Monday, March 29, 2004

We have had an eventful past week or so! Jacob and I have been stalling a little writing in the blog because it is hard to know where to begin.

Ten days ago we were in Valdivia, Chile a university town that is filled with young people and all the energy that makes every college town in the world feel somewhat the same. It was a really beautiful city, set among many waterways, rivers heading out towards the ocean. We had a great day there taking a public boat down the immense river filled with fishing boats and islands to a small town with some old Spanish forts called Corral.

The highlight for me was talking with a group of six and seven year olds who were at recess. Jacob and I were heading down among some very overgrown ruins of a fort when I heard a little worried voice say "Excuse me señorita but there are rats down there". When I looked up there were about five kids standing there with a long story about how a man had just died in town from a feverish rat bite. They were very concerned. About ten more kids came along and we amused ourselves chatting for about half an hour while Jacob risked his life in the rat filled ruins.

The kids were most interested in having their various nicknames like Monkey and Banana translated into English. One kid asked me if I had seen the Twin Towers fall. Another wanted to know if he was pronouncing "shit" with a correct English accent. When Jacob finally appeared unharmed and they found out he was my boyfriend they got very excited. We walked away to them demanding loudly "BESO BESO, KISS KISS".

From Valdivia we headed towards Linares to meet up with a friend of a friend, Elisa, who grew up in Chile and has some land in the mountains. We didn't know what to expect of this "land" but were looking forward to spending some time with a familiar face in the mountains. We had one of those horrible traveler's days our last day in Valdivia, checking out of the hostel at 10 am and hanging around all day for the midnight bus. We opted for the cheap bus so that meant no room for sleeping and at 6:30 am we were dropped on the side of the highway three kilometers outside the town of Linares.

The price the taxi driver on the highway quoted us seemed about 50 cents too high so we decided to walk the 3 km with our backpacks. At this point I had been communicating by phone with a family friend of Elisa's because they only have a radio on the land (called Las Animas). We knew she was driving down from the mountain (about 2.5 hours) and could give us a ride back up but we didn't know where to find her and I had been unable to get through to our contact one last time because his phone broke.

After our thirty minute walk into town we arrived at the main plaza. Nothing was open. We spent a nice two hours watching the town wake up. First the plaza filled with kids in uniform heading to school, then a few merchants, and pretty soon the streets were full. Linares was different from other towns in Chile we had seen. It is a cowboy town set in the agricultural sector of Chile in the foothills of the Andes. The were no tin houses but rather architecture more like what I have seen in Mexico, with doors lining the sidewalk in one big wall, opening up into houses with big courtyards. Big public markets and lots of little restaurants with specials of the day.

At about 9:30 we still couldn't reach our contact and began to wonder how we would find Elisa. We called another contact she had given us who happened to be down the street and kindly came to meet us, taking us past the Internet cafe where he knew Elisa and her boyfriend, David, like to hang out when they come to town. They were there! It was great to see them.

We spent the day running around like mad in Linares. Elisa and David only come to town once in awhile and while there they need to buy everthing for life on the mountain. It took forever to get the errands done as each thing needed to be bought in a different place, as well as the fact that we were racing the clock because everything closes between 12 and 3. But it was fun for Jacob and I to tool around town in a car (wow!), with someone familiar with the territory and just look at the scenery of town. The produce market was my favorite spot, buying a crate of tomatoes for $3, basil, watermelon, avocadoes all kinds of yummy things.

We started up the mountain on a rough road at about 3:30 with a Toyota truck fully loaded with food, wine, gas, our bags, six bags of cement and a bunch of 2 by 4s tied on the roof (supplies for building David and Elisa a house). The first hour we spent stopping at many country homes asking if they sold eggs. We began collecting a good amount of them, at one point Elisa got out to ask about eggs and came back with a whole flat of raspberries. Jacob sat with the 2 dozen eggs on his lap and I got the raspberries, sampling them often with a big grin on my face.

