Saturday, February 28, 2009


The word that appears in the subtitles of American movies when the actor curses. On Argentina buses, American movies are shown in English with Spanish subtitles... Classy!

Wine down to alpine

Did you know people from Mendoza refer to themselves as Mendocinos? I did not know that this might be the origin of name of the that large county on California´s northern coast.

From The Trip, pt. 6: Argentina

Mendoza is built to promote the industry its climate favors. There is nothing we wanted to do more than sit down under a umbrella-covered cafe table, drink some wine and read a book on one of Mendoza´s beautiful wide sycamore-lined avenues. Siesta is an interesting phenomenon in Central Argentina. Everything suddenly closes somewhere between 1 and 3pm, but you can see people in their stores, arranging shoe displays, adding more shower gel to the shelf, chatting together in the back. What is the point of siesta if all the workers still have to stay in the stores, but customers aren´t allowed in? I don´t get it. We ended up going on a tour of two wineries with the added bonus of an olive oil factory. Visiting the wine country here seemed much more guided than on the west coast where you wander in and begin your sipping. Here a young lady guided you around the wine making facilities, straight into a tasting room where she guided you through the taste. They are very proud of their Malbec here. Argentina is number two producer of award-winning Malbecs behind only France. And we were with a French guy on our tour and he seemed to like the wine just fine.

From The Trip, pt. 6: Argentina

From Mendoza we went south across some incredibly flat country to the Patagonian lake district. We have been to the small subalpine towns of Bariloche, El Bolsón, and Esquel, where we now wait for our bus to the Atlantic coast. We snobbishly thought Lake Tahoe was prettier than the lake on which Bariloche sat, but the mountains that separate these towns are very scenic. Lonely Planet claimed El Bolsón was a hippie paradise, but we were disappointed by the few hippies we saw and LP also claimed the small town of Trevelin, south of Esquel, was inhabited by Welsh-speaking immigrants, but that also seemed to be a tease.

From The Trip, pt. 6: Argentina

Tonight we are headed toward Puerto Madryn, where Magellanic penguins and Southern right whales are supposed to roam free. Further north vacationing porteños are the species to look for. Sooner or later we will make it to Buenos Aires.

Traveling Literature

Setting yourself down in the cool wake kissed shade of a gazebo nestled at the end of a small dock intended for kayakers, picking up a haggard manuscript gingerly freed from the wrestless confines of the bag at my side, thumbing it open. The bookmark, the last page of the abused novel, roughly torn from its binding by careless handling by its carrier, folded into quarters, so as not to be lost. The date scrawled alongside a line or two in french inside the front cover is 1979... older than I am, and probably better traveled.

Thinking about how the plight of a tourist is similar to the plight of an Oakie in California. Thinking about how that last thought is actually pretty dumb. Thinking about so many destinations are chosen for their ability to provide a haven for continued reading...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Dogs of Còrdoba

There are many street dogs in South America. So far they seem indifferent to passers-by, except when John tries to touch or bark at them... then they respond either with aggression or amorous advances.
Here are some of the dogs we saw in Còrdoba:

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

Today we were duped by Lonely Planet into seeking out the `Las Vegas of Argentina,` a little lakeside town named Villa Carlos Paz. Now, I have never been to Vegas, but I have seen Vegas from Vegas` airport and Villa Carlos Paz did not bear any similarity to Las Vegas, Nevada, as far as I could tell. I don´t know why I am surprised since Lonely Planet has been wrong about almost everything in Argentina so far, but it promised pyramid-shaped hotels (did not see them anywhere) and some famous coo coo clock (or, reloj cu-cu) that turned out to be a disappointing 15 feet tall. In fairness we did see one casino and then we got back on a bus to Còrdoba.

One thing Lonely Planet did get right was Argentinians` love of the all-you-can-eat buffet, aptly named the tenedor libre (freedom fork). Not only did this cavernous restaurant have a waterfall and fake rocks for ambience, it had every kind of food you could imagine, any kind of meat straight off a grill, wok-hot stirfries, pastas with customized sauces, paella straight from the pit, sushi wrapped before your eyes, a cornucopia of salads, foods deep-fried into anonymity, and to top it all off the very best of Argentinian cuisine and desserts. It was quite the experience.

