02 abril 2007

niebla, chile y todos sus huevones

What a rollercoaster ride it´s been since my last post. Dirk and I first headed north out of Calafate to the nearby national forest and Perito Moreno glacier (about 70 km). We rode late, starting at about 7pm. For the first 25 or so kilometers I was able to stay on his rear wheel into the stiff headwind. Once I was no longer able to keep his maniacal pace (even while drafting) the two of us drifted apart like ships on the open sea. It was very beautiful. There were many stars. It was also some of the most difficult riding I´ve ever done.

Hours later, I found the only camp site in the park (which was technically closed) by talking to some of the construction workers, but they told me that my friend had "flown by" a half hour earlier, and that the truckers had already spotted him at the base of the glacier (16 km further than we intended to go). "Watch out for the pumas," they told me as I continued on toward the camp. I laughed, but they didn´t smile back. It was about 1:30am, and I was too tired to keep riding, so I pushed my bike past the rubble blocking the entrance to the campsite and made a nice camp amid the trees and out of the way of the wind. The next morning I woke early and made the rest of the trek to the glacier, where I found Dirk´s tent pitched illegally outside the tourists' mess. I made myself breakfast and tried to explain to the rangers (who were fucking power-tripping pissants) that my friend was still sleeping, but that we'd be out of there pronto.

In actuality, he wasn´t sleeping, but had gone out to hike the glacier, and I met up with him after I´d finished my mate. The glacier was very beautiful, but despite claims I´ve heard that it is the world´s only glacier that is still expanding it seems to have receded greatly since the pictures were taken for the posters which dot the area tourist offices. I did an hour hike out to the base, sat and enjoyed the sun. Every ten minutes or so I could hear a crack of ear-splitting thunder, a roar which sustained itself for 15 or 20 seconds each time. Once or twice the crashes were close enough to the front wall of the glacier that ice fell and caused enormous tidal splashes that rocked the heavy tourist boats. Implosions.

We rode back to Calafate the same day, had a nice meal and shower, and the next day set out for Chalten. To speed things up, during the next three days of constant headwind, I decided that I would skip the cycling and head to one of the organic farms I´d contacted near to Bariloche. The story is much more complicated and involves certain persons sleeping in sewer pipes to avoid 50 km/hour winds, injured knees, crazed San Franciscans, Argentine madmen from Entre Rios, etc. I did make it to Chalten. I´ll say that much. but not without detours.

For two and a half weeks afterward I was unable to pick up a pen, use a computer keyboard, or even push my hands into my pockets. I was constantly shaking, and my fingers wouldn´t close after fighting to keep the bike upright for so many hours in the Patagonian wind. It was one of those times in my life that I will look back on when things are bad, and I will think to myself, "Really, things are not so bad."

I spent about four days in Chalten warming up. Hiked to the base of Mt. Fitzroy, which was incredible. Wished I had a warmer sleeping bag. Drank beer with some Estadounidense hippies.

Then spent about 4 days biking/bussing/hitchhiking to Esquel, AR, where I spent a couple pleasant days riding. I also was able to find a bike shop to replace the skewer I´d lost the previous night at a bus station further south.

I contacted Erica Penttila and filled her in on my plans to stay at a farm outside of Puerto Montt, Chile for a month or so. After two nights in the port town of Puerto Montt (which reads like a real swashbucklers dive) I arrived there, at el campo de Matias, "El Refugio," on 4 March. After two hours of meandering through the lush green I found a house and an old grey-bearded Chilean, Matias´s dad, Don Miguel. He told me to make myself comfortable and that Matias would come and find me "in the pines" when he returned home.

He didn´t, and I made myself a fire and some food, and finished what was left of my Old Smuggler´s whiskey in order to put myself to sleep before 11pm. It rained for about 10 minutes every five minutes.

