Sunday, February 22, 2004

I want to write a little something about what we have learned so far about life in Argentina after the economic crisis two years ago. Most of this is from talking with a limited number of people so it is not going to be any kind of great analysis, just what I have gathered so far. As most of you already know the Argentinian peso was fixed to the American dollar at a one to one ratio, for many reasons I can´t explain well here the peso eventually crashed. People lost a lot of savings and money. We saw lots of coverage in the US papers about riots in B. Aires.

As a traveler it has been hard to see obvious effects or get a good grasp of how people´s lives have changed. It is my impression after talking with a lot of people from Buenos Aires and other cities in the north and east of the country that the places where we have traveled have more work and stability than the cities in the east. We have seen long lines of people waiting outside the bank for retirement benefits and one woman told me these benefits have been lowered significantly. I have also been told that although it is impressive to me that health care and the university are free, the stability of these institutions have suffered since the collapse.

People seem obsessed with corruption in government. Everyone we have asked about this subject feels pretty bitter and misled by Menem who was president during the one to one ratio and came up with the idea. But I think they also feel misled by themselves and how much they enjoyed the economic success they had in the nineties. It seems people were able to live well, travel internationally a lot and enjoy an economic status much higher than the rest of Latin America. People have been very emotionally effected by going from having so many choices that economic resources bring to having limited choices. If you have a job you are grateful to have it and you take what you can get. A couple people have been fairly mistified that Jacob and I would leave good jobs (although I think there were people who felt this way in the States as well, including ourselves at times).

A lot of people have talked to us about a sort of professional crisis. There are way more doctors, lawyers, etc. graduating from the universities than there are jobs. Many of these people are immigrating to other countries to find work or staying in Argentina and doing whatever they can find. We met a couple from a city called Rosario, a large city near B. Aries. They said it is very hard to find work and when you are working the average person earns about 20 to 30 pesos a day for over ten hours of work and that you are doing the work of two or three people. We have been in lots of massive sprawling restaurants that are packed with only two or three people working them. I am not sure if this is different from before but in that setting we have noticed people working really hard.

It took me awhile to figure out how prices related to the average income here, especially because for us everything is one third of the price. But it has been explained to me basically that all prices rose but the value of their income fell 60%. To put it another way, if the average person in Rosario makes 25 pesos a day, well our dorm room here in Calafate costs 22 pesos a night for one person (probably why we have only seen rich Argentinians and foreigners here). An average meal for us in a restaurant is about 12 to 18 pesos. A liter of beer is two pesos. That seems pretty expensive to me.

It does seem that things are becoming more stable and improving slowly but the value of their money is still one third of what it was. Although I have always known that certain countries are cheap for me as an American this is really the first time I have made the connection between how far I can get because I earn DOLLARS. (I never took Economics 101). I feel very lucky to have the choice to travel not just because I can earn a good wage in the US but because that dollar goes a long way in other parts of the world. For an Argentinian to visit me everything would be three times as expensive, making it impossible. I know this is also true for most people living in the world, but for some reason it has been easier for me to see visiting a place where just three years ago a lot of people enjoyed the same priviledge of traveling all over the globe and now, as our friend said who was very interested in Jacob´s time in Africa, he would have to save three lifetimes to get there.

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Thursday, February 19, 2004

One month down. Sometimes it´s hard to believe (it´s just, and sometimes only) a month. That is, until I look in the mirror at my ragged clothes, stubly face and consider that I now feel most confortable eating a burger with a fork and knife. Raegan and I are in Bariloche and are rears are feeling much better, thank you. Tomorrow we are flying to El Calafate to spend a month around the small fishing villages, glaciers and granite peaks of the southern most parts of Argentina and Chile. For now -- at least -- we´re well rested. Note: I got a little carried away in the park the other day so this entry will be a long one, perhaps better taken in more than one sitting. Oh well, here goes....

Halting the break-neck pace we´ve been maintaining, Raegan and I spent the last 6 nights in El Bolson. Being a small mountain town with no university or chez panis, we felt our guidebook had erred by calling it "as close to Berkeley as you can get" in Argentina. Well, we were half right.

Our first night there we stayed in an affordable room with a balcony room overlooking a meadow with a rocky range beyond. Not bad. When we arrived at the residence our keeper got a look at us and excitedly asked us if we spoke german. Momentarily tempted, we conceeded "nein." Nevertheless, this encounter reminded me of the currious german immigration to the region. But it was too nice a day to concern myself with such matters. (There were also many wild west americans who settled here, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid before they met their end in Bolivia, but that subject would be better discussed on another page).

