Sunday, January 31, 2010

Glaciar Perito Moreno Video

Here is a video on the glacier Perito Moreno, near the town of El Calafate in Patagonia. This is an easily accessible glacier, and it's clear that Argentina is doing a great job to preserve it and keep it clean. Tourism is big business here, and the town thrives off of this glacier. What's most striking is the fact that it's the only glacier in the world that is growing rather than receding.

Driving in Patagonia

After spending a good amount of time driving through Patagonia, I think this little bit of advice would be good for anyone who is thinking of doing the same thing. Expect a difficult drive even if you stick to the paved roads, and keep an open mind as always.

The distances in Patagonia are great, and even when you finally reach a town after hundreds of kilometers of nothing, you might find that you are just in a small outpost with one gas station. Though you might have enough to get you to the next town, you should always try to top off, because you never know if the only gas station in town actually has gas that day. This was a problem for us in our trip, and we had to struggle to find gasoline to continue.

Wind is going to be a strong factor on the drive. As you head down the paved roads at a smooth 120 kph, you'll feel the car being knocked around like a toy, and you have to actually fight against the steering wheel to stay on the road. While I was driving, I generally always had the wheel at 10-11 o'clock or 1-2 o'clock, even though I was driving straight. You have to really pay attention because you will most likely get bored pretty quickly. The landscape is unchanging and radio stations are way out of reach. Bring CDs you can listen to over and again, and try to get some good conversation over the sound of wind against the car.

Other dangers on the road are animals. Though hardly anything lives out there, there is a large number of guanacos and sheep that roam around with freedom. From time to time these animals will get right on the road, and you have to give them right of way. The guanacos will usually clear out quickly, but farther down in the Santa Cruz Province they must be stupider because they actually walk into the road as you drive towards them. Then you also have rabbits, road runners, ostriches, and other species here and there.

When driving on the dirt roads, you really need to measure the quality of the road itself to know how fast to drive. Some are better than others, and I was able to get up to 60 kilometers an hour. Others were terrible, and we struggled at 30 kph. There are large stones all over the road, and you need to find the grooves in the middle to sail through, though those lines are also sometimes blurred. Rocks bump up to the bottom of the car and it feels like a bomb is going off, and throwing in the wind can push the car around even worse. Once in a while a big dust storm will come through and you have to stop the car and wait because there is zero visibility.

On the rare occasion that you pass a car, definitely slow down to a near crawl, and then there are two schools of thought. You can either get as far to the edge of the road or get as close to the other car as possible without hitting. The idea is that rocks will generally fly farther out, so if you get closer the will pass by. Either way, expect to have some dinks and cracks in the car by the end of the trip. And make sure you have a spare tire with you.

With every long road trip you want to be prepared. So get the gas filled up, bring water and snacks, and get your directions down. Luckily it's generally a straight shot in one direction with few roads to screw you up, but as you pass through towns the roads change names and you need to pay attention to get through on the same route.

So if you do decide to drive through Patagonia one day, you now have a bit of advice from someone who has done it. Get ready for a long and boring drive.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Here I Go Again, On My Own

My parents left me last night, heading home to Boston. Our last day together in Buenos Aires was spent pretty selfishly, as they took me around town buying me some new clothing that I needed. They wanted to go to the leather district in the Balvanera neighborhood, but by the time everything was settled with me, there wasn't really any time for them to do shopping. So we went back to their hotel, had a coffee by the pool, and then I watched them get into their shuttle to the airport.

This time it affected me. I was clicking my heels with joy when I left for Spain as a 20 year old, living abroad for the first time. Before leaving for Ecuador I was definitely a bit uneasy, but more for myself and what lay to come, yet I faced it strong-willed and determined to succeed. And by the time I left for Argentina, it was nothing to me. Just another time leaving home and going to live in another country. As always, my mom would cry and I would tell her to stop.

This happened again yesterday, only for the first time I really felt it hard. Previously, I was leaving home for a semester, or a year, or undetermined. But now I'm looking at another year and a half before seeing them again, and maybe for the first time the reality of how long that is and what it means has hit home. My parents are getting older, and I could see that on this trip. Not that they are in wheel chairs, but the time when they could outdo me physically has long passed, and there's no turning back.

This trip was long and though difficult in stages, very enjoyable. But it was also a continual reminiscence session, with them bringing up memories from my childhood and adolescence. Aside from winter and summer vacations, I really haven't lived at home since I was 18. Now I have my own apartment in Buenos Aires, a full time job, and a life going in a different direction than Sharon, Massachusetts. It's a hard pill to swallow, but they see that too. I don't see how I could ever be a boomerang kid.

For two weeks we spent almost every moment together, and now suddenly they are gone, and I'm alone again. It's a harsh transition, but I've made difficult ones like this before. In a few days it will be easier, and I have my friend Lauren visiting from Ecuador on Thursday. But there is still something haunting in the face of my mom as she got in the car to leave. Something more than her simply saying goodbye for a while. That's part of the price I pay for living abroad, and unfortunately I make my friends and family pay it too.

Bahía Bustamante Video

Bahía Bustamante is a pretty unique place in Patagonia. It's off the off the beaten path, and perfect for those who want to get away from it all and don't mind rustic accommodations. Not that you stay in terrible rooms, but don't expect luxury either. However, you will find nature all around you (over 100 species of birds), striking blue ocean, untouched desert, and the opportunity to see Patagonian life more authentically than most people ever get to witness.

The village was founded as a seaweed producing plant, and at one point had 500 employees, though today it is down to 40. In the last five years it has started to host tourism, so that people can enjoy the beauty of the region and learn something about seaweed production as well. Take a look at this short video on the area.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Wrapping Up the Trip: 2 Weeks in Patagonia

So this trip I've been on for the last two weeks is essentially over now. In a little over a half hour I'll be heading to the airport in Ushuaia and flying back to Buenos Aires, arriving in the late afternoon to heat and humidity from cold and rain. It's been a good trip, albeit a different one than I'm used to, but I'm ready to get back to the capital city.