Once we had all the eggs and had passed the police station Elisa said "the wheel feels strange". About 3 seconds later my side of the car lunged with a crash and grinding sound. We looked out the window to see the back tire rolling away. We got out of the car to the chorus of "we're fucked" coming from Elisa and saw that all the nuts on the tire had somehow fallen away, stripping the bolts and allowing the tire to fly off, after which we rammed into a rock with the bare plate/brake drum, smashing and denting many essential parts.

Luckily Elisa has a radio in the car and a community of amazingly caring and generous people in Linares who agreed to come up the hill with parts and a mechanic to save us. It was decided that they would bring a new tire and put it on without a brake drum, enabling us to make it up the mountain (without one rear brake) and fix it later on a return trip. We were already about 2 hours up the way so we had a good while to wait. Jacob and David got the car as ready as possible, we listened to music (those travel speakers are coming in handy), ate and drank some of our many provisions and talked to various people who stopped to gawk and offer sympathy.

At dusk, about 7:30, the mechanic and help arrived. An hour and a half later we were on the road again with the raspberries and eggs, cement, wood and a dark sky but hundreds of beautiful stars. At this point the rocky dirt road turned into a rock road, then a boulder and branch road, then... what road? (On the way back, by day, it was, of course, not this dramatic) The truck and its driver were amazing climbing over rocks and narrow places between huge boulders but everyone was getting very tired. Jacob and I were having an hysterical time keeping the berries and eggs in one place given the road.

At about 10:30 we heard a hiss, another tire had popped. We were in a very narrow spot with about a foot of water. David saved the day and changed the maldita tire, lying down in the water to get the jack under the car while Jacob and I gawked from the boulders and Elisa, exhausted, slept in the car. A half hour later we were back on the road. It took about 45 more minutes to get to Las Animas during which just to add more drama one of Jacob's eggs cracked all over his jeans.

In the dark we went into the kitchen house and ate some left over soup by candlelight. Then we were led across a meadow which seemed to me at the time extremely treacherous with irrigation ditches and such due to my lack of lighting. That night Jacob and I got to sleep in Elisa's mother's house, a beautiful wood and stone building that felt like heaven after the events of the day.

In the morning we awoke to a stunning surprise, an amazing landscape in the middle of the Andes with no one around. A beautiful plot of land with meadows and forest set at the junction of two moutain rivers. We had an incredible week in this very special place about which Jacob will write some more. But first many thanks to Elisa and David and Manuel for making it all possible for us! Millones de gracias.

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Thursday, March 18, 2004

I´d like to write a word about DOGS. As any of you who spend significant amounts of time with me know, I am afraid of dogs. You know this because I like to cross the street when I see them coming and if you are walking with me that can get old. In fact my walk to the BART station everyday in Oakland, which was a straight walk down one street, involved three or four planned crosses to avoid the various pit bulls gnashing their teeth behind the tall barbed wire fences protecting auto body shops on the street. Pitiful, I know, but we all have strange survival tactics.

I had heard stories from friends about dogs in Latin American, packs of them in the streets and old ladies who walked everywhere with an umbrella in order to fend them off, gaining the advice of carrying a rock with me to pelt at any that come too close. Or "just look big and yell in their face to go away" advise that made me grimace inside wondering if this was possible for someone who hasn´t gone in her best friend´s kitchen for ten years because of the big dog that lives there. I knew these Latin American dogs were going to challenge me.

So it is true, there are lots of dogs in the streets here, at least in Chile and Argentina, although I think they are pretty easy to deal with because they are fairly well fed, so this will be a first installment about dogs and I will let you know after Peru and Bolivia.

This is the first time in my life that I have realized dogs are part of a chain that relates to humans. Where humans live, dogs will live, just like pigeons and rats. They just come with the population. They are all over the place. The street dogs and pets mix freely here because the only difference between them and the pets is that pets wear collars, are fed regularly and when they are behind a fence bark at you. Most of the time though, pet dogs just roam free, able to join the packs of running street dogs. In the cities like Santiago, owners might walk their dog on a leash but they will carry a big stick to hit any stray bothering them along the way.