Now we are waiting for the twelve-hour bus ride to Mendoza, the heart of Argentina´s wine country.

Friday, February 20, 2009


From The Trip, pt. 6: Argentina
By day Córdoba is a labyrinth of malls: pedestrian malls intersecting indoor mall corridors intersecting vine-covered trellised malls ending in indoor market malls. Yesterday we discovered another five story indoor mall, named O!, hidden inside what looked like a historic building. It felt exactly like the Westfield center in San Francisco until you got to food court on the third floor, the arcade complete with kiddie carnaval rides on the fourth floor, and the cosmic bowling alley on the fifth floor. I am getting the impression that malls are a part of the culture in Argentina. By night, Còrdoba was supposed to be known for good nightlife fueled by Fernet, an (disgustingly mouthwash-flavored) Italian liquor, that Córdobans prefer to mix with coke. I have had Fernet before in San Francisco, where supposedly the most Fernet is consumed in all the world, but mixed with coke? We will report back with our success or failure in the face of this Fernet con Coke.

Update 1: Discovered on Friday night that the `nightlife` in Còrdoba begins at 2.30am...

Update 2: Discovered on Saturday that Fernet con coke tastes like Fernet with coke. Gross.


Here we are in Córdoba, Argentina. Our luxury bus, the Balut Coche Cama, dropped us off earlier than we would have liked and we have been waiting for the sun to rise. Firstly, did you know Argentina is two hours ahead of eastern time? I feel like we are hanging out into the ocean. Secondly, did you know Argentina is about as long as the United States is wide? Brazil alone is the size of the United States. South America is hopelessly large.

Thankfully, the two Argentinian buses that we have ridden in so far have been incredibly luxurious compared to the suspension-less schoolbuses of Bolivia. In addition to having very comfortable seats and ample legroom, they provide coffee and juice and they have bathrooms that (gasp!) come with their own toilet paper. The only movie we ever saw on a Bolivian bus was some Italian spaghetti western with music composed by Ennio Morricone. Oh, I take it back, they followed that up with ´Wanted.´Last night we saw ´Fracture´ - why is Anthony Hopkins typecast as a lunatic? - and then they played ´Ghost Rider´ - why is Nicolas Cage typecast as a bad actor?

After our last post we swung by Sucre, Bolivia. John says Sucre is ghetto meditterean and I think he might write a post to that effect. Sucre was nicer than Potosí, most importantly because we did not get sprayed in the face multiple times with shaving cream, but the whitewashed buildings and big city parks were pleasant to look at. There seemed to be alot of German immigrants there. Out of curiousity we ate lunch at a German-Bolivian restaurant before we started out on a hellish twelve-hour ride rattling through the dark across the washboards that Bolivia calls highways. And of course, the seat in front of me was a little broken and reclined more than most, coming within a foot of my nose...

We arrived at the Argentinian border at the crack of dawn. Getting into Bolivia was easy, all you had to do was fork over $135, and getting out of Bolivia, with one little stamp, was even easier. Getting into Argentina was free, but not free of very long lines while maté-drinking officials took their time to fill out paperwork and glance at your bags. Then our bus was stopped three times for police checkpoints complete with drug sniffing dogs and luggage checks. At some point, we passed over the Tropic of Capricorn and the halfway point of our trip, five weeks down, five to go.

Summer is in full swing in Argentina. We finally arrived in Salta, which was really nice, but I am not really sure what to say about it because Argentina is so... familiar. What a difference a border makes! Salta felt like sort of like Europe and I would guess the feeling will only intensify as we approach Buenos Aires. Pedestrian malls, beautiful plazas, churches painted like cakes, we blend in here quite a bit better than we did in Peru or Bolivia.

So after yet another comparatively luxurious bus ride, we are now in Córdoba. The internet is so fast here I think John might be uploading photos to this sadly pictureless blog as I type. Stay tuned.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Mines of Potosí

Spanish keyboards are actually pretty sweet... though its difficult to type the ¨@¨ (I usually have to copy an email address and paste the @ symbol which is pretty cumbersome... just figured it out: alt-64), making an accent or ümaut (sp?) is pretty easy.

