The PlanAfter a year’s hiatus to supervise the renovation of the downtown condominium to which we moved, I will be back on the road again during the winter of 2007. During my sojourn, I will again maintain the webpage and attempt updates as the availability of internet cafes permits.
I imagine that we will tour Buenos Aires and take instruction in the tango, since Schim and his significant other are enthusiastic dancers. Thinking that over, I will probably watch the tango and observe Schim take lessons, since I am probably the least enthusiastic dancer I know.
I envision some day trips by bus out of Buenos Aires into the Pampas, looking for gauchos and taking in the culture of Argentina. We have no particular destinations in mind.
He and I are also planning to take a river ferry down the Plata River (Rio de la Plata) to Colonia (Colonia de Sacramento), Uruguay. While I visited Uruguay when my son was on temporary duty there in the U.S. Army, Schim has not, so we will need to do some of the usual tourist things there. He should also see Montevideo and Punta del Este, two other cities of note in Uruguay, so I will attempt to convince him to travel deeper into the country.
I guess that we will return to Buenos Aires by the same means of transportation and spend a few days resting and visiting now familiar haunts before beginning the next part of the journey. A long bus trip into western Argentina to a small town, probably Cordoba, to rest a couple of days before starting a mountainous journey through the Andes to Santiago, Chile, probably comes next. I have read of excellent buses on this run where each seat fully reclines into a bed. I will explore that possibility, leaving open the option of a short flight over the mountains. I don’t know which I fear more - the winding roads on foreign buses through the Andes or a flight on a local airline whose safety record is unknown to me. Both of these feed into my fear of heights.
Schim will leave when he leaves, wherever that is along the way. I am hoping to continue my journey alone, probably to Peru (Machu Picchu) and, perhaps to Bolivia (Lake Titicaca). The number of new countries I visit depends a lot on timing. I am scheduled to meet my family in Panama City, Panama, on February 15th. My wife, three children, a daughter-in-law, son-in-law, two grandchildren, and my brother will be meeting me there. My second son and my brother were both stationed in Panama while in the Army, though 30 years apart, and they will do some military reminiscing during our day in that nation’s capital. We will also give first time visitors a chance to watch the locks in operation at the Panama Canal. We will then travel to the Panamanian Island of Contadora for a beach and fishing trip. Generally, the women will do the beach thing, while the men will go in search of a marlin. My second son has caught a tuna and a sailfish and wants to put a marlin on the list of fish he has taken (and returned to the sea). I don’t have a whole lot of interest in doing the required work to catch one of those big fish, but I will certainly go along to witness the event.
After we return to Panama City, my second son, his wife and two children, will head for a rain forest resort somewhere along the Panama Canal. The rest of us are planning a trip to neighboring Costa Rica, where only my wife and I have visited before. For a few days I will show them my Costa Rican haunts from previous years, and then they will head back home. I plan on staying six more weeks in the land of sunshine until I learn of the arrival of warmer weather in Pennsylvania. Only then will I proceed back home.
That is the plan for this winter, although it is very flexible. I invite you to travel vicariously with me on this year’s trip and to communicate with me as I go. I always look forward to the communication with you and I will occasionally even take suggestions for travel destinations along the way. Hasta luego!
- Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos dias! Our transportation system is amazing!! I arrived in BA right on schedule compliments of frequent flier miles from American Airlines. Can you imagine what our great grandparents would think if they knew our ability to travel around the world?
I boarded the giant 777 in Miami a little foggy from the half-Xanax required to get me aboard the flight in Philly and the next half taken aloft to strengthen my resolve when that flight got a little bumpy. I took another half while waiting on the Miami tarmac to ensure that I would sleep on the long, eight-hour leg of my journey. Suffice it to say that I had a restful flight, sharing the five middle aisle seats with a fortyish, beautiful, blonde, Argentinean dentist who asked if I minded if we slept together. Always the gentleman, I agreed and we spent the night with our feet romantically entwined on the middle seat. At least that is how my Xanax-fogged mind recalls the evening. A specialist in tooth implants and fluent in five languages, the dentist certainly impressed the daylights out of someone struggling to learn Spanish for the last thirty years. Her Danish, Argentinean-immigrant, parents sat together in the aisle seats in the row in front of us to chaperone the entire illicit affair.
Whatever superlatives I possess are insufficient to describe the intense feelings I get when I arrive in a new culture. The language, different clothing styles, customs, foods, smells, taxis, and people cause an explosion of impressions immediately upon exiting the airport. The 78 degree F temperature also had an immediate impact this time and I couldn't wait to get to my hotel to take off the undershirt and long-sleeved jean shirt that I wore to stay warm while aloft.
One reason I rarely make reservations when traveling (there are several) is that you can´t tell the location or the condition of the hotel from internet photos unless you stay in an American chain like Hilton, Marriott, Four Seasons, etc., which are definitely not my style or within my budget. The hotel in which I am staying is right on the busiest pedestrian-only shopping street in BA. It is like staying on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, albeit with a tad less sleaze, but with just as many people. My very basic room is in the rear of the building with no view at all, but also no street noise, fortunately. The bath is half again as large as a telephone booth, but the tiny shower is a unique shower/bidet combination which I have never seen before. I hadn't even seen the bidet until I attempted to shower and its spray hit me under the chin before I entered the casket-sized contraption. A quick turn of the middle shower knob produced the shower of water from above that my travel soiled body required.
After lunch of a skirt steak and french fries at one of the myriad of restaurants outside the hotel's door, I called a woman whose name I printed out from the internet who specializes in renting furnished apartments. Surprisingly, she picked me up a half-hour later to show me a beautiful apartment in the Recoleta district of the city, within view of the famous Recoleta Cemetery where Evita Peron is buried. The apartment is a one-bedroom (with a double bed), but has a sofa bed in the living room where Schim can sleep if his back will tolerate it. Mine will not. There is a kitchen, living room, two television sets, full-sized bath, a small balcony, and is only $330/week. It includes unlimited phone calls to the USA or Europe. When split between the two of us, that comes to under $23/night which fits nicely into my budget. I wish that there were twin beds in the bedroom, however.
The Recoleta neighborhood is definitely upscale with many alfresco restaurants, theaters, decorative lights, etc. It would be delightful to live there instead of the Bourbon Street look-a-like of Calles Lavalle and Esmeralda where my hotel is located. Today, I hope to look at a few more apartments before making a decision. I really would like to have a second bed for Schim. If not, I will probably get grief about it for the duration of his visit.
This internet center is only one-half block from my hotel, so while I am located here I will keep you completely over-informed. You are my link to the English-speaking world. Only one of the hotel desk clerks even speaks broken English, but that is what this adventure is all about. Hasta luego!
January 7, 2007 - Buenos Aires, Argentina
I told you that I would overwhelm you with updates while in this convenient location, especially until Schim arrives and we start doing more significant touring. Early in my trips, I always update too much as I battle the homesickness that should soon subside. After updating yesterday, I jumped on the local bus headed for San Telmo to try to find a restaurant that was described on the internet as a spit and sawdust-floor parillada (grill).