We covered a large portion of this country, and I visited places that I never imagined I'd be able to. These places are very expensive, and I know how lucky I was to be afforded the gift to travel here, especially at my age. What did I learn? Patagonia isn't all mountains, for one thing. In fact, it's mostly wide open, windy desert steppe, with hardly any change and little to look at. Driving through this part of the country is difficult, not only for driving conditions but for possibility of falling asleep from boredom. If the guanacos don't cross the road as you drive 120 km per hour, if the wind doesn't push your car off the road, and if the dirt roads don't give you a flat tire, you might just go nuts from the loneliness of the place. There's hardly any radio stations, so make sure you have some good CDs to listen to, or it will be the sound of the wind hitting the car that you listen to.

Prices are higher here, as transportation obviously has to be taken into account, and even a simple dish like milanesa, which costs around $12 pesos in Buenos Aires, could cost around $18-20 down here. Internet connections are lousy at best, and cell phone service is nearly non-existent outside of the larger towns. Would I recommend driving all the way down here to someone else? On the one hand, you really get the see the country up close, but it's just so big that I think you'd be better off flying between destinations and cutting the gap, giving you more time elsewhere. Besides, if you've seen the steppe for an hour, you've basically seen it all, and 12 more hours of it won't enlighten you anymore.

The weather dictates life, but life must go on regardless, and so you will continue to work and live through harsh winds, dust storms, and never ending rain. People are friendly, but beware of the tourist traps and look for the truly authentic places. El Calafate has the look of a place that is sinking into a trap, and with a casino in the center that charges $2 pesos to get in, you can tell it's hardly improving the place. But Bahía Bustamante and Monte León are the traditional images of a Patagonia with no connections to the outside world, and absolute connection with the natural world around them.

Prepare to see sheep, guanacos, and tumbleweeds. And make sure you have plenty of batter power for your camera.

Above: Dirt roads, giving vaccines to sheep, a road sign between El Calafate and El Chaltén

Punto Tombo Penguin Colony Video

Ladies and gentlemen, drum roll please....I would like to present the video I've just edited on the Punto Tombo penguin colony in the Chubut Province of Patagonia. The colony has over 500,000 Magellanic penguins, and is a truly unique place in the world.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Glaciar Viedma in Photos

Floating icebergs

Snow on the mountains

Glaciar Viedma, on Lago Viedma

Hues of blue

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Peninsula Valdés Video

After traveling through Patagonia for almost two weeks, I'm finally able to access YouTube and upload the video I've made on Peninsula Valdés and Estancia El Pedral. I'm starting to work on a video of Punta Tombo, the penguin colony with over 500,000 penguins, so hopefully I'll have that up and running soon. We've arrived in Ushuaia, and man is it cold and windy! Tomorrow we'll be taking a boat cruise on the Beagle Channel and then checking out the Tierra del Fuego National Park.

Spotting the Condor

This morning saw flashes of sunlight and continued wind and rain. Typical. We went out for a short and easy hike to the Condor viewpoint, towards the southern end of the village. Some people go their whole lives without seeing a Condor in its natural habitat. It's an elusive yet iconic bird in South America. It's the national bird of Ecuador, though they basically don't exist there anymore. It's just as hard to spot them here in Argentina.

We started out on the hike and suddenly I heard my dad yelling from behind me. It was hard to hear because of all the wind, but he was pointing to the dark sky and yelling, "Condors!" My parents were hoping to see one before the end of the trip, and sure enough, they got lucky. There were two condors flying so high up that I couldn't even tell it was them, though they apparently have a 9 foot wing span, making them easy to spot even as they fly high overhead.

I'm not much of a bird watcher, so it wasn't that big of a thrill for me, though I can at least appreciate the luck in being able to see them. They are generally scared off by people and fly away, which they sure enough did just a moment later. We continued the hike to the top of the viewpoint, but could neither see condors nor the mountains, so after a couple of minutes of catching our breathes, we headed back down into town.

This town feels empty today. There are occasional hikers heading towards or back from the trails, but it doesn't seem like there are any locals. They are probably doing the smart thing and staying indoors. We're leaving El Chaltén in a couple of hours to drive back to El Calafate, and then flying to Ushuaia. We'll be there for another couple of nights, and then fly back to Buenos Aires.

I'm eager to get back to the capital. I'll have a lot of work to catch up on with all of the places that I've seen, and I miss the friends I've made in BA. I want to get back and enjoy the warm weather too, because as much as a relief from the humidity as it is, southern Patagonia is just a bit too windy and cold for me. That's why I'm not in Boston right now, and it's time to complain about the heat and humidity again.

Monday, January 25, 2010

No Village For Old Men

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that Patagonia, no matter which part of it you’re in, is a harsh environment to live in. You have to be strong willed to survive here, and as you occasionally see from the abandoned houses, not everyone makes it. El Chaltén is one of those towns that sits in a landscape best described by poets better than me, yet it is also one of the harshest environments I’ve ever seen.

They tell me that this consistent wind and rain is normal for this time of year: the high of summer. To be fair, the wind dies down in a couple of months which makes the hiking safer, but this is the height of tourism season. So the majority of people who come here looking for great hiking realize that they have to do the majority of it in miserable conditions.

We were spoiled yesterday when we arrived on a clear, albeit windy day. We could actually see all of the peaks, including Fitz Roy, that iconic rock face pockmarked with snow. The hotel staff told us it was the first day without rain in a month, and when I pulled back the curtains this morning, preparing for a hike with my dad, I saw that the rain was back.

My parents seem somewhat put off here. I stayed back to do some writing while they checked out the town last night. In an hour from when they left to the return, they went from excited to be here to doubting the decision to come. First there is the age gap. The majority of people here are in their 20’s and 30’s, and in good condition for hiking. My parents are obviously older and not in tip top shape. My mom didn’t even have good trekking shoes, and ironically fell in the street when not paying attention to a groove.

