December 6, 2007

Colonia del Sacramento

We had hopes and dreams of going to the beach, Mel and I. We'll go to Uruguay, we said, where the beaches are as pretty as the people who go are said to go there.

Foiled by chilly weather and dwindling time, we decided to scratch the beach bumming and check out Colonia del Sacramento, a historic colonial town of Uruguay, and only an hour away by ferry.

We went on a Saturday, taking the first ferry out in the morning. It was cold and gray - not the most promising or welcome weather for an excursion, not to mention for successfully getting out of bed on time - but we made it to the docks, found seats on the boat and napped our way across the water.

The ferry lets you off only a short stroll from the entrance to Colonia. The historic area is a small square of preserved colonial architecture - some used for galleries, shops and restaurants. It sits directly on the coast, making for a pretty river-side walking on the outer edge. We made our way around some of the perimeter, ducking down small lanes and into the occasional shop. It was quiet, as we'd arrived so early, but it was nice not to have to force our way through throngs of tourists, or see many, for that matter, while we were there.

All of the buildings are so small there that, paired with a ruin here and there, it was a funny flashback to Oxford for me. Though obviously from a completely different era, and settled by different people, it was the quaintness of the buildings and precariousness of the ruins (don't even ask about the horrifying climb to the top of the lighthouse...) that made me feel an unexpected familiarity.

We decided to stop for a bite to eat at one of the restaurants bordering the main square. We chose one of my favorite things to start -- a platter of meats and cheeses -- and found out too late that between that and our sandwiches, we were more than sufficiently fed. For the record, that platter was flippin' awesome. I miss cheddar cheese!! When the bill came, we got our first taste of what it means to have your currency drastically devalued. Our bill was a whopping $340 Uruguayan pesos!

When we were done, I wrapped up my sandwich, threw it in my bag, and we headed onward and outward, opting to leave the historic area and take a walk up the coast. There is a 5 kilometer stretch put together by the city of Colonia that curves along the coastline. Though there was a wide, pretty sidewalk at our disposal, we decided to do as much of the walk along the beach as we could.

As the afternoon progressed, the sun started shining more and more, making up for the chillier breezes coming off of the water. Though we're both ocean lovers and so are clearly biased, I think we both found the walk to be a really beautiful and soothing way to spend an afternoon. There was occasional excitement, like when I found yet another piece of fruit to add to my list of Random Produce I Find All Over The Place, but otherwise it was a calm walk that I would definitely recommend if you plan to spend a day or two in the area.

Returning sometime around 5, we decided that we'd pretty much seen and done all that we had wanted, so arranged to take an earlier ferry back. A packed boat meant we were forced to make the upgrade to first class, meaning our ride back was spent stretched out in cushy, wide, reclining seats. It was truly a travesty.

When we arrived in Buenos Aires, we met face to face with a ravenous rain storm. It was much better to encounter it on this side of the water than the other, though, and it made for one heck of a sunset as we dried off and warmed up back in the apartment.

All in all, it was a great way to spend a day. We didn't do the full round of the historic part, but we got a good sense of it. Between that, getting to work off some of that cheese platter, and a final layer of tan thanks to the unexpected sun, it was an altogether wonderful day.

December 1, 2007

Las Cataratas del Iguazú

My first major trek outside of the city was a three day trip with Mel to the falls of Iguazú, a system of 270 waterfalls that form a border between Brazil and Argentina.

The falls are a two hour plane right north, which we took first thing on the morning of Mel's third day here. We arranged for a taxi at the airport, and got a driver, Ernesto, who ended up being a great help for the remainder of the trip. It seems that the drivers there do some side work of their own, offering to essentially chauffer you from place to place, day or night, for a fixed fee. Any other trips are extra, but you have his number and can call whenever you want a familiar face to take you somewhere new.

Brazil and Argentina have their own parks dedicated to the falls, and between handing us a pile of maps and brochures, Ernesto explained the best way to visit both in the day and a half that we had in the area. After checking into our hotel, we called Ernesto to take him up on his offer: $80US for the duration of our stay, which meant the ride from the airport, across to the Brazilian park, to the Argentine park and back to the airport. We still had a whole half-day upon our arrival, so we chose to cross over to Brazil for the afternoon.