First, I got on the bus with no coins and the machine which dispenses the ticket that passengers must carry at all times while riding the bus did not take folding money. I saw this same system in Rio a few years back and also watched one day when the transportation police entered the bus to spot-check tickets and arrested a passenger without one in his possession. I decided to ride it out yesterday, hoping to reach the oldest section of town without being handcuffed and I got lucky. Suffice it to say that I got change for the ride home.
I dined around 12:30 p.m. at the restaurant called Des Nivel which had no sawdust and I’m hoping that no spit was added to my sirloin in the kitchen when they added the mushroom sauce and the tiny, round, fried potatoes that accompanied the dish. I had started with a salad of hearts of palm, served with lettuce and a "Golf" dressing (in tear-off plastic packets) which is made by Hellmann’s. Golf reminded me of a pureed thousand island dressing and the salad was excellent. I love hearts of palm!
The sirloin was also tender and tasty, and with a copa of the house wine and bottle of water, the bill was about $12 without the 10% tip. This experience differed greatly from dinner the night before in Retiro in the expensive, highly recommended Restaurante El Mirasol where I was almost the worst dressed patron (thanks to the American girl in shorts, I was only runner-up). In El Mirasol I had a great table where everyone had to walk past me to be seated by the maitre d’. It was interesting to see the people walk by and I admit to especially enjoying the attire female clientele chose for Friday evening dining.
The only catch at Mirasol was that the skirt steak that I ordered was as tough as the sole on my docksiders. I’m talking exceptionally tough and stringy here. Finally, the waiter noticed how long I was chewing and struggling to even cut the meat and he offered to replace it. I diplomatically declined because I had already devoured half of the perfectly cooked (Pittsburgh rare) old bull. With a half bottle of wonderful Argentinean Malbec wine and the mozzarella, tomato, and basil salad that preceeded the rubbery main course, the bill was $26. I know that was a lot of money for one meal, especially a bad one, but once Schim arrives we will be on a tortilla and bean diet, so I felt a splurge was warranted. Incidentally, I did not dine out last night, spending the evening in my room reading.
I have now had three of the famous Argentinean steaks and I agree that the grass-fed, steroid-free beef is delicious. Remarkably, and this will delight Schim, the cheaper restaurants seemed to have the tastiest, most tender meat, although I am judging that on just my single exposure to good restaurants at El Mirasol. To obtain a better scientific sampling, I should probably try another good restaurant before Schim arrives.
Unfortunately, the rental realtors do not work on Saturdays, so I was unable to look at other apartments. I will make one last attempt on Monday morning before taking the one in Recoleta for a week. Well, before I bore you with more detail I will terminate this update. Hasta luego!
January 9, 2007 - Buenos Aires, Argentina
Ahhh, I am now living in luxury in a beautiful, 3rd floor apartment in the upscale neighborhood of Recoleta, diagonally across the street from where Eva Peron is resting. I am actually on the fourth floor since they label the ground floor as 0, but I have space to sprawl, a lovely, flower-filled backyard view from my small balcony, a kitchen with microwave, and a fridge containing the two quart bottles of water (one carbonated, one not) that the realtor gave me as a housewarming gift. My kitchen also is now supplied with a hand of bananas purchased four doors down the street from a wonderful fruit market owned by what appears to be an indigenous family. This is a real residential neighborhood, as opposed to the commercial hubbub where I resided previously.
The move went as planned. I waited until 2:00 p.m. at the request of the realtor so that she could have my apartment thoroughly cleaned, then reclaimed my bags from the hotel (check out time was 11:00), where they were happy to check them free of charge. I waited on the busy corner, backpack on my back and huge, rolling suitcase by my side until the realtor showed up in her car to take me to my new residence. This year, I am more than a little embarrassed by the amount of clothing that I packed. Schim is a real clothes horse who has constantly commented in the past on my sparse wardrobe. Vowing to stop the abuse and against my usual practice, I packed extra shirts, pants, and shoes. The suitcase is expandable and it is stretched to its limits. I am now paying the price, but I packed most of my older togs so that after Schim, one of Esquire’s best dressed, returns home I can start giving away some of my clothing to very large street people.
Like most large cities worldwide, Buenos Aires is broken into definable neighborhoods. Think Harlem, Greenwich Village, Soho, Chinatown, and others in Manhattan. As in New York, the differences in neighborhoods are marked. So far, I have been in Micro Centro (where the hotel was located), San Telmo, Recoleta, Puerto Madero, and Retiro.
Sunday, I walked the nine blocks to Puerto Madero, where, on the banks of the Plata River, the major port area of Buenos Aires was located. Locals call themselves Porteños. As in Baltimore, Lisbon, and other cities, a dozen huge, beautiful, red brick buildings that fell into disrepair after the port declined in importance have been beautifully renovated. The buildings are now full of very exclusive restaurants where outside tables are protected from the sun under long porches which face the river and the wide walkway built on its banks. Many grills, seafood restaurants, and French dining establishments occupied this prominent space. Imagine my horror, after strolling past three blocks of these exclusive eateries, when I spied a "Hooters" restaurant. There were no waitresses outside, so I couldn't verify whether they qualified by the American standards for which the restaurant was named.
The banks of the river are defined by 15-foot high, stone and block walls that rise to the level of the walkway and every couple of blocks there is a lock which gives the river the impression of being a long lake. There is a small marina full of both power and sail boats in the center of the two-mile long complex of buildings, so I assume that the locks are still in use.
This is a delightful recreational area and I walked the entire, two mile length before selecting the least expensive restaurant (internet recommended) where the Sunday buffet was a huge salad bar and unlimited, grilled meat for $14. Oh, yes, the price included all the wine, beer, or soda one could drink and dessert was included. It was a real bargain and I ate only a grilled chicken leg and thigh after I filled a small salad plate from the bar. I had consumed enough beef over the last three days, so I was glad to limit myself to chicken. Well, I confess to including four or five slices of delicious, pickled beef tongue (with a wonderful, Provencal sauce) in my salad. And I did take just one grilled sweetbread along with the chicken, but I am pleased to report that I only made one trip to the grill, unlike most other diners.
I walked more than five miles on the Sunday walk to, through, and back from Puerto Madero in golf shirt, slacks, sandals and I got roasted. I am trying to develop a bronzed look by the time Floridian Schim arrives, golden from his many outside activities in the sunshine state. I'm sure the color on the tops of my feet will morph into that golden bronze once the beet-red color fades. It is Tuesday and my forehead has already become less tender.
Monday evening, I dined at Broccoletto's, a delightful Italian trattoria only three blocks from my hotel. Like other restaurants in which I have dined, I located it on the internet with good recommendations in the moderate price category. Other diners in the red-checked table cloth dining room, although not on Monday evening, have included Robert Duvall, Michael Douglas, and Madonna. Duvall has been there three times and it was easy to see why. The food was delicious. Because of previous criticism of my focus on food, I will not go into details about the great Italian meal, but it was worth the trip. Use your imagination.