Next is the harsh climate. The wind was so fierce that they almost fell over. But considering that it is supposedly windier in Ushuaia, where we’re headed next, I’m wondering what they will do. They aren’t frail, but once you reach a certain age a fall will take more of a toll than you would think.

Arriving in town yesterday I thought it could be on the cusp of a boom in growth, but I can see now why it still only has 600 full time residents since it’s foundation in 1987. Frankly put, you need balls of steel to live here. It’s beautiful in every sense of the natural world, but this is definitely a frontier town with a sense of vulnerability. The nearest “city” would be El Calafate, and though newly paved roads make the more than 200 kilometer trip easy, you better have a high pain threshold if you fall down the slippery mountain trails.

I don’t feel out of place here, and it’s not just because I’m in the age demographic. I’ve been in the wet dirt road towns all over Ecuador and hiked on trails that didn’t actually exist. A false step to the left meant paralysis and a bad move to the right meant death. But now that I seem like such a tough guy, I will say that I couldn’t live here. This weather is just too much, and I give credit to those who can put up with it. Tomorrow we head back to El Calafate to drop off the rental car and fly to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. The end of the world. I can’t wait to see the forecast.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Breathing in Patagonia

From the view in my room at Eolo Lodge, about 20 kilometers outside of El Calafate, I sat on the bed and watched a rain shower sweep across the desert from the mountains west by the border of Chile and end at turquoise blue Lago Argentino, with a wide rainbow frown. The wind was howling against the windowpane and some eagle was flying overhead. This is Patagonia.

I've been traveling through this desolate part of Argentina for a week now, and it has yet to disappoint. Even in the hundreds of miles of monotonous desert that we crossed between Bahia Bustamante and Monte Leon, even against the horrible dirt roads where a rock against the bottom of the Fiat made it seem like an IED was going off, even with the harsh winds that slapped pee all the way up to my face even as I went with the wind, it's still amazing. There's something new and rich about it, and with hardly anyone around it seems like it's all yours.

We only needed to spend an hour in El Calafate today to see that we were better off on the outskirts. With a casino in a small town based off of summer tourism, you walk down the strip with expensive designer stores and wonder where the authenticity went. But we drove 4 hours up to El Chaltén with frequent stops for pictures, and here we have found something maybe not truly authentic, but developing into a tourism hub.

El Chaltén is the newest town in Argentina, founded in 1987. It was essentially slapped together quickly as a way to settle a land dispute with Chile, and a quick survey of the village shows you that people basically set down a house wherever they pleased, and lots of communication and planning needs to be figured out. This is a frontier town, so you get packs of dogs strolling around and a sense of beginning. Everything is on the horizon, which because of the large jagged peaks doesn't really go very far.

The town begins in a small entrance across a bridge and widens out by a valley, flanked by high towers on each side. From the road outside the town you are lucky if you get a clear day with a view of Mt. Fitz Roy, which we got today. I love the Andes Mountains, and this place only solidifies in my mind how diverse and unending it is. From the rolling mountains in Ecuador to the sharp and hardly arable Patagonia, it never lets down or ends. Just when you think you've reached the peak, there's another.

I can add today's drive to another one of those "Best Drives Ever" list that has jumped up sharply since my year and a half in South America. Right now I'm sitting at the lounge of the hotel and the wind sounds like it's going to snap the large windows in half, but so far they're holding out. All around this area are backpackers with the alpaca sweaters and hats (myself included) and old timers with the designer gear.

Patagonia is a land for those who can imagine, and for those who want to imagine. There isn't much to say when you stare at a peak like Fitz Roy, and there's a lot to be said about that. You leave behind the city and find open fields and large mountains, and somewhere in the back of my mind I find that word I used last year, mountnanimous. That's my word, but you can use it. Little else really gives justice to what you see. You just need to shut up and enjoy it.

This morning my dad and I took a hike above the hotel and with the clear day, we were able to see 180 degrees from Lago Argentino, to the snow capped mountains and Torres del Paine in Chile. Game. Set. Match.

Above: Lago Argentino, towards Chile, on the drive to El Chaltén, El Chaltén

Patagonian Diversity in Photos

This is just a short example of the diversity of Patagonia. Though it is mostly open desert steppe, there are untouched beaches, high mountains, and clear glaciers as well.

Top: Sunset in Bahia Bustamante
Middle: An old apartment from the Bahia Bustamante seaweed factory
Middle (2): Beaches
Bottom: Perito Moreno Glacier, near El Calafate

*It's been hard to get a stable Internet connection in Patagonia, and this is the first time I've been able to add pictures, but once I return to Buenos Aires, I'll post more of these. Also, I've already finished one video and will be making more once I return to the capital. But for now, the connection is too weak to be able to post these videos. So check back later on.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Patagonian Driving Reflection: Deep in the Desert

As I type this now, we are driving through Santa Cruz Province, somewhere in Patagonia. South of Comodoro Rivadavia, north of Rio Gallegos, we are in the middle of the vast openness that defines the majority of this country. All around our white rental car is desert, monotonous and with little change. Its unchanging drab is semi-entertaining, at least for the first impression anyway. This is the end of the world.

Our trip hasn’t been without its own share of trouble and hardship. Much like Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado had to battle with crashes on the Argentinian roads, we have had our bumps in the road, literally. After leaving Estancia El Pedral we went south to Punta Tombo, a Magellanic Penguin rookery with 500,000 penguins. It was impressive, and I think even the hardest of tough guys has to admit that a penguin waddling away is cute to watch.

After leaving the rookery my dad opted to take RP 1 instead of RN 3, a paved national road. RP 1 is a provincial back road that is closer to the coast, giving perhaps better scenery, but trades off in that you drive along dirt and stone road, making the trip longer and more dangerous. My dad later admitted that he was wrong to choose this route, as a plan had been to gas up in Camarones before reaching our destination at Bahia Bustamante,

Unfortunately unbeknown to us, a gas strike was in effect, and there was no gasoline in Camarones. We continued on the road, only passing our first car of the day about 30 minutes before reaching Bahia Bustamante, and now had less than half a tank. This was bad because we had a 9 hour drive in 2 days, were in the middle of no where, and would either have to drive in the opposite direction or risk going part of the way and running out of gas on the way south.