The next day was a full one. We changed hotels, as the one we were staying in was 3k out of town, well beyond the end of the sidewalk. Our new digs were on the other side of the river, where there isn´t and never was a sidewalk. The following day we were to take a 4 day trek in the mountains to glaciers and narrow canyons and we had to stock up for the trip. We wouldn´t need our water filter as the river water was potible (dont they know about giardia?), but we would need food. We bought rice, cheese, salami, hard fruit, dried soup, nuts, granola, chocolate, and boxed wine at the market. We also left with a few beers for the afternoon/evening and ingredients that could potentially quench our desire to eat something resembling chinese food for dinner. We informed the club andino patigonica of our plans, and stoped for the fatefull super pancho (or footlong) before heading back to home base.

I was bummed I didn´t have my camera for the walk home. I wanted to take pictures of the other, poorer side of town. The pictures would be of the Andies with not so glamorous foregrounds: junker cars and spare parts in front of houses in mid-construction, also of the rickety pedestrian bridge which spanned the clear river, and of the kids swimming, some building small fires only feet from their swimming holes. And all this with a glorious granite range as a back drop -- very well highlighted by the early evening sun. No pictures though.

Instead we headed to Agustine´s, where we were staying in one of the houses he´d constructed on his land for travelers in seek of rest between jaunts to the mountains. We drank beer on a bench and watched a runt white kitten, and two malnourished dogs (or maybe American animals are obese). We also watched Agusine keep himself busy building another house, digging an irrigation dich, making leather hats, two little children running up a pile of dirt only to collapse at the peak in stiches at their slap-stick falls. We were surounded by funky fountains, the well, and the sprawling gardens which looked more accidental than planned. Despite all this motion, it was quiet and peaceful. All of this activity could only be noticed due to the peace and tranquility of the place. When we were not observing we were reading our novels or translating articles about dead iraqi recruits. All the while, the towering range beyong slowly changed colors as the evening came.

When we finished our first beer it was much too early to think about preparing dinner, much to my chagrin. We would have to wait until a more reasonable hour, say 10.30, to begin. I escaped to our room to listen to music, and ride out another wave of language frustrations. I was feeling a little funny, but attributed it to my frustrations and the stress it produced.

Two bites into our dinner of fried rice, I excused myself to lay in the fetal position in our room. After two hours of uncomfortably laying as still as I could -- and about 10 minutes into Valentine´s day -- the projectile vommiting began. I didn´t take too much satisfaction that I made it all in one of our plastic shopping bags. But Raegan did. I didn´t sleep that night. First it was due to the pain, then to the buzz saw snoring from the room above, and then, at 4.30 the roosters added their part.

In the morning, Agustine brought tea and an awefully bitter juice solution as Raegan had alerted him to my condition and our sudden change of plans the night before. Translations of herbs are difficult, so I am unsure of what the tea was, but it tasted like chamomile with lemon and honey. The juice, aparently, was a wormwood (from the garden) and alcohol solution with sugar to fight a loosing battle agaist the bitterness. In the afternoon his wife brought a small pot of soup made with some kind of grees (again, from the garden) stocks and all. I got it all down, and although I was weak, I was well on my way to recovery.

Once better, we further explored the town of El Bolson. We visited the ferria, where local artisans sell carved wood, beaded necklaces, pipes, leather goods, and organic preserves. Agustine sells his hats there, and informed us that after the ferria most locals head to the local theatre to sit cross legged, eat tapas, and listed to the sitar. Pretty Berkeley. The next day we headed up the mountain to a forest, where after a recent fire the burt wood was carved by local artists. Not all of the work was noteworthy, but it was pretty cool walking around a sculpture garden in the wildflour infested, regenerating woods. The day after that we took a 15 mile round-trip hike to a narrow canyon. Often in our travels we wonder how anything could be more beautiful than the place that we are, and again and again we find out how. This canyon is just another example. The canyon got so narrow at one point that I was able to jump across, the clear blue water a hundred feet bellow. Raegan chastised me while she took the bridge. Arriving at the Refugio nearby we pased through a meadow of grazing sheep, with a blonde, curly-haired boy chasing them -- a scene out of the sound of music -- then we passed through a field of lavender and entered the dark cabin, we were greated with gray haired man who turned down the Janis Joplin to ask, "wanna glass of water (piped fresh from the clear river)." Enough.

We walked back with a physician (who drank the water, too), and we discussed the econimics and politics of the country -- a subject for a future entry. It was great to speak english, my first conversation (other than with Raegan) in weeks.

El Bolson was the second place we were truly sad to leave -- the first being Mendoza. We became friends with a young couple from Rosario, and had Agustine and his wife to thank for being so welcoming -- not to mention my health. I´ll write another, shorter entry from the south.....

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Friday, February 13, 2004

Also, chicos, please check out our pictures (by clicking on "pictures") I hope that works. If it doesn´t, let us know. Also, we love the comments, keep them coming. But if you´d like our personal addresses, they are: jacobfordschultz@yahoo.com and raeganjoern@hotmail.com. More to come when we return from the woods!