It is really interesting to watch these packs (from afar, such as out a window). Little dogs following around big dogs, trying to jump on top of them until another dog pins it in the street and chases it two feet away where it cowers and starts all over again. Dogs running past you in a pack at night at full speed: where are they going? Dogs sleeping anywhere at any time, like right in the middle of the line at the Customs office until someone kicks it out of the way. The other day I saw an enormous black dog (enormous!) run out the door of a high class shopping mall. There are a ton of German Shepards and a ton of puny little guys. Scraggly, limping, three legged, mangy, friendly, begging, whatever.

Actually, so far the dogs in the street haven´t given a hoot about me and it is still the ones behind fences barking who freak me out more. It took me a good month to get used to the roaming ones without wanting to cross the street or look for cover (which, I admit, can still happen). Yesterday Jacob and I had a long conversation as to how I should conduct myself in Peru where I have heard they are more rough and may try to bite. So far I am at a loss because I just can´t imagine myself picking them up by the snout and throwing them in the river like he advised. I will keep you posted...

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Sunday, March 14, 2004

After two days of flying, we´ve landed back in Bariloche. In the next few days we will cross over (yet again) to Chile. For now we are enjoying the warmer weather and faster internet that this portion of country provides. Raegan and I have come to realize that Internet cafe´s are truly the opium dens of our time. It´s hard to go a few days without the latest and greatest from friends, family, and the New York Times.

So we did it, we traveled to the southern-most city in the world -- Ushaia. But first, after our retreat from Torres del Paine, we spent 4 few days resting and relaxing (or waiting for the next bus, either way you want to put it) in Punta Arenas, Chile. We really enjoyed the town. Here´s why....

--Seafood is the saving grace of Chilean cuisine and Pt. Arenas offered it up in spades (King Crab, Giant Mussells, Salmon, and our favorite, Conger Eel)
--Though we have a lot seen less of chile than we have argentina, we´ve noticed a dearth of old or interesting architecture in Chile (with the exception of Santiago). Not so in Punta Arenas. Hugely wealthy sheep barrons of the 19th century left ornate mansions and their buisness left great squares, civic buildings and banks.
--The town had an amazing cemetary with huge, ornate tombs for the aforementioned buisnessmen and smaller ones for the imigrant workers that facilitated their wealth. Many were from Croatia and other Eastern European locales. It was an intersting look into the settlement of the area
--Our hostel was in a quiet neighborhood which we got to know quite well. There were a great deal less tourists in town, and that with our hostel made us feel like we were in a real place. A nice change.
--The town is on the Straight of Magellan and that´s just cool.

When we headed to Ushaia, we honstly thought the best thing about it would be braging about its southernlyness. We were wrong. The bus crossed the choppy straght of magellan on a ferry, on to Tierra del Fuego (the island at the southern tips of chile and argentina) and quickly we were on the flatest plain we´ve ever seen. The only thing close (for me) was a dirt road adventure in the area where colorado, wyoming, and nebraska´s borders join. We were begining to regret our choice. We saw the occational sheep herd, but more often was nothingness, or a telephone line runing past our view into the windy, brown nothingness. (I know, I know, this is sounding like another bus trip. Bear with me.) Two hours later shrubs, then beech forests (which are pretty, sure, but always look half dead), then hills, then mountains and lakes and red peat bogs.

We loved Ushaia. It was bustling for a small town, and (as we´ve come to expect from Argentina) we ate really well. The town itself offered a really interesting museum on the history of the area. There we learned about the natives of the area who were, of course, all killed when the, ¨explorers¨ started coming. There were lots of shiprecks on the rocky coast, many by explorers, and many more executed by captains so that their ships´ owners could collect insurance claims when their boats became out of vogue after the invention of the steam engine. The area also hosted its fair share of missionaries and convicts -- the towns´ development had much to do with the presence of the penal colony located there. But perhaps the best part of the museum is that they stamp your passport ¨Museo del fin del mundo.¨ Way cool.