We were later told the strike was over, but would have to wait to see what we could get from Bahia Bustamante. In the meantime, we enjoyed ourselves at the rustic seaweed community, doing excursions with a really friendly guide named Nicolas. Bahia Bustamante has its own penguin colonies and around 100 species of birds. It’s a natural paradise. We also went to a ranch and helped hold down some sheep to be vaccinated.

The estancia gave us 10 liters of gas, which was enough to get us to Comodoro Rivadavia to refill for the drive 9 hours south to Estancia Monte Leon. It was awfully nice of them, considering they themselves needed gasoline to function. Back on the road, we’ve been driving for several hours and taking in the scenery. I’m exhausted, unshowered, over-fed, my red-tainted travel beard is coming in thick along with my sunburn, and I’m frustrated. It’s been a tough trip.

In Patagonia, whenever you see a gas station you fill up no matter what, because who knows when the next time will be. At the last gas station my dad somehow lost his credit card, but didn’t realize it until we were already at the next one, 200 kilometers away. It’s obviously out of our hands for now, but in the meantime it has made things unpleasant and unsettled the mood of the road trip.

It’s easy to yell at a friend if they screw up badly, but doing so with your parents isn’t a fair thing to do. But I lost my cool a bit when both parents started shouting across the gas station quickie mart in English. Having lived and traveled around Latin America, I know from experience that while you often stick out a lot, it’s best to keep a low profile. Showing that something is wrong and talking loudly in English is hardly that. But my experiences in Latin America have given me a different perspective on travel that most people won’t have, and for that I can’t expect everyone to be as alert as I am.

So for now we continue driving south, hoping to reach out destination before nightfall. It should be easy here, as the sun keeps setting later and later the farther south we go. It’s also getting colder and windier, so that the car gets tossed around on the road like a toy. A quick night over in Monte Leon, and then on to Calafate in the morning. Sometimes vacation is work.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Parents Arrive, Off to Patagonia

On Saturday afternoon I met up with my parents at their hotel in Puerto Madero. It was a nice and simple reunion, and shortly after we met up with Vero to get some lunch and go around Buenos Aires a bit. A parilla lunch was what we got, sort of late in the afternoon, and then we headed up to MALBA to see the Andy Warhol exhibit. By the time we got there we didn't have much time because I had to drop my keys off at my old apartment by 6:30 pm.

Taking taxis almost everywhere, we rushed back to the Microcentro from Recoleta, picked up my backpacks, and moved out. We then had to head back up north to Palermo to finish the deal with the real estate agent and move into my new apartment. It was a full day for my parents, and after getting sort of settled in the new apartment, we got a light dinner and I took them back to Puerto Madero. Then I had to go all the way back up to Palermo, repack a bit with things they brought me, and wake up at 4 am to head to the airport for our 6 am flight to Trelew (pronounced Tray-lay-ew).

In under two hours we arrived in Patagonia, and were transferred to our lodging at Estancia El Pedral. The ride was about an hour and a half, and I quickly passed out for most of it. We didn't have time to rest once we got there though, as we quickly dropped off our things and went off for our first excursion. Going out with our driver/guide/host Wendt (Ben), we took a small rubber speed boat along the coast of Peninsula Valdes.

What's most striking right away is the deep blue water crashing against the rocky beaches and the steep white-washed cliffs. The contrast is blatant and strong, and as we rode in the boat against the heavy waves, it felt like white water rafting on the sea. We arrived at a point with sea lions, maybe hundreds of them, beached on the rocks. I've seen sea lions in the Galapagos, but these were totally different, and I really understand now why they are called sea lions.

The males had large "manes" around their heads and were growling loudly like a lion. They even had the same body frame, but instead of legs and paws they had flippers. The females sat near the newly born sea lions, which were crying loudly. Some sounded like children, and others sounded like sheep. It was a strange cacophony of sound.

Just as my mom started to feel a little sea sick we headed back to the estancia for lunch. I had packed a hat but had to rearrange my bag just before leaving at 4:30 am, so I must have forgotten it stupidly. Obviously, I burnt and didn't put sunblock on until it was too late. So you can still burn badly in Patagonia, in case that was ever a question.

After a great lunch we rested up before going back out in a Range Rover to spot some Magellanic Penguins. A new colony is being formed right by the estancia, and they're still afraid of people, but we were able to see them as they waddled away. We then took a hike along the rocky beach and cliffs, spotting elephant seals from a distance. The wind of the morning had died down, and by now I was given a safari kind of hat to use, so the conditions were pleasant. It was warm but not hot, and far from cold.

After sharing a dinner with some of the other guests we called it a night, exhausted and looking ahead to the morning of fishing.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Last Communication For a Bit

It's a rainy Saturday morning, and according to the news, it's supposed to be a rainy Saturday through and through. Bummer, dude. My parents are probably somewhere over northern Argentina right now,  and should be touching down in less than an hour. It's too bad they're arriving on such a crumby day, but you win some and you lose some. The worst of it is that I was planning on walking down to their hotel in Puerto Madero to meet them, but now I need to find another way.

This also throws off other plans for the day. I figured we could walk around a bit and see some neighborhoods they've probably never been to. But now maybe a museum or something will be more appropriate. Really, I just want to crawl back in bed, as it's one of those days that is perfect for sleeping away the morning. But there's business afoot.

So we'll be busy today with the arrival, going around town a bit with Vero, and then later in the afternoon I have to run up to Palermo to pick up the keys to my new apartment. For a few hours here I'll be without a place, at least in theory anyway. Technically I'm already paying for my new apartment, though I can't even take advantage of it yet.