The next morning I met Matias, and subsequently was introduced to the only other volunteer, Alison, of California, who was staying in "La Casita Fea" (the little ugly house). Not really so ugly at all in my opinion, and considering the fact that I´d been expecting to spend a month in my little tent, was absolutely luxurious. Running water, gas stove (for cooking), wood stove (for warming), and electricity. There was even a dilapidated mattress and a pile of Chilean wool to keep us warm at night. We spent the next several weeks concentrating on food. Planting, seeding, harvesting lettuce, oats, acelga (chard), basil, tomatoes, potatoes, sunflowers, garlic, onion, fava beans, apples, blackberries,
bussing, biking and hitch hiking between little Metri and Puerto Montt for grocery supplements to the home grown stuff, I feel as though my cooking became like food divination. Every improvised meal a godsend.

Erica came to meet us after my first week, and proved to be a natural hand at milking the goats, something I was a bit intimidated by (you really have to yank! how indecent!). We made marmelades and roasted hazelnuts, but we didn´t get around to learning the entire cheese-making process.

In the end, it was clear that Matias was disappointed to see us go (as we were the only volunteers left), but Alison had already postponed her departure and had to be back in Valdivia (where she´s studying Spanish and Anthropology), and I have to be making my way north toward La Paz to meet up with Craigolas by the 13th.

Right now I´m in Valdivia, which is terrific. Neighboring Niebla, where Alison and her friends live is the coolest slice of ocean I´ve seen (and I´ve seen a lot in recent times). The whole region is lush and green, and while usually rainy, the past few weeks have been unseasonably sunny. I´m finally getting the fall I've been missing since I left Chicago.

I´m staying with Alison, who lives with a 30 year old yellow belt and single mother, Márcia. She designs film sets and has a used clothing store where she also sells homemade jam (and in the summer her front yard seconds as a juice stand for the beachgoers). She and her daughter are terrific, though the rapid Chilean dialect still leaves me dizzy...

Tomorrow we head north to Santiago for a couple days, before I continue on toward Cusco and then to La Paz.

21 febrero 2007

cuando lo cuenta el menos

Not much time to write. Met a Belgian, Dirk, in El Calafate (AR) three days ago. Shipped home various possessions, including a computer. Bought spare tires and tubes. Today we ride late, so as to avoid the winds. We head through the glaciers toward El Chalten (Mt. Fitzroy), and eventually up to Bariloche (probably about three weeks).

Dirk has been riding for a month and a half. Arrived in Buenos Aires, rode south to Ushuaia (with help from a couple truck drivers), and is on his way back north. We continue by way of the Andes (Chile and Argentina). I hope I'm able to keep up with him.

May be out of range for a week or more. First serious cycling in So. America. Wish me luck.

16 febrero 2007

orcas, penguinos, lomos y humanos rabidos; ¿quien sabia?

Without going into too much detail, let me say that Puerto Madryn (AR) is doing everything it can to shake my confidence. I have been here for three days longer than I intended, and yet I have still haven't been able to see the enormous penguin colony just a few hours south of the city (though I did see its smaller offshoot on the Peninsula Valdez). I'm fighting off some kind of cold, and tomorrow morning (if I can end my serial bad luck) I'll be in El Calafate, with an Andean backdrop. A trek's length there, maybe a bit of biking, and then to the lake district is the plan right now.

I spent the past couple days with a British/Canadien/Argentine/Israeli guy (with citizenships and passports for each), and we discussed sci fi, business, language and "birds". He had driven his car down from his own farm in Entre Rios (to the north of Buenos Aires), and so we teamed up with a couple others and toured the peninsula together.

To be honest, I've felt something resembling stir-craziness for the past week or so. I need to get out of these beach towns. Somehow they have had a soporphic effect on my travel inertia. The mountain air is what I need. And then back north by way of Chile.

09 febrero 2007

todavia planificando

I started out biking from St. Teresita, but didn´t make it far before I realized that the autopista (highway) was a bit much for me and my overloaded bici. I stopped in another town further down the coast and caught a bus to Mar del Plata, my first time here.

I think I shall have to shed some weight or reappropriate before I embark again...