What else do the critics want me to talk about? At my age, I don't quite stay up late enough to sample the night life, although last night I saw the youngsters begin that portion of Buenos Aires life as I walked home from a nice parilla (grill) close to the apartment. The outside tables of the bars and restaurants were full of handsome, young folk socializing over drinks and meals. I headed home about 11:15 after finishing my bottle of wine and conversing with two ladies from New York City and a couple from California on their way to Patagonia in the morning. There are a few tourists in this nice section of town.
That's it for today. I have frittered away another perfectly good morning and, at 1:15, it is time for lunch. Hasta pronto.
January 12, 2007 - Buenos Aires, Argentina
Exploration of my neighborhood is progressing nicely as I circle blocks in an ever-expanding radius around my new digs. Yesterday, in strolling the two-block radius, I came upon the Buenos Aires Hard Rock Café and the British Embassy and, although I doubt that I will enter either establishment during my visit, it was interesting to note the quality of my neighbors. After a light lunch across the street from Hard Rock, my stroll took me on the edges of a beautiful park and past a shoe repair shop. I am almost certain that all of my needs can be met within two or three blocks of the quiet apartment's location. Uni-sex hair stylists, spas, small groceries, fruit stands, flower shops, a shopping mall, and more than 30 cafes and restaurants are almost at my doorstep.
The only shortcoming I have noticed is the presence of a number of English-speaking tourists. One can hardly get immersed in the local language if he can communicate in English. I got into a nice discussion at a wonderful wine bar a block from home last evening with three restaurateurs from Louisiana. They were from suburban New Orleans on their first trip to Argentina, headed for Mendoza in the heart of the country's wonderful Malbec wine area. To say that they have been impressed with Buenos Aires after their three-day visit would be putting it mildly.
Buenos Aires is a safe, cosmopolitan, European-like city with almost three million inhabitants, more than 12 million in the greater BA area. Particularly in this neighborhood, it is easy to see why the city is called the "Paris of the South." For those suffering the effects of the euro's rise in value compared to the dollar, BA is an unbelievable bargain and only about the same air time from Miami as a trip to Europe. I highly recommend it to you as a future vacation destination, but remember that the seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere. Yesterday, it was 88 degrees and a little humid, not nearly as hot and humid as the winter I spent in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Incidentally, from the violence that I am witnessing on the nightly television news from Brazil, I would not recommend a visit to that gorgeous city in the near future.
Last night, I tried the restaurant recommended as her favorite by the realtor when she moved me into the apartment. It was a taxi ride to the unbelievably-wide, main thoroughfare seen in all of the photos of BA, where the restaurant was located in a large hotel. Now, this was an expensive restaurant! Remember, however, that Schim arrives on Sunday and he is so frugal that we will probably eat sandwiches in the apartment for most meals after his arrival. There was an appetizer on the menu last night, French foie gras, for $100 pesos ($33). I passed on that, but selected the roast suckling pig served with a delicious chutney and it was fabulous. Tonight, it will be back to a much less expensive neighborhood restaurant.
Enough about food. Schim has requested time for rebuttal to my webpage comments describing our adventures. So, after he arrives, my webmaster will include a link for Schim's Views during our travels together. His sense of humor is similar to mine and we abuse each other constantly, but I am not at all certain that he is literate. An avid bicycle rider, he is a tad younger than I and was a national retail-chain corporate executive when he retired. You would recognize the name of the company from which he retired, but since they haven't paid for advertising space on this site, I cannot mention it here. They've dropped Roebuck from the firm's name since his retirement, anyway. I think that you will find Schim's musings entertaining, though probably grossly inaccurate. Stay tuned.
January 13, 2007 - Buenos Aires, Argentina
The reason for today's update is the epiphany that occurred last evening on my return home from an exceptionally late dinner. Directly across the street from my apartment building are three restaurants into whose windows I peered on several occasions, marveling that they could be bankrupt and closed when so many others are thriving just a half-block away.
My dinner tonight was a little different than previous evenings. I successfully completed my vow to limit my Malbec tasting to only one glass (I had tasted almost an entire bottle the evening before) and drank several bottles of water thereafter, which is entirely acceptable in restaurants and bars in most of the world. I consumed the sushi, happy-hour appetizer special along with the wine, which was included for $6.00. Then, I engaged in numerous conversations as I sipped the water and watched the Friday evening crowd. This process extended until well after midnight as the mostly English conversations made time pass rapidly.
I walked home only to observe neon lights on the outside of the three "restaurants" that had previously seemed dark and padlocked. Thinking that I could handle one more glass of water or guiltily sip one more wine to check out a new restaurant or bar, I started across the street only to stop suddenly in my tracks halfway across a street now devoid of traffic.
The door of one establishment had opened and a painted, mini-skirted, Hooters-qualified, young, bleached-blonde muchacha motioned enthusiastically for me to enter the blue-neon outlined door where she leaned on the frame. Quickly, doors of the other two buildings, whose windows were outlined in different colored neon, opened and similarly-attired ladies beckoned me to enter. I had no idea what kind of establishments they were, but they reminded me of a section of Amsterdam that held only an observational interest to me and I made a hasty retreat.
I stood for a few minutes to watch several cars disgorge young men who seemed more interested than I in whatever was occurring in these businesses. I watched them enter to an enthusiastic welcome by the scantily-clad greeters. Oh my God, thought I, "What will Schim think?" Still not certain what was occurring across the street, however, I entered my apartment building, rode the elevator to the fourth floor (piso 3), entered my rear-facing apartment, and went to bed, still uncertain of what I had witnessed.
This morning, as I dropped my bag of dirty clothes at the convenient laundry next door, I engaged the custodian of my building in a little conversation about the nature of our neighbors while he was polishing the brass door handle. He and I have been exchanging greetings for almost a week now. "The businesses are cabarets," he said. I picture a cabaret as a Parisian-type enterprise, complete with ladies dancing the can-can in a naughty, but nice stage show. This is not that kind of cabaret I learned later in our conversation, which required all of my foreign language talents, universally-recognized gestures, and numerous facial contortions (think raised eyebrows). In these neighborhood capitalistic enterprises, they may be dancing, but I expect that much of it is horizontal. The expression, "You can buy a girl," pretty much confirmed what I had been thinking.
In all of my other travels back to the apartment, either the wine tasting had dulled my powers of observation or I had been too early for business to be booming across the way. I never even noticed the neon and, obviously, I had never taken a step in that direction except during a morning walk around the block. I have made a lot of sacrifices to research cities and cultures on behalf of my readers, including the laborious bikini research that I conducted in Rio, but unless Schim is interested in doing this research and I am forced to accompany him, I will not be making that sacrifice here.