Tomorrow morning, far earlier than people should have to wake up, we'll be heading to the domestic airport to fly south to Patagonia. From the road I'll try to find wireless connections and keep updates coming, so check back in to the blog to see how the travels are going. I'll also be uploading photos of Patagonia and, if time permits, making a video or two.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Double-Barrelled Packing

I'm sitting in my room now and it's nearly empty. There are still the paintings on the wall that my roommate made, but my maps of Buenos Aires and Argentina are down. Most of my clothes are either packed up or at the laundromat. A suitcase lies opened and nearly full, while a large backpack contains a few t-shirts and a sweater. I'm getting ready to move again, and once again I'm packing my life up.

I'm getting better at this. 8 major moves in the last year and a half. 8 times I have packed up my life and started over, unpacked it all, packed it all up again, and moved on to call somewhere else home. Starting in May, 2008, I packed up my college life and headed home. In August I prepared for the move to Quito, and shortly there after my short lived move to Machala. Packed up again in Quito and then on to Cuenca.

I stayed in Cuenca the longest, and once I left there for home again and got settled in, it was time to leave again. This time for Argentina, arriving in La Boca for a month. Next I moved up north to the Microcentro. And after 4 months I'm on the move again, this time farther north to Palermo. A real life Argentinian Horatio Alger. Rags to riches, moving on up. But for how long this time?

I had my bags nearly ready in under an hour, with the majority of it packed up in under 30 minutes. Remember those questions they used to ask us in school? If your house was on fire and you could only take one thing, what would it be? I think I'm a fast enough packer now that I could take it all and still have time for smores. What kind of a nomad have I become? I don't want to get to a place where I feel the need to move after getting settled, but there seems to be an incessant need to find something else. Not necessarily "pata caliente" but a want to feel comfortable. So far I haven't found the niche.

A life without furniture, it's kind of sad to think that your whole life can be summed up in a couple of bags, but then again, it has the power to make you more agile, if it doesn't all weigh you down, anyway. I had to think of two things for this big pack. Not only am I moving out by the end of this week, but I'm also going to Patagonia with my parents for 2 weeks on Sunday. They arrive to Buenos Aires on Saturday, and so one bag will stay in Buenos Aires with mostly work clothes, while the backpack comes with me, filled with Tees and casual gear.

It kind of adds a different feeling to the long term packing, because at least one bag stays for me to pick up eventually. "Well pick up your gear and gypsy, run..." I'm back on the road soon, but still have a place to come back to in Buenos Aires. Even though that might not be an apartment I can call a home yet, it's a place in mind, which I've come to understand as more of a home than an actual place with walls and windows.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Great Way to Start a Week (Sarcastic)

Today was a nervous, aggravating day that I'd like to forget. There's a million things to balance at once. Grad school applications are all starting to be done at once, and it doesn't seem as though the GRE scores made it to all of the schools. My parents are coming in a week and then we're taking off to go to Patagonia for 2 weeks. I'm moving out soon, and also in the process of getting my DNI. Too much, too fast.

This morning I got to the Registro Civil at 8:30 am to pick up a copy of my mom's birth certificate for the 3rd time. The woman who helped me last time was supposed to meet me again and help out, but she was an hour late, and I stood outside the Registro getting antsier and antsier. The only funny part of the day occurred when 3 or 4 people came up to me as I leaned against the column and asked me for advice. They wanted directions to other Registro's and wanted to know how to go about getting some kind of form.

A normal person would have no idea how to answer those questions. But since I've been running the gauntlet and doing the same thing, I was giving them directions perfectly and explaining the process. It was as if I worked there, only I was helping them out. Finally the helpful woman showed up and we went in, waited our turn, and then finally picked up a fresh copy of my mom's birth certificate. All that wait because the word "dieciocho" was cut off at the top.

I was late for work, which made me nervous. But on top of that, I had plans to sign the lease for an apartment after work, which made me more nervous. The rest of the day was spent toiling over it all, and wondering if I should go forward with it. In the end, my other option wasn't looking too strong, and I went ahead to Palermo to sign the deal. Yet when I got there, it wound up taking 2 hours to work things out, and as it stands it still isn't resolved.

First, the owners insisted on keeping a maid which I would have to pay for, but I told them I didn't need one and would clean myself. This took some debating until they agreed to wait a month and see how I cleaned up. Next, even though we agreed to pay half in cash and half in check, they decided they didn't want to accept check because they would have to pay a fee to cash it. So again we were at a deadlock.

The real estate agent stood in the middle trying to make both parties happy, until finally we agreed on a short term deal. I had half of the 6 months advance rent in cash. We ripped up the first 6 month contract and made 2, 3 month contracts. In this way, I could at least be able to move in and pay them their cash when I had it available. So tomorrow I'll meet up with the real estate agent again, figure out how to get him his cut, and get the keys to my new place.

Since I'm already paying for it as of tomorrow, I'll be moving out of my apartment sooner than I thought, and will look to have all of my stuff in the new place by Saturday morning, before my parents arrive and before I go to Patagonia for 2 weeks. If I could just get a spare moment to let it all settle, some of it might make some sense.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Strange Night at the Movies

Dan, Valerie, and I were all pretty tired from Friday night and had no desire to drink anything again, so we decided to go see a movie on Saturday night. The plan was see a movie for a peaceful night and then call it quits before it was too long. As it turns out we didn't go until 10:15 pm, and thus didn't even get out of the theater until 1 am.

We went to see "Avatar" down in the Microcentro, with Calle Lavalle filled with people on a Saturday night. That alone felt weird to begin with, and deep in the Microcentro is the last place you want to be on a weekend night. We got to the theater, purchased our tickets, and eventually sat down. I would say the theater was somewhere describable between the smallest movie theater ever and the largest personal home entertainment room ever. With a small screen by movie standards, it seemed like some millionaire had put in this room in his house for him and his 80 closest friends.