Ushaia is located in the Tierra del Fuego National Park, and Raegan and I went on a great hike there. While there a red fox walked within 10 feet of us (and didn´t swear at us -- ha, ha). We saw lots of cool birds, and we hiked above the tree line which is only around 2000ft this far south.

We also met some great folks from town, most are from elswhere, and like the remoteness and beauty of the town. The events in Madrid was the topic of the hour. Everyone was very upset about it, and couldn´t fathom the reason for the tragedy. We were in agreement on almost all issues with the folks we talked to, and most were suprised to learn we were from the United States after learning our views. They were all fairly political despite thier remote location. One woman pointed to the simple life she lead and more importantly our location on the map as why something like that could never happen in Ushaia.

Last night we visited our favorite bartender in El Calafate. We chatted, drank, and danced with some great German folks, one of whom visited the rally at Sturgis. The bumpy flight today was a little rough, but nothing a big plate of homemade pasta couldn´t solve.

In a few, we´re crossing over again to Puerto Montt, Chile. From there we´ll be heading to the island of Chiloé to see some of thier famous stilted wooden villages and sample their even more famous seafood stew.

If you read this far, here is your reward... our latest installment of PICTURES!

Ciao, chicos.

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Monday, March 08, 2004

We´re in Punta Arenas now, on the Straight of Magellan. Some housekeeping: Raegan just wrote a few days ago so if you haven´t read it yet, don´t forget to scroll down. Secondly, we´ve been on the road for a bit now and are worried about reader fatigue. Let us know: are you most interested in our thoughts and perceptions or whereabouts; how do you find the frequency and length of our posts, etc? Ok, now on to Torres del Paine and Magellanic Penguins. Long ones, so hang on.....

Torres del Paine:
Our guidebook called it ¨one of the worlds greatest treks¨ and we were pretty psyched about the park despite having done more treking in the previous weeks than the years that preceeded. In Puerto Natales we loaded up with 6 days of food. After, the salesman convinced us of our need for his more expensive, ¨nice, foreign tent¨ and equivalent stove. With both rented we bought our pricey bus tickets and headed out with our heavy bags. We paid the foreign entrance fee at the park and took the expensive 20 minute boat ride across yet another milky turquoise lake. Both the cost and the views from both forms of transport let us know just how special the place was: herds of Guanaco and Rhea on the plains, vertical walls of granite, fall folliage, and glaicers -- feeding the dozens of waterfalls feeding the lakes. We made friends on the rides, and caught up with others who had been traveling on the same circuit. When we reached the shore we felt the strong winds of which the park is famous, and a lite rain. Leighton, who had made an attempt at the hightest mountain in S. America (6900mts) the week before decided to wait out the rain in the refugio, but we went on undetered.

The rain abated, but the wind ranged -- depending on our exposure -- from barely noticable, to ¨grab on to something¨ when paritally exposed, to ¨get on all fours¨ when fully exposed. Oh, and did I mention that the strong wind was shooting off of the largest non-antartic ice block on earth? Anyhow, the walk was gorgeous. I´ve had more than one friend say that if you don´t like the weather in Ft.Collins, wait 15 minutes. Poey. We had different weather every 10 seconds. We changed clothes 4 times in the first hour -- pack on, pack off -- until we figured out our futility. We passed mini-canyons, waterfalls, glacial lakes -- carved like a quary, and views of the glaicer before decending steeply to our first camp.

While walking I crafted the analogy: El Chaltén is to Torres del Paine as San Francisco is to New York. Chalten is beautiful, grand but quant, and with just enough drama to make a big impression. Torres is huge, brash, strikingly unique and beautiful, but hard. At this point we were mesmerized, and had little idea how much Chalten gave us a warm west-coast hug while Torres said ¨fuck you¨ and stole our camera.