In any event, Mar del Plata is no small beach resort town. This is a bona fide city, and beautiful at that. I found a cheap place (happily sans gringos) and spent last night and this morning exchanging ideas about what to see in the south and west of Patagonia. I met an Anthony Kiedis look-alike from Mendoza (as a Chili Peppers retrospective spun on Mtv in the background, appropriately enough), and we discussed Bariloche and las granjas with which I´ve been in contact. He was unsurprisingly a proponent of the one closest to Mendoza, but conceded that it would probably be a big place, and well-populated in March.

Today I need to make some decisions. It´s late enough in the season now that the south will be cold. And yet, it is probably my last time to see the south of Argentina (at least on this trip). In the meatime, today I will hopefully be able to watch my second thunderstorm over the ocean in as many weeks.

Agua, tanto agua, de donde viene?

06 febrero 2007

trabajar es casi tan bueno como hacer fiaca

As of this afternoon, approximately 1pm, I have finished what surely can be deemed a complete chapter of this picaresque adventure. I write this presently from Santa Teresita, a small beach resort town south of Buenos Aires by 4 hours, more or less. Ivan left the Hotel Demper early this morning, destined for another three days in BsAs before his return to Michigan to spend and the family. The Hotel Demper has wonderful ceilings. Reminiscent of Queen Anne´s lace, or more turgid perhaps. When I have a place of my own, I shall have to install similar ones in each room.

We were still splashing in the surf at about 5am, at which time the moon was directly overhead. Having alternated between the ocean, the crowds on the main drag here (Calle 3) and the somewhat lackluster (save for the ceiling) Numero 6 at the Demper, I awoke this morning feeling as though I´d spent weeks in this sandy town. Indeed, Ivan claimed himself capable of cramming 5, maybe 6 months of living into a single day oceanside. I no longer doubt it.

As for my part, where last I left off (Dec. 24, 2006), I spent the following days with the family of my Spanish instructor in La Paz, which was rosy. Due to poor planning on my part, as well as a small banking problem, too short a time did I subsequently have for returning to Buenos Aires (by way of Cocha Bamba, Santa Cruz, Yacuiba, etc.). I arrived nonetheless, on time to find the new apartment, have a beer, and meet Andrea at the airport at 7am, Jan. 31.

Somewhat unfortunately, Dre brought a bona fide Estadounidense headcold with her, accompanied by an upper respiratory infection, thus the first few days in BA were mellow. We explored the parks and markets, sipped coffees and mates, and shared dinners with new friends at the apartment in Constitucion. 10 days in BA, and then a few in Iguazú, which was well worth the 16 hour bus ride. We spent two days in the park, and left the third for Rosario, a pleasant and unfamiliar intermediary before Buenos Aires. Rosario, incidently, is a pretty interesting place, and I would gladly return for a time if the option presented itself. The river is the not the ocean, but sharing a choripan on the crowded beaches of the river in the foreground of the enormous industrial river traffic was impressive.

Happily, Andrea extended her trip by about a week, and we were able to spend a couple days at the beach, in yet another resort town on this same coast. Pinamar is bigger than Santa Teresita, and vastly more advanced in its tourist commerce. Andrea could give better details as to the "Pop-Up" retail on the main drag there. For me it was a bit nightmarishly like Vegas. Bombastic, overwrought.

It surprises me how few people are on the Argentine beaches at night. It concerned me at first that the lack might indicate some kind of danger, or possible illegality, but I´ve since been reassured, and walking in the moonlit surf has since become a favored pasttime. Thanks to a few more weeks in Buenos Aires, I have more or less resumed a nocturnal existence.

The latter couple weeks I have spent mostly in preparation and study. Ivan was living in a houseful of interesting, musical, culinarily-expressive people, and I spent a chunk of time talking politics with an Italian from Genoa, whose offer of house and wine I hope to take up this summer. My Spanish continues to improve, and as of today I no longer have any English-speaking acquaintances. It´s back out into the cold for me.

There are a number of organic farms in and around Patagonia and Mendoza which accept volunteer workers in the months of February and March, the harvest season. I´ve contacted them, and at least three happily invited me to come, so the option is there.