The humor started before the movie began, when the intro's for the Dolby Sound Effects came on. They were using the same intro that was used back in the 1990's, and what must be well out of date by American standards by now. I even remembered the intro from my childhood, and it made me burst out laughing. What was next? "Let's all go to the lobby?" Before the intro finished it was cut off, and no previews were shown. The movie simply started.

The movie started out and was going all fine until suddenly a crazy lady stood up in the front row and started yelling. It was hard to hear what she was yelling with the loud speakers, and eventually people started yelling back at her to shut up and sit down. Some people left immediately to get security. All I could make out was that she wanted help for something. But she was smiling and half-laughing, and it seemed like she was on drugs. For some reason the second she got up and started yelling it made me think that the theater was about to be robbed, and brought up images of the bus hijacking. The same kind of thought that goes through my head anytime the power gets cut now. I can't help but think that someone has cut the power to shut down security and rob us, rather than there being a simple electricity problem.

In a couple of minutes an usher came in, flashed a light in her face and led her away from the screen. A good 5 minutes of the movie were lost between the incident, and everyone just tried to get back into the movie. At some point halfway through the movie, in the middle of a scene, an intermission came on, blacking out the screen and turning on the lights. We all laughed, never having actually been in a movie with an intermission. It was like the 1930s, and we just used the time to discuss the crazy lady and ask around what the deal with it was.

Avatar was a long movie, but not the longest I've ever seen, and yet it's the first that had an intermission. I think it's all digital now, so they shouldn't even have to change reels or anything like that. But the movie eventually continued without any other hold ups, and finished well. At the end people applauded, as if we were at a play and the actors could appreciate the appreciation. Though the movie was good, I feel like the most entertaining parts of the evening were the unintentional screw ups.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Hold the Phone

Last night was a long one, and leaving the club after sun up, I headed back to a friends' apartment to crash for a few hours. I didn't get back to my place until noon, with a vicious hangover being fed by the high heat in the city. I was down though because I'd lost my phone somewhere between the taxi ride back and crashing at the apartment.

I looked all around the room but couldn't find anything, and just chalked it up to slipping out of my pocket in the taxi, which was very uncharacteristic. I was hoping that my friend would continue to look for the phone, and wasn't going to rush on getting a new one because truth be told, I get more text messages from the phone company with promo's than from people. But then I remembered that I'm going back to the Registro Civil on Monday and need to call the helpful magistrate to come with me. So I needed a phone.

After ambling back to the apartment in the intense heat, with my head feeling like it was in a fishbowl of beer, I sat in the cool shade of the living room talking to Dan and Valerie. Paula was still sleeping so we didn't go looking for the phone again, but I had accepted that it was gone, and went out into the streets to find an open Movistar store. I walked all around Corrientes and Florida, packed with tourists, yet no Movistar was open. On a Saturday afternoon I couldn't buy a phone, which I thought was a bit ridiculous, but I went home to nap and regroup.

Then by chance, when talking to Valerie online, she told me that the phone was found. So because the phone stores were closed I was saved of having two phones. It's also just a really complicated time, and spending a lot of money on a new phone is not an expense I can afford. I've had that phone since my first week in Ecuador last year (after my first was stolen) and it has gotten me by. For now it will keep going in Argentina.

Buenos Aires Empties Out

January is the month when most government offices close down. Lawyers, judges, and other bureaucrats take the entire month off and leave the city, as well as many businessmen and other professionals. The city started slimming down in late December, but this week after New Years', I've really seen how Buenos Aires has become a ghost town.

It's noticeable walking to work in the mornings right off the bat. The streets I walk in the Microcentro used to be congested and packed with people bustling by. It's no surprise Argentinians drive crazily because they generally don't know how to walk either. At any given moment someone in front will change directions twice and then stop in their tracks, and I'll have to swerve around people left and right. But this week the streets were nearly empty, and it was like walking down a 3 lane highway in the middle lane with no cars around.

The city keeps getting hotter, and with empty tumbleweed streets, the heat just rises and rises up the metal valleys and titanium rivers. But with all of the Porteños gone, in their place a multitude of tourists have stepped in to fill their place. Their numbers are far from replacing the missing locals, but it's evident where I work that it's high season. Walking down Calle Florida is a headache, more so than usual. But at the very least you have to be glad that there are tourists here, spending money and putting something into the economy. I can't say whether or not tourism is at a number that would be considered normal due to the crisis.

Once January ends the numbers should come back up, and the city will fill up again. But for now, I'm able to enjoy nearly empty buses and subways, and clutter-free streets.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Apartment Search Problems

This week has been a bit hectic and somewhat of a let down, especially after coming back from a fun weekend at the beach. Though I thought my deal with a new apartment was squared away, it turns out more headache was in store. Suddenly before closing out last week, the real estate agent subtly threw in that in the 2nd year of the contract there would be a 20% increase in the rent. Whether or not that’s normal here, it’s crazy and uncalled for. It seems that if you had a good tenant, you would want to keep them to avoid the process of finding new people every two years.

A 20% increase in rent would make it unaffordable for me, and I relayed this to the agent on Monday. The only reason I gave a $500 pesos down deposit was because based off of the figures we had worked out, it was doable, but with the additional cost, it wasn’t possible. Another issue arose in that I would have to pay 6 months advance rent, yet they were unwilling to allow me to pay any of it in credit or check. That means I’d have to take out thousands and thousands of pesos from the ATM, causing fees to pile up, but also that I would have to walk around and ride in the subway with all of this cash. Definitely unsafe.

I explained this to the real estate agent and said that I unfortunately had to walk away from the deal. Shortly after I got an email back saying he’d talked to the owner and she was willing to lower the increase to 10% and let me pay half of the 6 months advance rent in check, half in cash. It’s still not ideal, but at least it cuts down on the amount of paper I’ll need.