Schim will arrive tomorrow morning and I imagine that we will attend church shortly thereafter. Then, we will probably begin the tourist highlight tours that I have been neglecting. I eagerly await his arrival. Feliz Fin de Semana!
January 15, 2007 - Buenos Aires, Argentina
This will be just a short update to inform you that Schim has arrived safely, showing up at the apartment right on time. He had enlarged the apartment's address to nearly billboard size and held it up in the backseat as instructions for his taxi driver. Unusual entry into a country, I'd say, but it worked.
He emerged from the taxi in a Ralph Lauren, long-sleeved, dress shirt that, I swear, had nary a wrinkle after emerging from a 9 1/2 hour, completely full, overnight flight (from Atlanta). No doubt, he took off his shirt and pants, put on his silk pajamas in the tiny airborne restroom, made the flight, and then changed again after arrival. And understand, I am the only person he knows in Argentina.
When asked by the webmaster for a picture to include in his "Views," what kind of man would don his tuxedo and hire a professional photographer to make the best initial impression to his new readers? Schim, that's who! He has no shame! I will admit that the tuxedo makes him look distinguished, but listen, I see the man in his underwear and operating around foreign cities and he is anything but distinguished then.
Just this morning, for example, after our hour-long walk to the river at Puerto Madero, we stopped at a cafe overlooking the river for breakfast. Schim had the only menu and pointed to an item on the menu, mumbling something like, "omelet, tostadas, and café Americano" to the young waiter. I ordered the typical Argentinean breakfast of "media lunas" (mini, half-moon shaped croissants) and cafe con leche. My order came almost immediately. Schim's, on the other hand, took about 15 minutes and, when the waiter arrived, he was carrying a large, lettuce and tomato salad with Schim's basket of toast and his coffee. It must have taken the chef that long to find the lettuce and slice the tomatoes, muttering to himself about loco gringos who eat salads for breakfast. I interceded with the waiter and he graciously exchanged the salad for a tomato omelet. I will give Schim credit: he would have eaten the salad rather than create a scene. The hangdog look on his face when the waiter set the salad in front of him, however, exposed his shock and dismay.
Incidentally, the omelet he finally got was enormous and delicious, he said. I never even got a bite. I will do my best to polish him up and keep him out of trouble. I think it is the humane thing to do. Stay tuned.
January 16, 2007 - Buenos Aires, Argentina
A "to do" list!!!! Schim now is generating "to do" lists for each day! Yesterday, the list included going to the bank, the post office, and the supermarket, picking up my laundry, going to Recoleta Cemetery, and sundry other tasks. Is he kidding? This is a vacation. I don't even adhere to "honey do" lists at home; I will certainly not succumb to the needs of his anal retentive personality here. He has already started reading about Uruguay and generating lists of things to see and do there. We are not even leaving on the hydrofoil ferry for Montevideo until Monday of next week. This is really becoming an "Odd Couple" experience. One of us is laid back, dressed in comfortable, though admittedly dated, recreational attire, and is extremely spontaneous. The other, much more starched and creased in Ralph Lauren shirts and slacks (underwear is Phat Farm, however), is uptight, scheduled to the minute, constantly writing notes in his small notebook, and budgeting his time wisely. Will this work for 18 or 20 more days? It will be interesting to see. Gotta go, four hour city tour is next. Hasta luego!
January 17, 2007 - Buenos Aires, Argentina
Lunch with a large variety of sandwiches made of three slices of thin, crustless, white bread spread with two layers of any combination of ham, cheese, egg, tuna, tomato, or lettuce was the much awaited conclusion of a four-hour tour of the city that dragged on for seven hours. The view of the muddy Rio de la Plata (the world's widest river) from the concrete picnic table of the Children's Park did little to assuage the starvation and thirst that had overtaken us as our guide endlessly showed us the city of which she is justifiably proud. We paid only $35 for the tour and got what we paid for - a cheap tour with a guide whose English needed much work and whose driving should get her license revoked. I need to encourage Schim to open his wallet a little wider and pay more to get more. From his position in the back seat, I am certain that he understood little what the guide was saying. His frugality is stifling!
We did get to see the city, however, and we returned for breakfast, via our hour-long morning walk, to Palermo, a neighborhood that we both found quaint and less touristy. A delightfully long breakfast that included a refreshing conversation with a waitress who found the repartee with Americans to be invigorating completed our exercise program. Schim seemed to struggle keeping up with me during the walk, but had no trouble surpassing my efforts at the breakfast table.
In case you have not read the questions that people ask while I am traveling, I had a recent query from Judy in Pennsylvania about a particular Argentine wine that she had tasted. I have been chasing this particular Malbec all over the city, but I finally located a bottle. Though I took serious abuse from Schim when I asked the guide to stop at the beautiful wine store so that I could dash inside to inquire about it, I was finally able to answer the question that Judy asked. I also bought a bottle to taste and I thought that Schim would faint when he discovered its price. He needs to learn that we only pass this way one time and that we may never again get the opportunity to grab the gold ring (or sip the fine wine). His last name, never before disclosed on these pages, means shiny penny in German. In Schim's case, the penny is shining from being squeezed so hard. I will work with him a little longer. Hasta mañana.
January 18, 2007 - Buenos Aires, Argentina
Presentar mi amigo feo, Roberto! It may sound like Mia Farrow to him, but simply means, "May I introduce my ugly friend, Roberto!" Cruel? Yes, but I am nowhere close to getting even for the abuse that I am trying to endure here in South America. His introduction yields laughter and smiles whenever he is presented and he is always more warmly received than without the joke. It took him weeks of research before he gave up and asked me the meaning of "amigo feo." And, now that he has mastered the word, "Padre," that is how he introduces me, although he appears far older than I.
He was in an exceptionally ebullient mood this morning with recollections of last evening's dinner dancing in his head. We went to a small restaurant to try mate, Argentina's national drink. To approximate its taste, I suggest chopping one pint of tobacco leaves (green, not dried) and place in an insulated bowl or cup. Pour hot water over the chop and insert a metal straw with a spring attached at its base to filter the brew. Green alfalfa, barley, or clover could also be used with diminished success, I guess. Spit out any chop not filtered by the straw. The straw is passed between consumers and locals linger for hours, sipping the tea generated from the leaves from a bush (yerba) that grows all over the country. Reading our faces when we first tasted the bitter brew, the waiter suggested adding sugar. Schim complied, sipped the sweetened brew and exclaimed that, "Now, I could drink the stuff!" He took nary another sip, however.