So the mines of Potosí: Potosí is a town in Bolivia, about halfway between Argentina and Peru, which is the highest city in elevation in the world and was once the richest. Potosí´s economy is fueled by the Cerro Rico, a hill adjacent to the city which was once an incredibly abundant silver mine. Recently, ex-miners in Potosí have been offering tours of the mines. Yesterday I took one, and I think its probably the most interesting tour I´ve ever been on. If you find yourself in Bolivia, Potosí is a beautiful hillside town, and the mine tour is well worth the investment.

At first the tour seems pretty exploitative: visiting a mining cooperative and watching people work in some of the worst conditions in the world. Its actually fascinating, and offers some great insight into the societal workings of Potosí and Bolivia in general. Bolivia is a very divided country, each state is very patriotic and political skirmishes between states is quite common. The generally corrupt government does little to passify the situation, resulting in a country that is perpetually poor. Public works projects to improve and expand local industries usually get lost in a quagmire of local politics. Furthermore, wealthy Bolivianos prefer to invest outside their country as its safer and usually has higher yields.

The tour started out touring the chemical processing plant. Here the ore harvested by the miners are seperated into seperate minerals, the dominant modern minerals being zinc and tin. Bolivia does not have a smelter, mineral processing has to occur outside the country, in Chile or China. Bolivia sells its minerals very cheaply and because it lacks a smelter, it often sees the products of its minerals reimported at much higher prices. Because Bolivia´s coastline was taken during a war with Chile, export of is resources has to go through Chilean shipping companies. As with most South American services, there are many independently owned mineral processing plants in Potosí.

Next the tour went to a miner´s market where we purchased dynamite and coca leaves to give to the miner´s in exchange for seeing them work. The next stop was the mine. Because it was a sunday, there were only two miners working. The mining cooperatives don´t set hours or working conditions for their workers. The cooperative, in this case mearly exists to loosely enforce a miner heierarchy and to pay taxes to the state, who owns the mountain. The miners are organized in three tiers which dictates the quality of the vein they will be mining and how much they will receive from their labor. For the most part, though, miners work independantly setting their own hours and methods of mining.

The mine entrance we visited was built about 300 years ago, and is still in use today. Once inside the mine its pretty nightmarish, the corridors are low and narrow (I bumped my head about 35 times, luckily we had to wear helmets) and after about 100 meters you hit a thermocline where the cool outside air is replaced by air, made hot and muggy through its contact with the hot stone of the mountain´s interior. Inside the mine there is a small museum (if by museum, I actually mean room, and by room I actually mean cavern hollowed out by dynamite) that the miners created with a lot of artifacts, and articles put together by the miners. This is probably one of the coolest museums I´ve ever been to, or at least the most unique... probably the only museum in the world located 100m into the side of a mountain. The museum explained things like Bolivia´s environmental/sustainable mining policies, the mine´s history, slavery in the 1700s, mining statistics, and Tio.

Tio mean´s uncle in spanish. Tio is their name for the Devil. Every friday, the miners ¨worship¨ an effigy of Tio by giving him an offering of alcohol and coka. This friday the miners had a party. There was brightly colored confetti all over the mine. Apparently miners have to maintain god spirits, or they say Tio will get them. Miners who can´t maintain a good and positive attitude have a higher likelyhood of getting hurt in the mines.

We crawled through three floors of the 8 floor mine. The mines are incredibly closterphobic spaces about ranging from about 1.5m across and 2m high and just barely crawlable. The miners don´t work to improve their working conditions by widening passageways, because, though it would probably greatly increase efficiency, none of the miners want to spend their time expanding passageways that no longer have any yield. Which means that miners will often have to carry loads of about 140lbs on their backs through nearly impassible conditions. Every day. The only requirement to be a miner: You have to be strong.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Chimes at Noon on the way to Potosi from La Paz

¨Soon the chimes would ring for midnight, the notes melodious and tranquil¨... but not the sound of the German Shizer Music pulsing behind me. I fully expected to be distracted by South America´s ubiquitous pan flute music, but I hardly anticipated being repeatedly ripped from my concentration by German Shizer Music, blaring from the seat behind from some teenager´s iPod speakers. Who listens to German Shizer Music anymore, anyway, let alone not in headphones to give away the fact that one is listening to German Shizer Music in the first place? I have learned to tune out the ubiquitous South American hits, such as ¨Levanta La Mano¨ usually piped into the bus speakers by their drivers... but this German Shizer Music was too much. I could not read my novel... I switched to Newsweek...
After taking a bus to Oruro only to discover that its hostels were already full and its streets were already bleacher-lined and jammed for Carnaval, we decided to high tail it to Potosí, a silver mining town with cobblestone streets and old colonial architecture. John went on a tour of the active mine today but I didn´t want to go because I was afraid I would get claustrophobic and panic. He came back smelling like dynamite and said it was good I didn´t go.