So I thought the deal was back on for good, but the more I ruminate on it, the closer I get to ‘pre-buyers remorse.’ Dozens of questions keep popping into my head, making me second guess my move, not only from the length of time but from the loss of a month deposit of rent when I leave early. One thing is for sure—I need to move out of where I live now and the sooner the better. But my options are limited with the time I have, we’ve already put so much effort into this deal, and other possibilities are slim.

One option could have been to live with a friend, but paying only slightly less and with two other roommates wouldn’t seem ideal. It also wouldn’t be too much farther away from where I live right now. I had considered it though, until he said that he wasn’t actually sure if he had a room available. Another option that Vero brought up yesterday is to look into an apartment near her in Balvanera. It’s cheaper, but I can’t see the apartment for 15 days, which is way past the time that I need to have a decision. In order to get all of the cash together, I have until Monday to meet with the real estate agent and sign the papers with all of the cash ready. So I have until then to check out the Balvanera neighborhood and see how it feels. There aren’t any parks and it’s just a regular neighborhood, but it might also be more authentic.

These are the things that I need to debate and come to terms with over the next few days. Monday is due or die time, and I stand to lose $500 pesos in deposit if I back out of the deal. Deep down, I know I would be very happy in the new apartment, and I know that I’ve wanted to live there up until the last day or so when all of the doubt finally got to me. So far 2010 has gotten off to a shaky start.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Leaving Mar del Plata, Back to Buenos Aires

For our last meal in Mar del Plata, Maru made a feast of various types of gourmet pizzas. They were made completely from scratch with ingredients that we bought at the store just moments before, and were ridiculously delicious. Though I'm a fan of the pre-pizzas that I buy and cook here in Buenos Aires, these homemade pizzas obviously wiped the floor with them. It was a good and laid back dinner, but before long it was nearly 1 am and we were all pooped, so we decided to just call it a night, rather than forcing bad hangovers for the ride home on Sunday afternoon.

Even with a laid back night, I was exhausted on Sunday, and just moving about the apartment for a few moments was laborious. What made it worse was the sunburn, and extreme third degree burns I got on my feet. It made me feel sick, and I actually got a runny nose, but in general my body just felt like it had been hit by a truck. After the apartment was cleaned up and we were all packed and ready to go, it was time to leave Mar del Plata.

It was a nice and sunny day, already very hot and humid. Imaginably, Buenos Aires would be much hotter. Picking up some more snacks for the road, it was time to start back on Route 2, and back through the empty pampas. There wasn't as much conversation on the trip back north, mostly because we were all pretty exhausted from the weekend, but a car ride has its ways of being enjoyable nonetheless. As I fought fatigue, I looked from left to right soaking up as much of the green space as I could, aware that soon it would all be concrete again.

Somewhere along the road near a town called Maipu, we stopped for about 45 minutes at a little lake hidden off the road. Though it had a sign advertising it, the area seemed forgotten, and only a handful of people were there. Pablo had discovered it the last time he was down in the area, and we walked to the shaky wooden dock, taking some pictures and looking at the dark, motionless water. Only occasional bubbles would pop up from fish down below. The heat had died down as dark gray clouds loomed in the distance, and with some shanty tin buildings, a few picnic tables, and windmills spinning wildly, I again thought back to how the pampas reminded me of my image of the Midwest United States. I could see some movie where the peaceful farm town was about to be rocked by a tornado.

It was so quiet and relaxed, with the gentle breeze blowing from the west. Pablo said the last time he was there it was packed with cars and people, and the water was filled with swimmers. We got lucky and had it nearly to ourselves for almost an hour before getting back on the road towards Buenos Aires. Up through the north of the pampas I noticed that on the side of the road, where one might find McDonald's and diner's in the United States, all you would find here were parillas, or steak houses. McDonald's will generally always be bad (though good), and it's possible to get a so-so diner. But I had to think that every one of those steak houses was great, and what's worse about not trying all of them was not trying any of them. But it was Sunday afternoon and we had snacks, so on to Buenos Aires we kept going.

Reaching the outskirts of the province and city, we passed through many small towns along the way, with the population steadily rising as Buenos Aires grew closer. Finally we came to Banfield, where Pablo and Paola let us out to catch the bus back to the city center. It was a fun weekend and was great to see another part of Argentina, but what made it so worthwhile was that I was able to share the experience with Argentinians, learning cultural things, sharing mate, and speaking in their language. Though I've had some experiences with locals, this was by far the longest of its kind in my time here, and just a few days in the presence of Porteños taught me almost as much as my time winging it alone has in 4 months here. A successful start to the new year, and hopefully with many more good times to come.

Above: The pampas, near Maipu.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Hitting Up the Beach

Mar del Plata is the beach to go to in Argentina, mainly because it's really the only area with a stretch of water that is accessible for swimming and within close proximity to the majority of the population. If the trendier people go to Punta del Este in Uruguay, the regular majority vacation in Mar del Plata. With that being said, it's known for overcrowded beaches, with umbrellas touching each other as people pack in among the windy beaches. Though it's not too warm or cold, Mar del Plata is a varied place in summer.

During the summer the population can swell up to a million, but for the rest of the year it's a near ghost town, relatively speaking. Judging by the cold winds at night in the summer, I can imagine why no one would go in the winter. We woke up late on January 1st and took our time, eating breakfast and drinking mate on the balcony, waiting as the day warmed up after a morning rain. By the time we were ready to go the day had turned pleasant and warm, but not overbearingly hot. With the advantage of a car, we drove farther south, away from the packed beaches where those in the city without cars would wind up. We still had to battle through city traffic, but the difference in the laid back attitude of a beach town was clear, and it was a welcome relief from Buenos Aires.

The architecture of Mar del Plata is pretty interesting, with alpine houses and English Tudor's dotting the hills overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Thousands of beach-goers headed down to the water, and as we continued along the road the crowds tapered off a bit. Picking up some sandwiches for lunch, we got to a stretch of beach that, while had a good amount of people on it, was nothing compared to the beaches back in the city center. By the time we sat down and set up the umbrella, ate and put on sunscreen, the sun became hidden by dark clouds out at sea.