This in itself was exciting, because technically Brazil requires US citizens to have a $100US visa to cross its borders. My research online brought no clear answers, though the Brazilian embassy did reply to an email saying that we were expected to have the visa in order to visit the park, even for just an hour.

Someone was misinformed somewhere, because we went through a standard immigration checkpoint, filled out paperwork, got our passports stamped, and went on our merry way with no trouble at all.

And so it was, our first views of the falls were in Brazil, at the Parque Nacional do Iguaçu.

I've tried to stall on describing what we saw, because it truly is one of those visions that could easily be spoiled by a single word out of place. So, instead, this is what I'll do:

We made our way around the park by open-sided, double-decker buses that take you from one path entry to the next along a paved road through the forest. The entire park system, with paths that wind along above the perameter of the river and lookout points for great views of the falls, can be done easily within a few hours, assuming you aren't on crutches, 95, or lugging a pack of easily distracted children with you. If the latter is the case, though, they do have a cartoon map that is entertaining to 5 and 26 year olds alike.

Speaking of lunchtime, that's when we had a very up-close encounter with a coati, which resembles a raccoon, but has a long, ringed tail and elongated snout. They roam free throughout the park, but mainly surround the stops along the trails that offer food for the tourists. These little guys aren't shy about their fact, they don't beg at all, but jump up into your lap and/or onto your tray, then proceed to eat all of your food. There's virtually no shooing them, though park attendants will come through now and then to clap loudly, which seems to do the trick for a minute or two. Unfortunately they came too late for us -- we had to surrender a good half of our food to one coati that seemed to particularly like mayonaise packets and gatorade. (There is a video, but you'll have to go without until our internet stops seizing as soon as we try to upload to youtube...)

Mel and I have a game that I pretty much always lose, and that's sad because all that's involved is spotting deer. Seeing as how deer aren't exactly jungle animals, our game - which I STILL lost - revolved around various jungle-dwelling creatures. His first major win was a gorgeous toucan hanging out in a tree near the lunch area, which he managed to snap a picture of before it flew off.

On our way back to the hotel, we asked Ernesto for restaurant suggestions. "The Panoramic" was his immediate reply. The restaurant is actually called Doña Flor, but is housed in the Panoramic Hotel, a posh spread situated at the top of a hill that apparently has an amazing view of the Iguazú and Paraná rivers. It was too dark to see that part, but the hotel and grounds themselves were impressive enough.

The food was good (anything served in a coconut gets a gold star from me,) and after two months of Argentine-style restaurant service (also known as "bad service," in the US) it was nice to be able to relax and not wonder where everything was all the time.

After dinner we hopped into the hotel's casino - one of Mel's favorite vacation activities - but were disappointed that they only had a variety of slot machines. We went to another about 10 minutes away, but with no tables to play Mel's dearly beloved craps, we headed back to the hotel and called it a night.

The next day was the big one: a full day spent trekking around the Parque Nacional Iguazú. Though the acreage (or hectare-age?) of the Brazilian park is significantly larger, the Argentine side has far more explorable area, (not to mention even more kick-ass views) and so takes a lot longer to work through. We had Ernesto drop us off there around 10:30am and arranged for him to come back at 6:30, which was only a smidgeon more time than we needed to walk the two major hiking circuits and see virtually all there was to see.

We signed up for the big adventure package, which meant we got to do all of the guided tours as well as our own exploring. We were in a group of about 28 other people for the first leg of the trip, an 8km ride through the jungle in an open-topped truck. Our tour guide alternated between English and Spanish, giving us a history of the park and pointing out various flora and fauna.

It was interesting enough, but I was preoccupied with trying to spot a monkey before Mel, so I think I missed a lot of important information. Oh well. The ride ended in a draw - no monkeys to be seen - and I learned about where hearts of palm come from, so all was not lost.

The next step was definitely one of the coolest things I've done, and I was looking forward to it for weeks before the trip. After being handed waterproof bags for all of our belongings and donning the ultra-stylish life vests, we all piled into a Zodiac-style airboat with twin 200+hp engines and headed up the river, straight on toward the falls. After stopping for a few photo ops, everyone was told to stow their cameras and prepare.

Because I happen to be a genius, I used Mel as a stuff-I-need-from-home mule and had him bring along the underwater housing I use for my camera when I go diving. So I kept my camera out, thinking "oh man, I'm going to take the best pictures ever!"