It wasn't the memories of mate that buoyed him this morning, however. It was the huge plate (3 - 5 pounds would be a conservative estimate) of mixed grill that was placed before us in this small restaurant that apparently specialized in mate and cheap, greasy meat. It arrived on a sizzling platter and was heaped full with blood sausage, chorizo, small intestines, two slices each of liver and heart, sweetbreads, ribs, two well done steaks, and a grilled chicken breast. I may have forgotten a couple of meat specimens. The meat was served with a small salad and a large bowl of french fries which Schim devoured (alright, I had three fries). It took two bottles of the cheap house wine (think $3.00) to wash the tough meat down, but Schim was in his glory. The check arrived and the meat cost just what it was worth, $10 split evenly between us. With the wine, the total bill was about $7.00 each. That was the reason for his cheery mood this morning.
It is only fair that I comment on his generosity with wait staff. We usually alternate paying the bills and even up any differences later. Schim's generosity with wait staff only emerges during my night to pay the check, when he unfailingly tells the waiter to, "Keep the change," after I use a large bill to cover our debt. Fortunately, the waiters rarely speak a word of English, so only Schim enjoys his attempts at humor. On alternate nights, the 10% tip which is traditional here is computed precisely, lest we "spoil the help" or "show off our wealth." If there really is a way to take it with you at the end, Schim will be the guy to figure a way! Hasta mañana!
January 19, 2007 - Buenos Aires, Argentina
We took a day trip today, a test run for the way that we will cross Argentina and head to Chile. We taxied to the huge Retiro bus station, looking for the Chevallier Bus Line that the article copied from Frommer's Travel said was the way to get to San Antonio de Areco, a quaint town containing a museum begun as a tribute to gauchos.
The huge bus station was not quite as large as O'Hare Airport in Chicago, but seemed every bit as busy at 8:00 on a Friday morning. Ticket booths lined the second floor and it was unnecessary to have the inside information from Frommer's. Each of the private companies had large signs displaying the names of the cities that they served and it would have been simple to stroll the windows and shop for a bus. We purchased two, one-way tickets to Areco, $5.50 each, to allow us the flexibility of determining our return trip after we arrived at our destination. Two hours and 15 minutes later, we arrived at the dusty, gas-station-like bus terminal and headed by foot on the five-block route described at the terminal as the way to centro (downtown).
Schim had coffee and I had a coke at a local cafe and we talked to a delightful, local woman whose age must have been approaching 80. She spoke some English, recalled from her school days many years ago. She was excited to be using the English maintained by watching American movies and reading. She had never left Argentina, she said, but traveled through movies and reading. She has a sister who studied French in school and has traveled all over the world. We enjoyed the conversation.
The museum was not as exciting to us as it might have been to Argentine people, learning about the gauchos who helped to create their land. All displays were in Spanish, making it a tad more difficult to extract information. Pictures and gaucho equipment gave us a general idea in the 30 minutes we took to complete our tour. That is pretty good for Schim! In Mexico City a few years back, I took him to one of the finest Anthropology museums in the world and he saw enough to bore him in one hour. His boredom this morning did not reach the same proportions.
The museum itself was insignificant compared to the wonderful people we met during the day. The lady we asked directions after she emerged from a store was genuinely welcoming and asked about our nationalities, wishing us a great stay in Argentina. After finding the park and old bridge crossing a beautiful creek to which we had been directed, we still weren't sure which building housed the museum. We asked further directions of a man on his daily walk, who we learned was a physician, and he walked us to the museum's entrance, warmly attempting to communicate in woeful English.
After the museum visit, Schim selected an upscale restaurant and enjoyed a slice of bread before our meals came, but only one. The silverfish that was scurrying around inside the basket appeared to reduce his desire for additional "pan." I keep telling him that the way to judge restaurants is not solely by the price listed on the daily special boards displayed outside, but the chance to purchase a 75 cent hamburger overwhelmed him. The chubby, female chef and the 16 year-old waitress were wonderful, however, and we had fun with them despite the insect and the differences in language. I mention the weight of the chef only because Argentineans are typically thin, probably from all the exercise derived from walking far more than Americans. We both dined on a greasy, flatly-pounded, thinly-breaded, fried steak topped with two sunny-side-up eggs, served with delicious, fresh french fries.
We were back in Buenos Aires before 4:00 p.m., satisfied that we can handle the bus system that will take us west to this country's interior. First, however, it will be off via slow ferry to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay, on Monday. We have also purchased one-way tickets on the ferry to give us flexibility on our return. We'll have to see where that part of the adventure takes us.
Lest anyone think that my ridicule of Schim's attempts at Spanish indicate my own fluency, I should clear that up. My total Spanish education involves three weeks in an immersion school in Costa Rica. I am nowhere close to being fluent, as my Spanish-speaking son loves to point out, but I am not afraid to make mistakes with the language. There is not much chance that these folks think that I am a native speaker, anyway, so I just throw out my entire Spanish vocabulary in a pigeon-Spanish approach that usually gets the job done. As Schim pointed out on the bus ride, anybody with a Spanish dictionary who is not intimidated by the language around him could have navigated through today's day trip. Perhaps, you should consider a similar trip of your own.
We'll update a time or two more before departing for Uruguay on Monday. Hasta luego!
January 20, 2007 - Buenos Aires, Argentina
It is fascinating how two people can experience the same thing and have completely divergent views. It is even more fascinating to me that Schim and I saw the same bus station and used identical metaphors in describing it, citing O'Hare Airport. We do not read one another's update until both have submitted them to the webmaster for uploading onto the webpage. I thought that amazing today as I read the updates of yesterday, but I guess that I am easily impressed. Please don't tell me that I am starting to think like Schim!
We had a full day today, beginning with a trip to a leather store that manufactures jackets and all sorts of leather goods. You might imagine that a country that eats as much beef as Argentina would have a load of beef hides on their hands and specialize in leather goods; they do! The taxi driver delivered us to a store other than the one that I had requested and I was a tad suspicious until a couple of female tourists from South Africa arrived, indicating that their tour guide had brought them to this shop to begin their leather shopping. Well now, perhaps this was the place to shop, after all, rather than the shop that Madonna and other movie stars frequented, which is where I intended to start today's leather shopping. We had tried one other leather shop earlier in the week and both Schim and I felt that the handiwork there indicated that their merchandise seemed destined for Kmart or Kohl's, not exactly what I was looking for.
In the shop we entered this morning the workmanship was fantastic. I tried on several coats to determine the general size and type of garment, and then the clerks had me select leather that the craftsmen would use to create my new leather jacket. I selected "cabrito" (baby goat) and they re-measured my generous proportions to be certain that they built the properly-sized garment in the six hours until we were told to return. Go easy, animal lovers, they eat cabrito here and have an ample supply of their hides, too. Schim was a big help (no, really), telling me which design and color he thought looked the best on me.
Six hours later we returned to find a gorgeous, tan, classic, lined, sport coat that would most certainly cost triple or more at home. I didn't have to look any further, although the South Africans said that women shop a little differently and they would be visiting several more establishments. Perhaps they might return here, though, they opined. I am delighted with the coat; now, if only I can hand carry it home without damage.