That night was great. We set up our ¨expensive¨ tent nice and secure. We ate to lighten our load -- we had bought too much food, overcompensating for too little in Chalten --, made friends with a Spanish couple (Raegan relearned her lisp) and walked by the glacier with Leighton from Sydney. About 4 hours after beding down, we woke up to rain drops, NY-sized drops shaking our tent. The next morning we hung out in the tent (which stayed mostly dry!) as the rain picked up we took short trips about as we debated our options: a) ride it out, b) proceed with the plan to hike beside the glacier, or c) make tracks to the other side of the mountain. After a wet, but beautiful hike to the glaicer lookout, it was ¨c.¨

We packed up the wet tent, adding a good 10lbs to the load, and no rain pants, pack cover, or gaiters we headed out. The rain lightened up, but our 4 hour hike was still all wet. The wind blew us and the rain straight up the mountain. At the top of the pass, the wind was like gravity to skiing, we let it do the work and we steered, hoping not to go over the cliff to our right. For the entire hike our frontsides stayed perfectly dry. Despite the wet it was a beautiful hike -- a palate of colors. We arrived at the refugio and decided not to go on another 3hrs to the next site. We put up our tent in the wind and rain and headed inside the crowded shelter.

There we drank overpriced boxed wine to lift our spirits with Jeff, a landscaper, gardener and artist from Portland with whom we had crossed paths many times. We made friends with a Swiss forestry manger (lot a swiss here -- don´t they like them alps?) a nice Israeli couple, just out of military service, some Germans, a guy from Berkeley, etc, etc, etc. We could feel the wind and rain through the wallls. It was picking up, and even the hardest among us was glad for the time to not be outside. The storm was remenicent of a SE Asian or W African downpoar, but rather than violence an reprieve, it continued and continued. From time to time we would make a 3 minute dash to our tent to ensure it wasn´t in the lake, to return inside to the revelry drenched.

We shared stories and bitched about the weather. We heard about rats eating thier way into tents, jackets, and bags in searc of food, that the next visit on our itinerary more closely resembled a terraced waterfall than a camping site, that their had been a drought in the park and it had apparently broke, that this was an ¨antartic swirl¨ weather patern -- meaing it wouldn´t stop for days, and that the mud was 18 inches deep on the next trail. Doubts set in. We ran to our tent, which remarkably was occupying the same puddle we left it in, and hung our food in the bushes thinking wet food was better than rats getting into our ¨expensive¨ tent.

We woke up the next day and, although we thought it impossible, the wind and rain had picked up. We packed up our bags, threw out the food the rats nibbled, and headed back inside to prepare some warm water. We played cards with the Israeli couple and got everone elses plans and thier opinion on ours. We missed the first boat out durring the debate to torture ourselves. There was a 3 minute blue sky sighting shortly after. We took a 40 minute hike to torture ourselves even further.

In retrospect, we´re glad we handed over our wet bills for the pricey boat outa there. Despite the blue sky sighting, the weather worsened again and continued for days and the famous peaks (and Torres) were thousands of meters above the cloud-line. It was an awfull bitter pill, but who are we kidding, we´re soft city folk. That night we had a seafood stew, lamb, salad and a nice bottle of cab sav. Our waiter comped us some Pisco Sours and our chins raised.... Torres Shmorres.

I thought the South American Explorers Club was hilarious to call the 120,000 penguins on Isla Magdaena a 'colony of jackasses.' We went there anyhow and this was my impression....

On the 2hr ride to Isla Magdalena, the cargo hold which usually held trucks and cars on non-tourist routes, was utilized for soccer by several kids using a plastic bottle for a ball. My eyes wandered from this scene to the horizon to the variety show playing on a 16 inch television in the crouded passenger cabin. Raegan and I had bumped into Jeff before we embarked and we were sharing travel stories and mosaic tips durring the passage.

As we approached the island the hold filled with tourists, staring at the rusty steel ramp as if they were ready to storm Normandy. Down jackets, scarfs, and ski hats were the uniform, binoculars, tripods, and cameras were the weapons. As the tourists ran towards the Penguins, many waddled up the hill, into their burrows, or into the water for cover. Red ropes marked the battle-lines and tripods and cameras were quickly assembled and engaged.