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Hola Chicos! We are in El Bolsón, which was described in our guidebook as "the Berkeley of Argentina". We are a little skeptical of this comparison, because although it has declared itself a "nuclear free zone" and there are many organic farms about, it is really a very small place that barely bustles with the action of Bezzerly (or maybe we are just biased). Tomorrow we head into the bush for three days spent in the mountains. We will hike to a glacier and a narrow canyon called Cajon Azul. We will be able to say in refugios, staffed structures at important junctions on the trail where you can park your sleeping bag and use their facilities.

We came to El Bolsón from a place called Villa la Angostura, which for me was really striking. The bus pulled out of the woods and we were facing an immense water way. A massive grandiose junction of about four mountain lakes all sorrounded by mountains with many pennisulas and islands jutting into the water. The town is centered in the middle of this "junction" and is really more of a group of hostels and cabañas along the road than a town.

It was recommended in our friendly guide book to rent mountain bikes and ride out onto one of the penninsulas (13 kmeters one way) to the edge where there exists a forest of Arrayane trees, trees with orange and white speckled bark. Despite about four people who told us it was very hard and that many people "fall" and the woman in the tourist office who looked down her nose at us and said "are you prepared?" with great emphasis, we decided to go for it. We rented our bikes on the side of the road from a young business man who couldn´t have been older than ten. Although the bikes were of course made for someone about a foot shorter than each of us we, again, still decided to go for it.

Well, let me say that I have earned a new respect for the sport of mountain biking because it pulverized me. We spent much of the first few kilometers walking our bikes up the amazingly steep path, over large logs that gave no thought to bikers and we had to carry the bike over, and even up some large stone steps. After that we were able to cruise for a few blissful flat kilometers through wildflowers. It was when we came to the steep decline and rought terraine that we began to discover the extreme lack of brakes (we had them but barely) and non existent finesse of the steering apparatus. This is also when Jacob´s back wheel fell off for the first (but oh not the last) time. Needless to say this is when I began to feel very bad about myself and needed to admit that given the combination of velocity, looking straight down, and roots jutting up in the path, I am a scaredy cat. (The amazingly shitty bike might have also contributed to this to give myself credit) It was of course at this moment that two young men with a death wish came flying down the path to expertly bounce their wheels off the rocks and branches and leave me in a cloud of dust.

The forest was pretty stunning, although you had to follow a walkway, most of which was closed due to construction. The trees were really neat, narrow trees with orange smooth bark. I think Jacob got some nice photos. Given the short description here you can see it was extremely impressive and worth every bit of sweat to get there.

At this point I was feeling pretty dismal about the 13 km ride back, but actually survived quite well. It is much easier when you know the path and I actually gained a little (okay very little) bit of air myself. Arriving back to town we still had to ride 3 km uphill to get to our hostel at which point my arse said NO WAY and I chose to walk the bike. My culo is still suffering from that bike seat. So for everyone who was wondering how Jacob and I would stay in shape (assuming we were before we left) we are getting plenty of excercise.

We bought our plane tickets for Patagnia,we leave the lake district of Argentina on the 20th of February and arrive in Calafate, a city right next to Parque Nacional de Los Galcieres or Glaciers. We will be down south for a month, flying back up to this area the 19th of March. After that we will head to Chile.


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Monday, February 09, 2004

Raegan and I have arrived in San Martin de los Andes. It´s beautifully situated on an Alpine lake (it is, afterall, the lake district) surounded forests and above them, glaciated peaks. Sounds great, eh? Well it is, but despite all of this, arriving here was sort of a rude awakening after Junin. We´re still in a small mountain town with no stop lights or signs, but here, perhaps they´re needed. As with Junin there is a river running through town, but unlike Junin here you cannot clearly make out every stone in it´s bed. Our salami, bread and cheese picnics are no longer made by a guy down the unpaved street, but are rather packed in plastic - yuck. But don´t despair, we may no longer be in la-la land, but we are still having a marvelous time.

Today we took a boat trip to a small beach on the other side of the lake. Once there we hiked to a waterfall with some Argentinian women we met at our hostel. There we sipped mate, the national addiction of Argentina. It´s actually quite nice, and it´s preperation is quite the ritual. I think between Raegan and I we will remember about 10 of the 15 steps involved, but we´ll likely have other opportunities to get it down. Nevertheless, we will certainly enjoy sharing it with you when we return. Perhaps the real lesson of this experience is that the Argentinan people are almost unbelievably generous. Several times, within a few minutes of meeting traveling Argentinans from Buenos Aries, they´ve offered up their phone numbers and addresses for our visit there in a few months. I could fill this page with other instances, but take my word for it: these are some nice people.