From The Trip, pt. 5: Bolivia

While John was at the mine I mapped out our journey for the next five weeks. We are going to the town of Sucre tomorrow, which is supposed to be beautiful with whitewashed colonials. After that we are headed to Argentina. I am kind of tired of Bolivia already because I got sprayed in the face three times today with a shaving cream-like ¨fake snow¨substance. Parents seem to think it´s really funny to drive their kids around town with super soakers and cans of shaving cream and water balloons and target unsuspecting, unarmed pedestrians, especially tourists in big yellow hats, like me. It is not funny, especially when these were the cleanest clothes I had. The first car actually came back around and sprayed us again, which prompted John to give chase with the hopes of grabbing the can and giving the kids a taste of their own medicine but the parent sped away. The third time it happened on our way to dinner, John would have settled for decking the kid with his flip flop but they escaped too. What´s worse is you see vendors all over town selling these implements of infuriation and the sidewalks are littered with water balloon shards. It´s like being in a war zone. We tried to stick to the pedestrian streets and watch our backs for cars with open windows. I don´t know if this is a carnaval thing or a summer thing or an anytime thing, but I don´t like it. And if it happens to me in Sucre, I am leaving Bolivia and never looking back.

Sentinels of Puno

He stood there perched on his mound of rubble, discarded building materials and alluvial tailings from inadequate drainage uphill. City lights scintillating as if reflected in the lake below, a perfect reflection of the sky if it hadn´t been drowned out by the pollution of its perceived twin below. He paced there on that mound of tailings below a particularly steep and unpaved entrance to an outlying neighborhood, close but not too close to the riotous activity below, waiting for the arrival of something to signal the end of his post, or at least that is the perception of importance given by his restless pacing.

A car approaches, headlights obscuring the drama of the city below, exhaust overpowering neighborhood scents, and engine muting the whines from above. He relieves his post as if he had been there to greet the two wayward passengers looking for bed to pass the night, beds scarce because of the din of activity anticitating tomorrows activity. He wags his tail and slips from his mound, as if his purpose had been rendered.

He really just wanted to get a good whiff of the lady barking of the roof above.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Valentine's Day

from a country that does not seem to acknowledge this commercialized religious holiday. I guess I will have to do without conversation hearts this year. This is us on Valentine's Day.
From The Trip, pt. 5: Bolivia

Friday, February 13, 2009

BOWL ivia!

We have made good on the second half of blog title. After a few tense moments at the border, we made it over to the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. Since our last post we have not dropped below 10,000 feet (so high)! We have some catching up to do.

From The Trip, pt. 4: Arequipa to the frontera

So Colca Canyon was deep, but we wouldn't have known on our way there because it was so foggy. Once again, I came face to face with the dangers of needing to use the bathroom while on a long bus journey. As we arrived in Chivay at the top of the canyon, two hours from our destination at the bottom of the canyon, I didn't think twice about the impossibly long line of people that seemed to be waiting to board our bus, nor was I really concerned when I had to squeeze past all those people as they shoved their way on. I found the "hygenic services," contemplated buying an empanada, and made my way back to the bus, at which point I realized I might be in danger of not getting back on the bus. People were literally trying to shove their way into this bus with little luck. I watched in horror as the bus driver started the engine and people shoved harder. I told the door guy that I had a seat but there wasn't much he could do. As the driver continued revving the engine and as John really started to freak out, the door guy grabbed both sides of the door frame and squished me and himself into the bus. The door couldn't even close all the way and we rode like claustrophobic sardines with our heels hanging out over the road into the next town. Lucky for my sanity, a few people got out in a few kilometers, which meant we could close the door, but in my new position I was packed so tightly I could hardly breath. Then a little distance further a few more people got off and I was able to elevate myself until I was more or less sitting on this mom's lap with her son. Then a little distance further I was able to fight my way back to my seat. And so I learned another valuable lesson about bus riding.