Tomorrow, I begin biking. I did little research before we came to St. Teresita, but am pleased now to note that it is the first in a string of beach communities ending with Mar del Plata a couple hundred kilometers down the coast, maybe less. A perfect opportunity to test out my legs and my gear again.

I shall double my efforts at keeping a better log. I am presently reading Dracula (my only remaining book in English), which is styled as a series of journal entries, and appeals to me as such. We shall see if it takes.


24 diciembre 2006

arriba, abajo, al centro, a dentro

Last night was one of the more miserable I´ve experienced.

After spending the day meandering around a relatively uninspiring Uyuni, I had a beer at an empty gringo bar and made my way to the bus about a half hour before departure. It was actually one of the more comfortable Bolivian buses I´ve been on, and left only a few minutes late, at around 8:05pm.

All the roads surrounding Uyuni, and headed north to La Paz are gravel and dirt, and it´s been dry around here lately. The main roads are banked and planed regularly by crews with steamrollers, etc. I´ve seen a couple of teams settling the dust as such. At around 8:50, the bus suddenly slipped off the shoulder and plunged to the left, all of us at 45 degree angle to the ground. I instinctively shifted to the right, as though my meager weight might prevent the bus from tipping. We hit the desert floor (about a four foot descent) and promptly came to a halt. Everyone poured out of the bus and we could immediately tell that this bus was going nowhere anytime soon. Front and rear wheels were halfway covered in sand, and the terrain was all brush and sand hills. Ten or so dudes gave it a tokenist´s effort to push it out of the sand, but with no result.

Another La Paz-bound bus stopped then, and there was a great commotion as to whether people would try to board that bus, or wait for our own. Two other Americans and I made the mistake of waiting until the very last minute to get on the second bus (thinking there wasn´t room, and that perhaps a more reasonable solution would be presented), and found ourselves standing in the narrow aisle with three or four others without seats.

Long story short, we spent the next 7 hours alternately standing, crouching and laying on the floor, straddling other people´s bags and getting elbowed in the face by restless sleepers.

During the couple rest room breaks we watched stray dogs lap diesel fuel out of puddles beneath the buses. I saw one drinking grease straight out of a bucket next to a stand where a woman was frying llama steaks. Someone puked into a urinal next to me.

When we finally got to Oroua (?), about three hours south of La Paz, they unloaded everyone, and a new bus showed up. There was a frantic movement for everyone to exchange their existing tickets for new ones. It was then that I almost began killing people. It seemed clear for a moment that I and the four other people who had been forced to stand for the past seven hours would continue to do so for the remainder of the trip. The crowd was too frenzied, there certainly was no reason to the order the drivers were assigning seats. We vowed to one another in broken spanish, however, that regardless of what our tickets said (or didn´t say) we were walking onto the next bus and sitting down in the first seats that presented themselves.

Fortunately, everyone but one person (a local, making only the three-hour trip) had a seat on the final bus, and I managed to fall asleep relatively quickly after the well-rested mob had stopped their reinvigorated chatter (all the ruckus was apparently much more amusing to those who´d been able to sleep the past several hours).

Then, at 6:30am this morning, at the same time that the driver´s assistant came around to collect the newest tickets, a papaya-seed-selling fuckwad televangelist stood up and began what was to be a 45 minute schpiel ("...just two a day and it thins the blood, prevents diabetes, invigorates the heart, the head, the lungs, improves sexual function, tastes great, that´s right señores, it even tastes great! and did I mention the cost of this amazing natural remedy? Well, let´s not talk about price just yet, did I mention it thins the blood?..").

I had seen these snake oil charlatans on the street in La Paz before, and had found the entire display charming and entertaining, right down to the handing out of individual papaya seeds, and the looks of actual wonder on the faces of passersby, but when this guy stood up this morning (and people actually bought the stuff!)...

Well, I haven´t slept yet. And I don´t feel very well. But tomorrow is Christmas, so happy happy happy happy

23 diciembre 2006

viaje en camión para tarabuco, bolivia

Erica asked that I post this. I took some video of our first experience hitchhiking in Bolivia (from Sucre to Tarabuco for the market). If you'd like to see it, please right click here, and save to your computer before viewing.