Well, I tried. The boat really does go right into the falls, or close enough to soak you clear through to the bone, so there isn't a whole lot of room for fiddling with camera settings or even aiming the thing properly, for that matter. I did get a few good shots, as well as a bit of video footage (on its way, on its way), so it was definitely worth it to have that housing.

It was a super hot day, so the water felt awesome and it was a blast just to listen to everyone screaming and laughing while being pounded by all this water, then cheering when they took us in for another round.

Important note for anyone planning to take the same plunge: either wear clothes you'll be happy to wear soaking wet for hours after the ride, or bring extra dry stuff with you. I have no idea what 75% of our boatmates were thinking, with their jeans and frilly little skirts, but apparently they didn't do their research before signing up for that trip. On second thought, you should just wear stuff you're willing to wear wet no matter if you do the boat thing or not -- a lot of the coolest lookouts are so close to the water that you get wet just standing there.

Moving along, we took a water taxi deal over to a small island, walked around, taxied back, then hit up the main walking circuits. These wind along the edge of the jungle to overlook the rivers and larger falls, but also dip back into the jungle so you can see more secluded falls and try to catch glimpses of the animal life. There were definitely a ton of lizards, some tiny and some large enough to block whole paths, which was pretty cool.

Back to the animal-spotting game, Mel made his biggest score yet toward the end of the day. This victory, however, was not one I was going to huff and puff about, because it was what I'd been waiting for the whole day:


'Nuff said.

After a stop for some lunch and some more hiking, we took the jungle train (an eco-friendly touring train brought in from England) to the stop-off for the big kahuna: a 1130 km catwalk that leads across the upper part of the river, through a number of jungly bits, and finally stops with a grand overlook at the Garganta del Diablo, or Devil's Throat, arguably the most impressive and powerful system in the whole of the park. The overlook is right at the edge of the falls, which makes it an incredibly dramatic place to be. It's hard to see too much, as there's too much vapor and backsplash (from 80m down!) to catch more than the upper edges of the falls, but between the roaring of the water, the fizzy vapor and, of course, the rainbows, it's a really amazing experience.

We took the train to our next stop, which was the boarding point for our last big adventure - an eco-tour along the upper portion of the river. For this leg of the trip all we had to do was sit and listen, except that we were listening to a solid block of Spanish and so didn't glean a whole lot of information. It was a relaxing float, though by that time I was so tired and sunburned and HOT (at one point it was about 40 degrees celsius, which is just over 100 fahrenheit) that it was a struggle not to either fall asleep or "fall" out of the boat and into the cool river.

By the end of the day we were a pair of tired, somewhat testy tomatoes, but that's really a non-point considering all that we got to do and see. We called Ernesto to take us back to the hotel, got some drinks and snacks by the pool, napped for a bit and then went into town on another E-suggestion. This time it was El Quincho del Tío Querido, a traditional parilla joint that seemed to be as popular with locals as it was with tourists. I liked my whatever-I-had (sorry, I didn't write any of this stuff down), Mel was okay with his but not thrilled, but either way we left fed and happy.

We had drinks on the terrace of our hotel (thank goodness, a place that makes a proper mojito!!!) before heading to bed. Our flight left the next afternoon, and after a fruitless stop at the huge duty-free complex on the Argentina-Brazil border and a stressfully long wait in line at the airport, we made it back to Buenos Aires by early evening.

I don't think we could have done that trip any better. The hotel wasn't the best ever, but then again we were rarely in it, so in the end it didn't make much of a difference. Getting to see both parks was a great surprise, and while we agreed that the Argentine side is way better, it was nice to have the chance to even make a comparison. It was a perfect amount of time to see everything we wanted to see, do everything we wanted to do, and pause for enough time to soak it all in.

There are a lot more pictures of this trip on my Flickr site. Just click the link to my November pictures on the right side of this page.

November 29, 2007

The C-Lo Has Landed

Having a boyfriend literally hemispheres away is definitely not an ideal situation. If ours is not the epitome of a long-distance relationship, then I have no idea what one could be. Thanks to technology, however, it hasn't been as hard to take as it could have been. Between the invention of email, laptops, wireless internet, and now the glorious program Skype, the feeling of distance can be partially undone for a small pocket of time nearly every day.