From The Trip, pt. 4: Arequipa to the frontera

When we finally arrived in Cabanaconde, it was so foggy and rainy you could hardly see across the little plaza. After being mobbed by people who wanted to us to stay at their hostel, we followed our friend Ronald to his and then ate one of the best meals we have had so far in Peru. The thing to do in Cabanaconde is hike, either into the canyon or up to the condor viewing point. So the next day we attempted to explore town and see if these trails made themselves apparent, but they did not. Our hostel hostess let us know that these were not mere day hikes, but the good news was that there was a fiesta happening that night. We asked what kind of fiesta and she said, Fiesta del Pueblo. So we convinced ourselves that we didn't want to hike down into the canyon because then we would have hike back up and we didn't want to hike to condor lookout because we would pass it in the bus, so we waited it out, expecting the townspeople to start setting up tables or make some sort of preparations but all seemed quiet. Then at the appointed hour after dark we walked out into the quiet plaza and saw crowds heading out toward the cemetery. We followed, stopped where others were milling about, followed again, milled some more, unexpectedly received a plate full of food that men were handing out to everyone, were embarassingly interviewed by a man with a incredibly brightly lit video camera, then followed again to a church near the cemetery. Some sort of ceremony seemed to be occurring inside then suddenly someone was setting off booming fireworks and a marching band started playing. We marched with them back toward town, stopped at another church for more ceremonies and firecrackers, then continued on to the plaza. Then as far as we know the band continued to march well into the night around and around the plaza and woke us up the next morning as the playing recommenced at 5.30am and they were still playing as we bussed away back out of the canyon. Quite the fiesta del pueblo!

From The Trip, pt. 4: Arequipa to the frontera

As we had hoped, we zoomed straight from Colca Canyon to Lake Titicaca where we stumbled upon another festival in the town of Puno. Here they were celebrating the Festivilidad of the Virgen del Candelaria. The festival had been going for several days and we were lucky enough to catch the parade on the last day. Now as we should have guessed from the Fiesta del Pueblo, this was no ordinary parade. We learned that it started at 7am and wandered down to see men and women and children from all the neighborhoods around Puno in beautiful traditional costumes, bowler hats, skirts spinning, every color in the rainbow glittering as they twirled by. The male costumes were a bit more symbolic, representing demons and devils as far as we could tell and each group had their own mini marching band. We watched, walked to the end, children bought cans of shaving cream and began spraying each other, dancers could be seen spinning around with bottles of beer. There were so many people watching, sitting in chairs set up along the route that it was a nightmare trying to get across town. Finally we went down to the harbor and got a ride to check out the floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca. Horribly touristed but fascinatingly bouyant nonetheless. We slowly made our way back toward town surprised to see the parade still in full swing. We went back to the hostel, back down to town to eat dinner, got some pisco sours and beers at a restaurant called Machu Pizza and the parade was STILL going. We got a cab back to hostel and asked the driver how long this parade was going to go and he said until midnight (seventeen hours of dancing!). I asked how they did it and he said, with beer and faith.

From The Trip, pt. 4: Arequipa to the frontera

The next day we made our way to the Bolivian border. There is a hefty reciprocity tax between Bolivia and the United States. For whatever reason Bolivians entering the US and Estadounidense entering Bolivia have to pay $150. It was painful.

From The Trip, pt. 5: Bolivia

Copacabana, on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, was another one of those towns whose entire economy seemed to be based on tourism and there seemed to be more tourists there than Bolivians. While our brains adjusted to dividing prices by 7 instead of 3, we explored town and found one of the most amazing cathedrals we have seen yet. The next day we caught a ride out to a non floating island called Isla del Sol. It was pretty.

From The Trip, pt. 5: Bolivia

Now we are in La Paz, highest capital in the world, where we are staying at a hostel brewery, which happens to be the highest hostel brewery in the world. I think we were at almost 15,000 feet. La Paz's one million residents cling to sides of a breathtakingly steep valley bowl. We need to go explore more now that the protest has gone by. Apparently they protest every morning at 9.30am to express their desire for nationalized auto repair... obviously I didn't quite catch the specifics. I just exchanged Clive Cussler's 'Treasure of Khan' for Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road,' at what was supposed to be an incredibly discriminating hostel book exchange... lucky for me the keeper of the book exchange spoke German.