During the six-hour waiting period, Schim and I headed to the train station for a 30-minute ride up the Rio de la Plata to a city called Tigre, so named because Jaguars used to prowl the area. Tigre is located on the delta of the Paraña River, which originates north of Paraguay, flows over Iguacu Falls and is a tributary of the Plata, creating the delta when it empties into the unbelievably-wide Plata.
We selected a private, one-hour, boat tour rather than take a public boat that carried scores of passengers through the tiny tributaries (350 in all) that make up the delta. Built on stilts to protect against infrequent flooding caused only by southerly winds (not heavy rains), hundreds of summer homes lined the streams and all transportation was Venice-like on the busy waterways. Private touring boats like our 20 footer with a 75 horsepower Evinrude outboard, grocery boats, public catamarans, kayaks, sculls, canoes, and row boats constantly churned the water. We enjoyed the tour at the summer getaway for many, affluent Buenos Aires residents, but one hour only scratched the surface of the homes to be seen on the delta, where 5,000 people are permanent residents.
A quick lunch at a stand selected by Schim that cost each of us 66 cents for two empanadas (small appetizer-sized meat pies) and we were back on the train headed home for my new coat. On the return trip, we saved a $10.00 cab fare by taking a heretofore unknown (to us) train into the downtown. We also had our laundry washed and ironed today in preparation for tomorrow's day (maybe 15 minutes) of packing before Monday's voyage to a new country. Uruguay, here we come.
January 21, 2007 - Buenos Aires, Argentina
There may not be an update for a few days, much to the relief of many who have tired of the detailed descriptions of our daily foibles. Tomorrow begins the first step of the nomadic portion of our adventure. Moving always requires other functions take priority over updating: securing sleeping quarters, monetary exchange, food acquisition, and general, new-country orientation.
The lack of communication will bring much dismay to Schim whose existence appears to depend on frequent contact with the homeland. Our current apartment includes free phone calls to Europe or the USA (a huge savings) and Schim has called his significant other at least three times every day he has been here. He has also talked to his grandchildren, his mother, his friends, and his broker. I can only imagine the anxiety he will face when the communication becomes less frequent and exponentially more expensive. It should make the coming days very interesting.
One must plan moves like this very carefully. We have decided to carry only a backpack for the two or three days in Uruguay. The toiletry kit, a couple of changes of underwear, a pair of bermudas, and perhaps one extra shirt will go into my bag, along with some reading material. Schim may have difficulty deciding how many pairs of shoes, which Calvin Klein or Polo shirts to include in his wardrobe, and how many pairs of slacks can fit into his new backpack, acquired after much haggling produced no reduction in the bag's price.
Those are not the only concerns, however. Where will we leave our suitcases once we give up the apartment early Monday morning? We needed to make reservations with a hotel that would agree to store our bags until next Wednesday when we plan to return. True to form, as we muddle through this experience, we now have reservations in two B&B's, after visiting several over the last couple of days. Now, I will have to cancel one and keep the one closer to our apartment to expedite Monday's departure. The devil is in the detail.
Fasten your seatbelt, Schim, we head off on a new adventure without your lifeline home. Rest easy, I have promised your mother and your significant other that I will take care of you. Adios!
January 23, 2007 - Montevideo, Uruguay
We met Barbara, whose husband was also somewhere aboard, during the three hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. A former English and Journalism teacher in Dade County, Florida, she and her husband now travel the world six months every year. When returning from China on one trip, they fell in love with Vancouver, British Columbia, and now live there, where they are in the process of becoming Canadian citizens, although they do not intend to give up their American citizenship. I never understood this dual citizenship thing.
They are currently renting their condo in downtown Vancouver to a doctor who is studying at the hospital close to their home. They practice house-swapping or they rent their place out, and then get on the road. She proudly told us about being robbed in Madrid, Rome, and the place that really hurt, she said, - Los Angeles. They are on a journey through South America and were interested in hearing about Carnival in Rio, since I had that experience and they were headed in that direction. I encouraged her to see Carnival, since I thought that it was a spectacular event, and gave her some recommendations on where to stay. Sharing information with fellow travelers is a great part of long-term travel.
The ferry contained many of the amenities of a cruise ship, with lounge chairs, open decks where some young passengers demonstrated their tumbling and street dancing skills, bars, restaurants, etc. We did not get to see the first class section, which, no doubt, had even more amenities. It was a comfortable ride into Colonia, and then we stopped to get an alfresco lunch in a beautiful, little restaurant overlooking the Plata River.
We then boarded a milk-run, local bus that stopped in every town between Colonia and Montevideo, stretching the 175 kilometer ride into a three hour affair. The only thing to see was the unbelievably-agricultural country side. Corn, soy beans, grazing dairy and beef cattle, and a few herds of sheep were the only things to look at on the trip. Schim pointed out the absence of goats and made a lame attempt to relate that to the "goat coat" tucked away in my suitcase in Buenos Aires.
Noticeable also was the paucity of automobiles. We could drive miles without seeing a car on the road or observing one parked near any of the houses we passed. The cars that we did see were very old vehicles, the cause of which was explained to me on my last trip to Uruguay. It seems that annual taxes on vehicles depend on the age of each car. The older the car, the lower the tax. It certainly discourages trading in an old car for the latest model. There just aren't many cars here and while it is a joy to behold, one feels sorry for most of these folks who cannot afford a personal vehicle. The buses were crowded, however, and we stopped many times to pick people up who were waiting patiently along the road.
Montevideo seems somehow seedier than I remembered from my last visit fifteen years ago, when my son was stationed here with the U.S. Army and living in a U.S. State Department apartment. Today, there were many more street beggars, especially filthy children, who begged with such hangdog expressions communicating the need for food that both Schim and I weakened and gave change a couple of times.
Dinner in an Italian restaurant was fine, although we were bothered several times by beggars leaning in toward our outside table to ask for change. We retired to our Holiday Inn (only $29/each) for a great night of sleep. Traveling all day can really wear you out. A super shower this morning and a very good breakfast (included with the room) and we are ready to leave on a tour of the city.
The plan now is to complete the tour, check out of the hotel, and grab a bus back to Colonia del Sacramento where we will look for lodging. A day's tour of that UNESCO preserved town and we will be ready to head back to a much more affluent Buenos Aires. Stay tuned.
January 24, 2007 - Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
Montevideo looked much better by daylight and had fewer of the beggars in evidence, probably because the number of policemen had increased on the day shift. We took a bus tour of the city, saw many beautiful buildings, learned a little about the history of the country, and enjoyed a great view of the city's skyline from a place called Punta Gorda (fat point or peninsula).
The tour guide was a young lady named Cecilia and that makes two tours, the first in Buenos Aires, with both guides named Cecilia. This Cecilia rated about 2 on a scale of 1-10 in her English skills and she gave the tour in both Spanish and what she called English. I venture to say that Schim understood about 5% of what she said, but then, he doesn't quite have an ear for foreign languages. He is very good at communicating his thoughts with Spanish speakers, however, by increasing the volume of his English to elicit more comprehension from the poor souls who understand nary a word he is screaming at them. It is a lot of fun at check-in time in hotels, when entire lobbies turn to see who is causing all the commotion.