One sign, not in spanish, english, or any language, displayed a person touching a penguin with a big red 'X' through it. Another sign showed a person with a camera aimed at a penguin with an oversized illuminated flash with a big red 'X' through it. Apparently these signs were unintelligable.

One brave kamikazi dressed in formal attire crossed the battle-line only to be surrounded by the attacking troops. Cameras and flashes engaged, kids stroked and pressed the creature -- my god, the carnage. It was an awful site.

Once the front lines were shot and captured, the tourists stormed the hill. to poke their long lenses into the defending troops' bunkers and burrows. Flashes burst, shutters: chack-ing, chack-ing, the defense yelped and cried: 'Freedom! We want freedom -- to waddle, to mate, to moult in peace! The attackers ignored their cries, and took the hill. They held the hill for one hour, smoked a celebratory cigarette, and retreated to their boat as the sun fell to the horizon.

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Friday, March 05, 2004

Hello friends and family! Well we are in the very southern tip of Chile and Argentina, way way down here. We have been traveling here for about two weeks and I am going to try to be brief, giving some highlights of what we have seen and done.

We finally found the foreigners! This place is crawling with Brits, Aussies, Israelis, Swiss, Germans, French and Americans. The hostels are packed with foreigners who all get up at 6:30 am to catch the next bus or tour. I have never seen hostels like these where all the budget travelers are running out before the sun rise. We have had so many (too many) early mornings because every bus leaves in the wee hours. We are getting very good at feeling our way around a dorm room in the dark morning hoping we aren't leaving anything behind.

Right now we are in Punta Arenas Chile, we arrived today after a failed attempt to see anything noteworthy except for hellish weather and the inside of a tent for three days at Torres del Paine, famous national park and much anticipated jewel of our Patagonia destination for months now, but Jacob will cover that story later.

Last week we were in Argentina, in Calafate and El Chalten. The landscape here is wild, basically you drive through a lot of dusty dry hills that look like Western Nebraska or Wyoming and haven't seen water in decades and you can see the occasional alpaca or rhea (like a small ostrich) grazing. Then out of nowhere appear snow topped peaks rising up in the distance covered by glaciers and massive swirling clouds over head, it is wild.

In Calafate we went to see the Perrito Moreno glacier, wow. A huge river of ice coming down from the mountains until it forms a high blue wall on the edge of a milky turqoise lake. 30 km long, 14 km wild and rising 60 meters above the water. The color and size of it was impressive. Every ten minutes there would be an earth shaking sound as a chunk of the glacier split off and flew into the lake making large ice bergs. Up until recently, it was one of the few advancing glaciers on earth -- a real relic of the ice age. Now it just melts into the lake -- write your congressional representative!

After Calafate we went to El Chalten. A tiny dusty town of hostels at the foot of a national park that boasts one of the world's largest polar ice caps. We went on a four day backpacking trip there, just up the moutains from town. Everything on this hike was free and easy. Beautiful weather, not too crowded, great sites.

The main attractions are two clusters of granite peaks, Cerro Torre and Mt. Fitz Roy. Both jutting into the sky above glaciers that run down the moutain into a shimmering lake filled with ice bergs. They seem to have their own weather systems, when we camped by Cerro Torre the mountain was surrounded by angry fast moving clouds for much of the day, but our campsite 50 meters away was sunny and calm.

Some highlights: We saw about ten condors, second largest bird in the world, soaring above us in circles never once moving their wings. We saw the sun rise bright red against the granite peaks (I have never heard so many alarm clocks going off in a camp site). We drank straight from the glacial lakes and rivers, a wonderful feeling.

A side note: as an English speaking traveler sometimes it is unavoidable that you will get stuck with the "English speaking menu". This menu usually makes us groan because it is most often less linteligible than the Spanish one. But we really enjoy collecting bizarre translations, here are a few gems with the correct translation in parenthesis below:

Vegetable and cheese filled gargoyles
(Vegetable and cheese filled canoles)

Hair pad with sweet milk
(Caramel Crepes)

Squid ring cream the whisky
(no idea)

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