The file is big (30mb), and I don't need ATP sending virtual assasins to cancel my ticket back to the states.

valió la pena

I've been in Bolivia for a little under a month. I'm now in Uyuni, about 10 hours south of La Paz, as the bus flies. I've just finished an amazing three day jeep trek south through the altiplano to the border of Chile and back, which I did a bit reluctantly, but after hearing much from other travelers. It was the sort of trip that could have been made or ruined by the weather, or by the rest of the travellers, with whom I was stuck in a jeep for three days. Among the others were a pair from Belgium/Holland, who had just finished a several-month stint on the most recent iteration of Belgium's version of The Amazing Race. He was a cameraman, and she an executive producer. The other notable character was a Marcus Reynerson clone from the Vancouver area. It was a good group, and I think I'll wind up meeting up with at least one of them on their way south to Patagonia after the new year. Many photos soon to come.

Before this trip, I had been staying in La Paz with the family of my most recent Spanish instructor, Gabriela. It was with great remorse that I wrote Ivan to tell him I'd finally been introduced to the infamous subjuntivo. The week was an interesting one, and for the most part relaxed. I explored what I could of a labyrinthine La Paz-- a city which is 85 percent marketplace-- during the busiest and most commercial time of year. I made a couple local friends at a little bar down from where I was taking classes, and whiled my afternoons stumbling my way though conversations about futbol and women. I took naps in the park. I attended a surprise birthday party for a friend of Mae Lin, my Bolivian hermana por una semana. Get the gringo drunk is apparently a wildly entertaining party game. It is nice to be cared for, however. I've got some photos and video of the live folklorica in the kitchen.

This evening, I train back to La Paz to spend Christmas with the family, which should be fun. Then, I've got to pick a path back to Buenos Aires, where I've arranged for a room in an apartment not far from the congress (con cama matrimonial) for a couple weeks.

* * *

Those who know me well know that I am a sentimental man. But perhaps only Dan will understand when I recount the tears which welled in my eyes and spilled onto my sun-burned cheeks during a dark, Bolivian bus ride when, just as Aulë was about to bring his hammer down on his beloved, his newest and greatest creations, the dwarves, Iluvatar replied, "Thy offer I accepted even as it was made."

I read only about forty pages of the Silmarillion in Oxford before Dan wrenched it from me at the end of our last summer there, and only recently came across another copy, accidentally, on the shelves of a hostel in Sucre, Bolivia.

Lord forgive me, caballeros y damas, but with nothing to trade in the book exchange I sneaked off with the only book worth reading...

* * *

After spending a few days in Sucre, we arrived in La Paz where we participated in our second organized tourist event, when we mountain biked the Dead Road, just outside of Coroico. Considering how well publicized it was, it was remarkably dangerous. Val, who has since left us (but not before having her wallet and credit cards stolen on her last night in La Paz), banged her knee up pretty good on the Dead Road, but that was our crew's greatest casualty.

After that first stay in La Paz, Erica continued on to Copacabana, on the eastern shores of Lake Titicaca. After a few days there, Erica and I decided to split for a while, and I went back to La Paz. That about brings us up to date.

If I weren't being pulled back to Buenos Aires for the new year, I would probably make a home around La Paz for a while. It's a city in which I can easily imagine myself living. Despite its unorthodox transit system, and inhospitable car traffic (the worst symptom I've seen of the automotive hubris ubiquitous in South America), everything La Paz works on its own bizarre (but somehow beautiful) internal logic. Not unlike Buenos Aires, it is possible to get within three blocks of anywhere in the city in a very short amount of time. But unlike Buenos Aires (so far as I can tell) the system in La Paz, has no central organization. It's based mostly on the trufis, minibuses or cars, which follow a set of standardized routes through the city. The result is that the trufis run every 4 minutes or so, are fiercely competitive (with designated callers to yell out the stops to people on the street), and crossing the street along the prada is like trying to swim across the Mississippi river.

