum, basically, and many have parents in jail, or parents with AIDS, or parents who abuse them. But the kids are sweet and happy for the most part, and they take care of each other. At one point a little girl of about 8 brought over a very little girl, maybe one year old, who I assumed was her sister the way she was looking after her. I asked what the little girl´s name was and the older one said "I can´t remember...there are so many kids," which was a bit alarming, especially since we had just been discussing one of the families which has eight children from aged 1 to 18. I was relieved to hear it wasn´t her sister, just another one of the kids in the neighborhood, who was passed around from kid to kid for the whole afternoon. Overall, it was an exhausting experience but I´m glad I went.

My Spanish course started yesterday and I´m sorry to report that my three years of Spanish are rustier than I expected. We are working on past tenses and I keep getting things all wrong. But the good news is I spend lots of time chatting with the people in the hostel, and they understand me (mostly) and sometimes I can even make a little joke. I have picked up a little bit of the Argentinian accent: for instance, they pronounce "y" and "ll" sounds as a J. They also say "vos" where most other Spanish-speakers would say "tu" and I sometimes remember to use that, as in: "¿que tal?", "Bien, ¿y vos?". However, I don´t see myself sounding like a true Argentine anytime soon.

Funny enough, the school I am at, CEDIC, is full of Swiss people! One of whom I recognized from the karaoke evening last Thursday. Classes have been pretty tiring-four hours a day is a lot for a person who hasn´t had much in the way of book-learning since college. And then there´s homework to do at night! Which reminds me, I´d better hit the books so I don´t have to wear the dunce cap or something.

Wishing you all a very happy Groundhog Day! I hope Punxatawney Phil sees his shadow...or not...I can never remember which is good.