As I said in my very first entry, I am a very lucky girl. For ten days, my boyfriend, Mel, visited me here in Buenos Aires - a major trip that took miraculously little prodding and nagging on my part.


He arrived early on Sunday, which meant that I had a handful of hours to drag him around before we had to watch the Colts v Patriots football game that evening. "This game is bigger than the Superbowl," he said, and I sighed. Okay, okay, whatever you want, dear.

That first day sort of set the tone for a lot of our time together. After checking into the apartment he'd rented for his stay, we went right out to the flea market in San Telmo. That extreme Argentine experience was then balanced out by a packed Shoeless Joe's, one of the city's most popular ex-pat destinations, thanks to a subscription to Sunday Ticket and a football-loving American population in BA.

Though I groaned when the game (not to mention the other two that week) was originally added to the itinerary, it turned out to be a welcome flash of home. Here I was, eating nachos, surrounded by my own language, sitting next to my boyfriend, who was shockingly good at splitting his attention between me and the television (well done, Mel, well done.)

The time we spent in Buenos Aires wasn't spent hiking miles and miles into every neighborhood, but rather strolling this way and that, as he was more content to relax than be hauled around to see the sights. He's not much of a city person, anyway. So we did fun little things with our days.

That first Monday, we met Liz to go to the zoo. Finding that it was closed, we headed over to my favorite park and decided to go paddle-boating, which was a wonderful way to spend an hour, if incredibly exhausting. I'd never paddle-boated before, but according to the other two, ours was the hardest in all of paddle-boating history to...well...paddle. Afterward we stopped for popsicles, which really do make any sunny day a million times more awesome, by the way.

That night was Monday Night Football, at which point we put Mel's cheffyness (I made that one up, do you like it?) to use with a pile of steaks, burgers and chorizo on the parilla. Another pleasant departure from the norm, even if the Ravens did end up losing... oh well.

Another day we went to the zoo, where I morphed into a 5 year old, complete with bucket of generic animal food, running from cage to cage and squealing when I got to pet the camels and goats. And don't get me started on feeding the tiny little monkey. Oh man, that was the best!

At night we'd flip through our stack of guide books for restaurant suggestions, trying our best (and often succeeding, which was a miracle) to wait until the requisite absurd hour to eat. We tried everything from the take-out pizza from down the street to Casa Cruz, often referred to as the best restaurant in Buenos Aires (it was definitely my favorite so far.) Between all the dinner feasts and breakfast pastries, his visit wasn't kind to my waist, but you'll hear no complaints from my happily fed tummy.

Tucked between these laid-back days and nights were bigger adventures, including jaunts to the falls in Iguazú and a day trip to Uruguay, trips that I will detail in separate entries.


Being an only child, I'm not a fan of sharing. But when it comes to experiences, the more people I can share them with the better. And when those people happen to be among the most important in my life, it all circles back around to luck.

It's difficult to sum up the whole visit without venturing into cheeseball territory. It was about as perfect as it could get. Such separations can often bring changes to a relationship that deteriorate their strength, but we have managed to slip by unscathed.

Sure, his departure ushered in another two weeks of intense homesickness, but that's a small price to pay for being lucky enough to have the opportunity to just unwind, show off my life abroad, and forget for just a moment that we were ever apart in the first place.

November 23, 2007

Day Trippin'

Not long after we arrived in Buenos Aires, Liz and Eriks sought out a church to attend together on Sundays. They were able to find one through the The Buenos Aires Herald, BA's English-language newspaper. Because services are held alternately in Spanish and English, the community there ended up being full of English-speaking expats who -from what I've heard- all sound quite lovely.

Among the congregation are Katie and Luis, a sweet pairing of Argentine man and British woman. After having them over for dinner one evening, they offered to take us out to San Antonio de Areco, a town that dates back to the 1700's and has been recognized by presidential decree as historic and of national interest. Encouraged by newly warm & sunny weather and the promise of some much-needed fresh air, we accepted their invitation for the following weekend.

We arrived around lunchtime that Saturday, and opted to sit down for lunch before doing the rounds. Luis suggested Esquina de Merti, which faces the town's main plaza. The restaurant, somewhat recently restored, is decked out in vintage ads for Quilmes (an Argentine beer) and antique tills. A severely broken-in upright piano stands in one corner, buzzing with energy of past players.