After the tour, we checked out of our luxurious Holiday Inn room and headed for the bus station to head back to Colonia. This time, we bought a ticket for a directo (express bus) to Colonia, but the ride still took 2 1/2 hours and made a few stops. We rode through a rain shower on the way, but I slept most of the way, sleepy from the wine that I atypically consumed during lunch at my son's favorite restaurant in Montevideo, Mercado del Puerto. This is a huge market building that houses 10-15 parillas with log-fired grills piled high with Uruguayan beef. I'm not certain that we ate at my son's favorite grill, but we were in the same building. The food was plentiful, highlighted by a chewy New York strip steak - chewy, but tasty and bereft of steroids or any chemical fertilizers that followed the food chain into the meat.
Schim has really taken to the chimichurri, a sauce made of parsley, cilantro, garlic, hot peppers, and olive oil. It is a meat sauce served with every meal. Schim has taken to asking for it much earlier than the meat portion of the meal, coating the vast quantities of bread that he consumes to reduce his appetite and diminish his need for an appetizer.
We took a room in Colonia last night after Schim negotiated (intimidated) a lower price ($25/ea) with the pretty, young clerk who spoke a few words of English. The room was significantly smaller than any that we have tried to share in the past, but Schim thought the price was right. The two, tiny, single beds required a hand to the floor whenever rolling over was attempted. In the bathroom, our knees pushed hard against the wall while seated and the seat cover rested squarely on our backs during the entire process (use your imagination here). I think that I will be a tad more assertive in hotel selection henceforth.
We are now awaiting a tour guide for a tour of this beautiful, colonial city (Spanish armada times) with cobblestone streets over which we strolled last evening. After the tour, we will board a fast boat (one hour trip) to return to Buenos Aires. The arrival time of the faster boat will permit us to check-in at our B&B at a much more reasonable hour than the slower boat since we didn't want to disturb others with a late arrival.
We both feel like we are headed home because we have become very familiar and comfortable with Buenos Aires. We will update from there tomorrow. Hasta mañana.
January 25, 2007 - Buenos Aires, Argentina
Handsome people (no, not Schim), the Argentineans. Dark, handsome men and gorgeous women - this country may contain the best-looking people of any of the more than 50 countries I have visited. Blonde, brunette, and red-head, I have seen all shades of hair, although dark hair and a bronze skin seem to be predominate. I'm talking about the ladies here; I really haven't closely observed too many of the men.
Which reminds me: Refer to the newest pictures Schim sent from the internet cafe, a real technological innovation, that. Look for 22 year-old Josephina, whom we met in the waiting room and on the ferry ride back to Buenos Aires yesterday. Her English was impeccable, since she had attended a private school that taught half the day in English and half in Spanish for all subjects. She was very comfortable talking with us and after a two-hour conversation in the waiting room with proposals of marriage from both Schim and me, she confessed aboard the ferry that she had thought all along that we were a couple. A couple!!! Lovers? Are you kidding me? Josephina, I would have much better taste were I to lean sexually in that direction.
I have been battling a bad case of bronchitis which began almost three months ago. I doctored before leaving home and the cough was almost gone in the summer heat of South America when I picked up a cold in Montevideo. It seems to have reawakened the bronchitis bug and I am coughing again. I developed a fever last night that reached 99.7º and ate a bland dinner of rice and grilled chicken at a local parilla (grill). I was a little better this morning, but stopped at a local farmacia and talked to the pharmacist. He prescribed (yes, they do that in many foreign countries) an expectorant that wouldn't impact on my mild hypertension. I have taken two of the three-times daily dosages and survived an afternoon spike in temperature with a nap.
Yes, to Schim's utter amazement, I packed a Fahrenheit thermometer. He is not the only technologically-advanced caballero out here in the pampas. A Portuguese case of the flu one year taught me that a fever, a Celsius thermometer, and a 9/5 C + 32º formula (that is the formula for calculating Fahrenheit temperatures from the Celsius or Centigrade temperatures that they use in Europe and most of the rest of the world) are not a good mix. This time, I am prepared. Here's hoping that I feel well enough to travel in the morning. We are scheduled, though not ticketed, to head for Rosario (use the Atlas) in the morning. If I'm not well enough to travel, we will spend another night in beautiful Buenos Aires.
I arose from the nap under the 99º mark and am ready to take Schim to dine at a parilla buffet that I know he will love - all you can eat from the salad bar and grill, a bottle of wine and dessert, $8.30.
While I napped, Schim picked up the laundry that we had pooled for washing after our return from Uruguay. We had colored and white and we didn't get anything ironed, but the bill was under $3.00. The last time we had laundry done, I had a two-week pile of clothes and the bill was under $5.00. Cab fares across the city are rarely more than $3.00 and any hint of a tip leaves cabbies gushing, “Muchas Gracias." Buses and subways are less than a quarter, so life has been good among all the sycamore-lined streets and quaint street-side cafes.
Beautiful, friendly people, inexpensive food and services, what more could one want in a destination?! Really, folks, consider Buenos Aires. You won't be disappointed! It must be time to leave the city, I am starting to get nostalgic. Hopefully, we'll talk to you again from Rosario. Adios!
January 26, 2007 - Rosario, Argentina
Wow, what a miracle the expectorant, a couple of Ibuprofen, and the fever pulled off. This morning, the cold bug was pretty much eliminated and I am now only coughing occasionally. I'm feeling so good that I can't wait for dinner in this surprisingly-delightful city of one million located along the banks of the Parana River, upstream from Buenos Aires. I must say that Schim was pretty considerate during my two-day battle with disease and, perhaps, I have been too harsh with him. Nah, probably not.
It was a beautiful, though long, four-hour bus ride that brought us to Rosario where Bruno (ladies, wait 'til you see his picture!) met us. Bruno is the nephew of Cecilia, our Buenos Aires guide, who contacted him so that he could show us around. He is in his last year of law school here and was a friendly, warm, tour guide whose English was wonderful. He even understood Schim's weak attempts at humor and laughed right on cue. He didn't expect to be paid for his services, but we insisted. What a nice young man.
The Parana River, which forms the Plata along with the Uruguay, is a highly commercial river that has many large, ocean-going ships transporting grains produced near-by. The river provides wonderful recreation for the local folks, too, and weekends must be full of pleasure craft. Only a few were plying the waters today as we sat under an umbrella, enjoyed a cold beverage, and watched the river traffic.
We arrived after a very comfortable bus ride, upstairs on the double-decked bus, and safely ensconced in our airline-type seats with every bit as much room as first-class air travelers. The French movie, "The Chorus," played on the TV sets with both English and Spanish subtitles and I enjoyed it immensely. Schim slept most of the way - a real student of geography and foreign films, that guy.