And yet the people are genuine, and excited to share what they've got...

* * *
Happy Christmas everyone. I'm tired of this internet place. Hope you're all well.

02 diciembre 2006

la coca no es la cocaina

I realize my sense of time in these posts is choppy. I'm trying to make up for lost time. I should remind you that Erica is, in some ways, keeping a better record of our day to day happenings, and that I myself use her blog occasionally to remind me of what I've been doing these past few months.

For instance, it's true that our first bus in Bolivia (yesterday) slid off the road and got bogged down in a ditch, more than once. It was pretty funny. There were three collegiate gringas on the bus with us who put things in perspective by losing their pink flip flops in the mud, and sing-songing their oh-my-gods about how close they had been to mor-ee-en-do.

It's also true that the Bolivian bus wasn't so luxurious as its Argentine counterparts have been. Though, in all frankness, I think this whole continent needs to be instructed as to the meaning of lumbar support. Can I really be the only person for whom this is an issue? I don't think I've spent a single, solitary comfortable minute-- be it by chair, couch or bed-- since September. Enough with the complaints.

I made an eight year-old friend on the bus, with whom I shared a seat and some bread, and who ogled me throughout the conversation as though I were a talking sack of coca leaves. His mother, seated across the aisle, was among the Andeans wearing a comically-undersized bowler hat and a lampshade as a skirt. When the family got off at Potosi (the last stop before Sucre, and the highest city in the world, supposedly), I was treated to a personal demonstration of their packing methods, which include no fewer than seven wool blankets per person, each of which is wrapped specifically to form a sort of backpack/food sling/baby carrier. Each of the children slept with one of these blankets during the bus ride.

* * *

As a method for trying to engage the culture(s) on some level, on this trip I've kept my focus on (1) the language, and (2) the drugs. The meat fixation in Argentina was too much for me, and while I didn't completely abstain, neither was I able to make any friends by way of a common enthusiasm. I am convinced, however, that I have been drinking as much if not more yerba mate than do many well-seasoned Porteños, and drinking mate in public is a pleasant invitation to share company.

Yesterday, we discovered coca. We arrived in Bolivia at about 9 am, and spent the better part of the day in the border town of Villason before our bus left for Sucre at about 7:30 in the evening (we should be in Lapaz by Thurs).

I was struck immediately upon walking down the main drag of the town by the large baskets-- the size of urban garbarge cans-- all overflowing with leaves. I don´t know exactly what the legalities are, but I saw no coca in my time in Argentina. Here everyone seems to be using it, and it´s being sold everywhere-- including shops that otherwise respectively sell only woolen items, electronics, juices, etc.

I bought a bag (probably about a pound) for roughy 30 cents. I haven´t been given any formal instruction as of yet, but rolling the leaves into a ball about the size of three pieces of bubblicious, and chewing for a few minutes gives a numbing effect, and after another few minutes of holding the wad in my mouth and chewing occasionally, I can feel my heart pounding, and an accompanying light-headedness.

They sell it here to help with altitude sickness, and I´m sure my headiness is due in part to the rapid altitude change we´ve experienced inthe last day. Here in the Andes, "los coqueros" have been using coca for time out of mind, and that there is speculation that the word "coca" at one point simply meant "plant". They still sell coca pouches here, which are used to carry the leaves while paseando (wandering about), and are still sized to fit specific quantities of coca, which, in turn, are measured by how much time and distance the coca will last the wanderer. One "cocada" is the amount of time and/or distance it takes one to travel on one wad of coca. Apparently Andean people actually used these measurements of distance until relatively recently.

Here's a good, short account from another couple travellers. They deal peripherally with the issue of legality, North American influence (i.e. the "war on drugs") and the truth of coca's relation to cocaine, but I'd like to do some more research. Incidentally, I was nearly forced into buying a t-shirt this morning which read, "La coca no es la cocaina," but thought better than to make myself a gringo statementist (as though simply being a gringo weren't enough of a statement in this country).