There I encountered something that could easily fall into Eriks's Surprise Series. Thinking I'd do myself a favor by ordering a few small bites to eat, I went ahead and ordered two beef empanadas and what was described as a potato and chorizo tortilla. What I have come to learn is that the word tortilla does not mean the same thing here as it does in, say, Mexico. Instead, apparently, it means something more along the lines of soufflé, as evidenced by my massive, fluffy-but-not mound of potato, egg and meat.

Between Liz, Eriks and myself we managed to get through approximately half, but had to throw in the towel lest our chairs break beneath our engorged selves. It was delicious, if something I'd expect more as some sort of shared breakfast dish rather than something to introduce an entire other meal.

From there we took a walk across town to the Museo Gauchesco Ricardo Güiraldes. The property, a preserved estancia (ranch) with the original house and stables, exists to educate visitors about the life of gauchos, or Argentine cowboys. The rooms of the building are filled with photographs, paintings and traditional gaucho clothing as well as accessories like guns, spurs and bridles and bits for their horses.

It's certainly interesting, especially the curious and somewhat unsettling wax gaucho models in the entrance, having a drink at the local pub, but to be perfectly honest I was just glad to be out in the fresh breezes, walking through big, wide fields of grass.

Next we made our way to the other side of town to visit the home/studio/museum dedicated to a late local artist, known for his depictions of gauchos on the plains. The operation is maintained by should I put it? ...eccentric artist son. After paying our pesitos to walk through the house, we were greeted by this son, who wore a beret and was missing several teeth. He beckoned us to follow him to his desk, where he got rolling on a 30-minute ramble about how he draws horses, how he's very famous and has been invited into the city because of his work. He showed us other areas of the property - art was hung in the garden and in the guest house. Soon we came to a wall full of photos of him with people who are apparently important in some way.

Keep in mind this is all in Spanish, spoken through a gappy grin and in gruff Castellano, the name for Argentine Spanish. That said, I had no idea what was going on the entire time, other than he was showing us a lot more of his own work than his father's and that he was saying "horses" a lot.

At the end of the tour, he brought us back to his workspace and commenced making a sales pitch: 50 pesos for an original piece, complete with protective tube decorated with yet another drawing of a horse and his signature. As he worked it as hard as he could, Liz tried to take a candid shot, which only resulted in exciting him, at which point he pulled all of us in for a group picture. As you can see, he was a special man.

After letting him down gently, we headed to a small cafe for some tea before heading back to the city.

There is more to see there, more history to learn and artists to visit, but all in all it was a lovely break for the day. Katie and Luis are a sweet couple, the countryside was beautiful, and it was just nice to finally get out and see another part of Argentina, even if only for a few hours.

November 21, 2007

Teeny Bikinis

Back at home men and women alike are pulling out layers and breathing sighs of relief, letting their guts and bikini lines fall out of thier top priorities. Here, however, summer has been getting a move on for the past month. Sleeves are getting shorter and toes are peeking out of shoes. In the parks, bellies are being bared in hopes of some kisses from the sun, and clothiers are displaying their idea of acceptable swimwear in their shop windows.

It is true that Argentine women tend to come in significantly smaller frames than my American sisters. And when they aren't super skinny, they're trying hard to drop those pounds, whether in the gym or leaning over that porcelain bowl. (Eating disorders are rampant here, and it's easy to see why.)

So I'm not sure if it's a matter of actual demand, or some nasty idea of incentive to get these girls to drop the pounds, but my oh my are their bikinis teeny weeny!

Now I'll admit to a number of overtly girly near-obsessions. Shoes, bags, the usual. But bikini collecting has become an unintentional plague on my supply of available drawer space for years now. With the exception of this past summer, I have bought at least one (if not three) new bikinis every season, despite generally favoring the same two when actually putting the things to use.

Naturally, heading to a country where Summer No. 2 was just around the corner, and where they are known for their blooming fashion designers, I thought this place would be a goldmine for my guilty shopping pleasure.

I was wrong.

Fingering the racks of string-tied bits in store after store, my insides lurched at the idea of donning any of the micro-specimens offered. The tops? Tiny. Even for me, and I'm not exactly busting out up top. But some were do-able, which gave me a certain amount of hope. Hope that would prove itself false once I moved onto the...