Our first day at the beach was short lived, as the ominous clouds turned to a heavy rain storm that came in quickly and without mercy. As a mass exodus slowly left the beach in double file, we got back to the car and sat soaked in traffic retreating to the city. Hail pounded the car, but within minutes the storm had passed. We killed some time by playing hangman on the car window frost and drinking mate. The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing at the apartment and cleaning up for dinner at the seaport.

Unlike Puerto Madero in Buenos Aires, boats will unload their catches in Mar del Plata and allow people to buy fresh product right there. There's a section packed with restaurants, mostly all you can eat seafood, and we chose one that seemed to have a fair deal. Though it seemed like everything involved calamari in some way, we tried just about everything, and it was all good. I love fried calamari, and was happy with the large plate that I got. We picked up some lemon ice cream to put in champagne after dinner, and called it a night to make the most of our last full day at the beach on Saturday.

Going farther south on Saturday morning, we picked a nice looking beach that eventually swelled to a huge crowd, with umbrellas everywhere, getting me lost on the way back from a walk later in the day. The day was spent relaxing between some Frisbee, a picnic lunch, and trying but failing to learn the card game Truco. With a different deck of cards that have different values, I found this Argentinian game to be very confusing, especially when explained in a different language. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and before long the burn started to kick in, even though I put on sunscreen at least four times.

All told, we were at the beach from about 10:30 am until 7 pm or so, when the wind had picked up and the sun was setting. My feet had been badly burned, among other parts of my body, and were swelling to a pink and purple complexion, despite having spent a large portion of the day under the umbrella. Before going back to the city we took a different path home, through a wooded area with alpine houses, seemingly hidden among the forest. It was totally quiet and peaceful, and I could see that living there would be a peaceful existence.

A quick stop at a local fair reminded us that we were burnt and cold, so we got back on the trail home, to clean up and make dinner for the last night in Mar del Plata.

Above: Maru, Paola, Pablo; drinking mate at the beach; a duck and a shmuck

New Years' Eve in Mar del Plata

After working a half day on Thursday, I headed back out to Banfield with Vero to meet up with her friends Pablo, Paola, and Maru. The plan was simple: Pablo's parents loaned us their car, and his aunt loaned us her apartment in Mar del Plata for the weekend. Though it was already 3:30 pm on December 31st, we took off for the beach town 4.5-6 hours south of Buenos Aires to celebrate New Years' Eve.

There's a special kind of energy in a packed car at the beginning of a road trip, when it feels like nothing can stop you, and whether the wind blows in through the window or the air conditioner is on full blast, you feel fresh and free. No work for 3 days and a holiday to boot. Not too shabby. Already in Buenos Aires Province, we headed south through towns that reminded me more of the Latin America I was familiar with last year, and the farther south we headed the fewer the houses were, shanty as they seemed, and the older the cars got. Eventually we were in nothing but open fields, and all around us we were in the Pampas.

The pampas are what I imagine the Midwest of the United States to be like. Never having been, I have to use movies and pictures as a basis, but down this road in Argentina there was nothing but open space on the left and right, plain and flat as far as the horizon. A sky so wide and open that it felt like you could almost see the curve of the earth. Living in a city, the world is obscured by buildings, and the view is often only as far as the next block, but in the pampas, you have nothing to block your vision, and what you see is what extends for miles and miles beyond that. Other than some cows and a random house or two, there isn't much else going on.

Though I'd met Pablo and Paola a week ago when I went to their house for dinner, it was still like starting over again in terms of conversation. It's always going to be hard to jump into a group of old friends, especially in another language, so at first I sat back and mostly listened. This is also the best way to learn the language. An untold number of words have entered my vocabulary since Thursday, not only because I asked but because I listened. Soon enough the ice was broken and I got into the conversations just the same, though obviously giving space when stories were told that I was unfamiliar with. It's to be expected that you won't understand everything, and continuously asking what something means gets annoying.

The mate was passed around consistently, and I found myself totally comfortable and at ease with the process. Though I asked questions about it, nothing could be as simple as drinking a tea through a straw for a moment. Maybe I feel most immersed when I share mate, and I've gotten to the point where I look forward to drinking it and sharing the experience. Maybe one of the funniest things I've taught anyone since living in Latin America is "Fuggin' brown bears," which really means nothing. It's just a play on words originating from my friend Adam who once said, "Beers, fuckin' brown beers...fuggin' brown bears." "Fuggin' Brown Bears" went on to be my fantasy football team's name for two years.

For some reason, this came up in the trip, and everyone took to it, practicing it and getting it down well. It would keep coming up through the weekend. The hours passed by quickly and by 9:30 pm we were pulling into Mar del Plata, ahead of schedule. After dropping off our things, we picked up some food and drinks, and then had dinner at the apartment. It was a totally different New Years' experience than I'm used to. For years now, I've met up with friends early on, maybe 7 or 8 pm to begin partying and by midnight, it was practically a blur. With deep winter outside, we stayed in a house and went home at 1 or 2 am.

Here, it's a summer holiday and Argentinians don't even go out until after midnight. I found that most people will celebrate with a dinner with friends or family, toast at midnight, and then maybe go out dancing depending on the age group. We celebrated from the balcony listening to fireworks going off all around at midnight, and then joined the crowds heading to the beach. The fireworks, both personal and public, were deafening, and music was blasting loudly in one of the squares where hundreds of kids decked out in white were dancing. Apparently wearing white on New Years' is a tradition in Brazil that has recently made its way into Argentina.

We had another toast at the waters edge, freezing as the wind blew in ferociously. Mar del Plata gets very windy and cold at night, and with a sweater on, I was still freezing. Once we could take it no longer we stopped in the plaza for a bit and then went out to a street filled with bars to dance for a couple of hours before calling it a night. There was no need to rush anything, as we had the whole weekend to relax and go to the beach...

Above: From a plaza in the center of Mar del Plata, post midnight, January 1, 2010