We´ve thoughtlessly omited any mention of our time in Mendoza, so here goes..... It lacked the lustre of Santiago, but we we couldn´t help but fall in love with the place. We met great people in our hostel, some who we plan to visit in Buenos Aires, perhaps the Cayman Islands, and others perhaps on other journeys. Each street is lined with trees. Hey urban planners: trees make for nice cities. Most days we took a public bus to wineries, and tasted great wines. Our highlight was our trip to Maipu, where we visited the museum at La Bodega Rural. They´re all Bodegas here, being the equivalent of Chateaus in France. After our time at La Bodega, we ate at a wonderful resteraunt. The owner, waiter, and chef produced no menu when we arrived, but rather: "how about a little of this or that or the other thing." We settled on a beef stew that he prepared in the clay oven he made, wine that he made, bread that he made, and for desert, he ran out to his orchard and plucked some peaches and grapes. It was a splurge, so the bill came to about $10.

What else?
We are always greeted with "Hola Chicos," and leave to "Ciao."
Expresso is always served with a small glass of mineral water on the side.
The trout meat is pink, due to a variety of algae which grows only here.

Tommorow we´re off to Villa Angostura (also on a lake). The Patagonian Express keeps rolling. Oh, and please write.

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Friday, February 06, 2004

Junin de los Andes. This is our first stop on a long journey south in Argentina to Patagonia and the southern most city in the world, Ushaia. We are sure there will be many more beautiful sites to see, but we are loving what we have seen so far.
We have been in the area of Junin for five days. We arrived south overnight on a bus that amazed me because it served dinner, showed movies, sold beer and the seats reclined to semi-cama, or semi-bed. Not bad.
We felt immediately refreshed arriving in Junin, a small (very small) town nestled in mountains. Suddenly the buildings went from adobe and cement to brick and wood. The roofs of all the quaint houses in town are made of tin and the yards are full of flowers. On the edge of town which is about three blocks from our hostel there is a clear river that passes by, coming from the nearby National Park, Lanin. This is the trout capital of Argentina, and we ate it our first night, delicious and pink colored, like salmon.
It was nice to come to a place where we didn´t have to make so many choices. Where lunch is a picnic by the clear river and there is only one ice cream shop in town. The past three days we have been hiking and camping in the National ParK. The main feature of the enormous park, besides the many clear mountain lakes, is Volcan Lanin, a towering inactive volcano topped with white snow.
We headed up to the park with a map, newly bought sleeping bags, and rented tent. We bought a ticket on a cramped van into the park and were dropped on the side of the road where we were told if we rang "the bell" hanging on "the post" a man would come to take us to the other side of the lake where our map indicated we could hike into a campsite. Sure enough we rang the bell and saw someone emerge from the house on the other side of the water. We put our bags in his leaky boat and headed towards the trail.
Everthing seemed a little uncertain, especially when the man with the boat started drawing our route that involved many twists and turns in the dirt with a stick.
With that guidance we headed into the woods, taking what turned out to be a very well marked and gorgeous trail between two tall moutains, heading towards the far shore of Lago Paimun and what was called on the map El Domingo, hopefully a place to pitch the tent.
The shores of the lake used to be populated, sparsely, by Spanish settlers, but all except one descendant moved to town many years ago when the government made the land a National Park. The map indicated that the campsite we were headed for was on the land of the last remaining settler, Don Aila. After about three hours walking we rounded a corner and came face to face with a man on a horse. He looked like something right out of a history book. Like a character from Cervante; ancient, dressed like a gaucho, rugged, toothless and a little crazy. We chatted with him for a while, enough time for him to tell us all of the government´s conspiracies to seize his land, and explain to us how to get to the campsite. Originally we had been told to call at his house, but he warned us not too as there was a dog (rabioso) that would surely eat us if we went up to the door. When we passed by his shack (from the trail, of course I was adamantly oppossed of stepping anywhere near that dog) it was in the most prestine setting, nestled under the snowy peak of Volcan Lanin above a crystal clear lake, a last testament to a life before our time. We have been talking a lot about him since, wondering how he spends his days. Thankful that we got to meet him (twice in face, we saw him the next day too) as everyone we talk to speaks of him as if he were a legend.
After four hours hiking we arrived at the campsite. Not another person in sight. Four fire pits in the trees right on the shore of Lake Paimun, breathtaking. We went "swimming". The water was so cold you could barely take a breath before you had to run back out. Only two other people showed up later in the evening and we watched the full moon rise from behind the volcano together. Amazing. We are loving Argentina.
Tomorrow we are headed to San Martin de los Andes which is a bigger town that promises even more spectacular sights, but from everything I hear it is more built up and we probably won´t have anymore Don Quixote sightings like the one in Junin.

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