Bottoms. Dear lord, the bottoms. No lower half exhibited fabric for the backside any larger than the fabric from the frontside. Meaning you'd better love your booty and want to share it with the world, because that's exactly what you'd be doing with those babies.

For kicks, I popped into a store clearly intended for the lower teen set, only to find that their offerings were even smaller than the rest out there -- suits so small that only the most anorexic of eight year olds could manage to pull them off.

And here I thought I was being somewhat risqué in my Victoria's Secret string number. Puh! It would be like showing up at the beach in a muumuu to these people.

What I don't understand - and what I assume I'll find out should I make the trek down the coast to the beach before I leave here - is what we normal-sized girls are to do? Are we supposed to bare our bigger behinds, even if they aren't steely and the size of two chicken breast filets? Or are we supposed to march directly into the grandma section with the skirted one-pieces, then hide behind the dunes, waiting for nightfall before tiptoeing out to the shore? Not everyone here is Vogue perfect, not by any means. So there must be some protocol.

Just for the sake of science (?) and out of some sort of masochistic curiosity, I decided to suck it up (though apparently not nearly enough) and step into one of the more modest suits (relatively speaking, of course) that had caught my eye. It was a pair of striped pieces, alternating between white and bright pink. The bottoms were a wider "boy" cut, though still missing at least a yard of fabric compared to those at home.

I cannot emphasize enough how bad of an idea that was.

I laughed, I cried. I took it off very, very fast. As I left the store, having handed the delicate thing back to the salesgirl with a chuckle masking my broken soul, I made a vow that I have steadfastly kept: no more bikini shopping in Argentina.


MilkJuice update:

I have failed again. In the refrigerator is one box of orange milkjuice and one box of pineapple milkjuice. That last one is the heartbreaker.

October 25, 2007

Thing We Learned in Buenos Aires #2

If there's one thing Argentine people like to do, it's making out.

Not that I know from personal experience, of course, but because they do it everywhere. They do it on street corners, they do it on the Subte, they do it in restaurants (noisily, at that) and they especially love to do it in the park. Some couples choose to do it on the park benches, and others stop mid-stroll to suck face in the middle of the sidewalk.

But here's where it gets awkward: their most favorite activity seems to be doing it lying in the grass. This is the point where the words "doing it" stop simply identifying the act of kissing and instead take on their 3rd grade meaning.

It appears that they come to the park specifically to get as close to public intercourse as they possibly can, and no one bats an eyelash. That's not to say that they're groping and drooling -- in fact most of the time it's all quite tender and sweet -- but I think it's the sheer volume of attached faces that makes it so overwhelming.

Last week Liz and I picked out a nice stretch of grass to sit and read on, and within an hour there were ten lip-locked couples just in the 20'x40' area that we were sitting in. I felt like perhaps we were sitting in the making out section, and someone would surely come to us at any moment and ask us to move along unless we happened to be lesbians and simply taking a break.

My amazement is almost entirely based around the fact that it seems that none of these people were born with an ounce of inhibition -- something that I have plenty of. I'm all for holding hands in public or little hugs and kisses here and there, but all of this park-bound making out that seems to only barely fall short of foreplay is another thing entirely.

Then, of course, there's the romantic side of me. The part that, should I weave through the bodies on the right day, thinks it's the greatest thing ever.

Here, part an early entry from my journal:

People here love each other. Couples wrap themselves in knots on benches and spoon on blankets in the grass. But the kissing and touching is tender, sincere. Not sophomoric and obnoxious. They all at once command attention to their affections and respect for their privacy in these wide open spaces.

I suppose at times it gets a bit absurd, like the couple in the median of a pedestrian street who, as Liz put it, "Must not have been able to make it that far without making out."

Generally speaking, though, it's something like lovely, if a bit heart-wrenching for me. But unlike that typical lovelorn torment, I feel happy rather than sad - glad for these people and how lucky there are to be here in love, lust, or anything else that brought them together for those moments.

So I suppose one can look it it from several angles, and perhaps by the time I leave here it will no longer phase me to lie in the grass, literally surrounded by these doubled forms. But in the end, this will still be my favorite thought on the subject, delivered by Eriks the first day we discovered the phenomenon:

"They'll totally know we're tourists when they see us reading in the park instead of making out."