From The Trip, pt. 5: Bolivia

And that brings us up to date.

Friday, February 6, 2009


From The Trip, pt. 4: Arequipa to the frontera
We have confirmed that Arequipa is as fashionable as they say. Peru´s second largest city nestles into the base of a Volcano called Misti, which can be seen from the beautiful main plaza, over the bell tower of the town´s giant cathedral. The cathedral, like many of the buildings in Arequipa, is constructed out of sillar, this white volcanic stone which is easily carved, giving Arequipa its reputation as the ´White City.´ We have had a good time sneaking into the courtyards of 300 year old sillar mansions, wondering how people could feel at home in these castle-like homes. Apparently they made things a bit more cozy by throwing alpaca rugs everywhere. Yesterday we went to the Santa Catalina Monastery to learn about the nuns´ life of sacrifice and devotion, then to balance out the day, we went to the Arequipa mall and forgot we were in Peru as we ate ice cream and watched a movie.

From The Trip, pt. 4: Arequipa to the frontera

This morning we will attempt to get ourselves on a bus to Colca Canyon, home of the Andean condor, reportedly deeper than the Grand. From there, we hope to whisk straight over to Lake Titicaca, land of bad jokes. Hopefully we will be able to post sometime before arriving in La Paz, Bolivia.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Earth! Wind! Water!

No fire, but with these powers combined... we have toured about Peru's southern coast. Yes, I am a dork - this is the best I could come up with as the desert sun fries my brains.

Water! In Pisco, we hopped on a boat and sped a little ways out into the ocean to see the Islas Ballestas. There were seabirds, sea lions, and penguins galore. Pisco itself, however, was ravaged by an earthquake a couple of years ago and piles of rubble can still be seen all over town where buildings used to be. Doesn't seem like the town has quite recovered yet...

From The Trip, pt. 3: Pisco to Nazca

Earth! In Huacachina, we hopped on a dune buggy and tore around the very large dunes that surround this little town centered on a desert oasis lagoon. I smiled so hard my face hurt. It was like being a rollercoaster, except sandier. Once up top they let us out to strap wooden sandboards on our feet, then laughed at our pitiful attempts to not completely bite it as we 'surfed' down. I think I might have gotten up to 30 miles per hour on the last hill, going face first, which is counterintuitively less dangerous than sitting on the board, lower center of gravity I guess. Unlike Pisco, Huacachina has been ravaged by party-seeking foreign tourists and the whole town is stuck in a time warp of perpetual spring break. Our hostel had a pool with a bar, happy hours, all you can drink bbq's and people did party like it was a Sunday in Peru. On our way out of town I was sitting reading on a bench waiting for John while he interneted and my bench started to shake a little. I was confused thinking someone was running by or maybe a big truck was about to pass, but it kept shaking for no apparent reason. I looked down and saw the bench was cemented to the sidewalk and realized that after five years of living in San Francisco, I was experiencing my first earthquake while in South America. Nothing to worry about though, mom.
From The Trip, pt. 3: Pisco to Nazca

Wind! Finally, in Nazca, we hopped on a six seater aeroplane for an 'overflight' of the mysterious Nazca Lines. There is enough controversy swirling around these giant geoglyphs to impress the likes of Dan Aykroyd or to feature prominently in that last installment of the Indiana Jones saga that I wish I could forget. My favorite explanation of these rock formation that can only be appreciated from the air involves the shamans. Apparently when they imbibed the hallucinogenic juice of a local cactus, they thought they could fly and they saw squiggly images of the animals they revered: monkey, hummingbird, condor, snake, whale, spider. So they drew these images in the dirt then used a piece of rope and a thousand years to increase the scale of these pictures to vast proportions, which are now appreciated by tourists in little planes, thereby benefitting the present town of Nazca with a booming tourist economy. Nazca seems to be handling it better than Huacachina.

From The Trip, pt. 3: Pisco to Nazca

So that brings you up to speed, planeteers. This afternoon we are headed down to Arequipa, which, they say, is hip.