Tomorrow, it is more than 6 hours on the bus as we inch (at 60 mph) closer to Chile. Now, it is time to put some meat and wine in my belly. Hasta mañana.
January 27, 2007 - Rosario, Argentina
As wonderful as yesterday's bus and trip to Rosario was, today's trip was just that bad. Bruno attempted to do us a favor and said that he got us reservations on a better bus line. First, the line that he called didn't go to Cordoba, so they assigned us to another line they owned. This bus had no second deck and we had asked for a front row seat so that we could look at the Argentinean countryside. We got the seat right behind the driver who had curtained off all of the windows because of the glare. I complained, but he told me to look out the side window. We rode the entire six hours and 40 minutes, cocooned inside the sky-blue curtains, with feelings of claustrophobia dancing through our heads and only one side window to view Argentina. God only knows what was on the other side of the road.
Gestapo-like, the second driver and first ticket-taker, who took the wheel at the three hour mark, told me to get my foot off of the seat in front of me less than 10 minutes out of the station. We had less room than in an airline coach seat after being spoiled on yesterday's run and we were being policed by the first really fat Argentinean that we had come across. We were not happy campers for the first part of our journey.
Then, I got out my map of Argentina to plan a different route to Mendoza, the center of the best wine region of Argentina, and asked the help of Colonel Klink. He warmed considerably and, at the lunch stop at the 3.5 hour mark, Schim's offer of a beer to the driver (at the time, we didn't know that he was done driving) brought a few laughs and won the staff over completely. We felt more welcome and the Colonel verified our routing to Mendoza. We will only spend a night here, in a steady rain, and head to San Luis where the surrounding mountains were described as beautiful by the Klinker.
Oops, the sun has come out here in downtown Cordoba, so perhaps Schim and I will get to see a little of the city, second largest in Argentina. We purchased tickets to San Luis with a 10:45 departure after being assured that it was a double-decker bus with windows that were separate from the driver's compartment. It took trips to four different windows to find a bus that traveled in the daylight and left at a reasonable hour. Schim opined that, "This was a little more difficult than I thought it would be," since none of the ticket agents spoke English.
We have already consumed a delicious glass of Malbec wine (we earned it with that bus ride) and a small dish of nuts, which should carry us over until the 9:00 dinner hour. The hotel is very nice, the room a typical American layout, but a tad expensive at $70/night. Split two ways it isn't too bad and, if we don't make a habit out of it, perhaps Schim can afford it. Hasta mañana.
January 29, 2007 - Mendoza, Argentina
The travel plan is nothing if not flexible and yesterday required great flexibility of scheduling. Our bus ride of seven hours to San Luis from Cordoba got extended when San Luis turned out to approximate a Mexican border town, complete with dirt roads, dust everywhere, and not a single building that appeared to house a hotel that would suit us. Schim made sure that our bags were not off-loaded and I headed inside the terminal to purchase tickets to extend our already-tiring ride by three and half more hours. The ride would take us across desert scrub land that began right outside San Luis and extended fifty miles before irrigated vineyards started to occasionally appear. We arrived at a large bus terminal in Mendoza at 9:30, 11.5 hours after we boarded.
The first part of yesterday's journey was as fantastic as the previous day's had been traumatic. We secured the front seats on the second floor, right over the driver's head and had a huge, clean window that offered a panoramic view of the Argentinean countryside. An hour south of Cordoba, we drove up the first hill we had seen in the country's interior, although the Sierra de Cordoba (Cordoban Mountains) stayed in the distance out the right-side windows. The sun was behind us and we identified many acres of corn, potatoes (or soy beans, we couldn't be sure), alfalfa, and other grass crops. They gave way to gorgeous fields of sunflowers, gleaming bright yellow in the intense sunshine.
Bugs began to accumulate on the windshield and by the time we stopped for lunch we (I) would have paid somebody to climb a ladder to wash it for us. When he was awake, Schim kept clicking away with the camera, bugs and all. We were exhausted after seven hours and happy as we approached San Luis, where our happiness changed to shock, then despair when we realized that we would have to continue our ride.
Across the aisle from Schim, a young, indigenous mother nursed an almost three year-old girl or went through the motions to pacify the tired, disgruntled child. I bought a sandwich (67 cents) for the mother when a woman came through the bus selling them during a short stop along the way. She nodded that she wanted a sandwich, but never said thank you, smiled, nodded, or anything to show gratitude. She hungrily devoured three quarters of the sandwich, and then carefully wrapped the remainder to enjoy at another time, I guess.
"Cold enough to hang hogs in here," Schim said the night before our bus ordeal when we got back to the room after dinner, his Iowa farm childhood coloring his language. He was in charge of the thermostat which he never changed despite his colorful exclamations and we burrowed under our sheets and bedspreads throughout the night. Leandro, the extremely-handsome and friendly (check the pictures, ladies) 20 year-old, bellhop had enthusiastically explained all of the details and controls to Schim when we entered the room, as well as the complete instructions for use of the remote control, the locking of the door, use of the bathroom facilities, etc. Perhaps, Schim was on information overload.
Cordoba had turned out to be a beautiful city that we strolled after the sun came out despite the cab driver's forecast that, "it rained yesterday, today, and will rain tomorrow." Pedestrian walkways through the shopping areas were covered by huge, flowering bougainvillea vines giving the area its name, "Paseo de Floras." We could have stayed there a couple more days in the city that has been described as having more churches than people, but we decided to push onward to San Luis.
Yesterday was a real ordeal, but now we are at the foot of the Andes and beautiful glimpses of the first of the mountains can be seen from almost everywhere we walk. We went to a hotel listed in the Frommer's book (2003 - probably 25 cents at a garage sale) that Schim brought, but the price had doubled since the book was printed and we moved to another hotel around the corner, where Schim successfully negotiated a price reduction to $30/ea per night. We booked a night, crossed the street for dinner, and then slept like logs until morning. Our breakfast was served in our room and afterward, we meandered around town and located another, better hotel in a nicer location overlooking the beautiful central park for $25/ea.
We have already completed our move, walking the three or four blocks pulling our suitcases and have already checked-in. We are now sitting at the free computers upstairs, looking out on the patio where we will, no doubt, read and lounge for a couple of days. Tomorrow's only event is to take a tour of the vineyards, since this is the heart of the best wine-making region in all of Argentina. The city is gorgeous and immaculately clean, making it everyone's choice as the prettiest city in the country. At first glance, we couldn't agree more.
We have crossed Argentina and rest at the foot of the Andes, only a few hours by bus from Chile. It gives us a real sense of accomplishment, but my advice to others would be to fly here from Buenos Aires. Mendoza and Buenos Aires are two special jewels in this wonderful country.
January 31, 2007 - Mendoza, Argentina
His friends must have noticed this a long time ago, but dining with Schim, a man with nary an unspoken thought, is to engage in a constant battle to match wits and words. It is exhausting, even though the consumption of a sufficient quantity of wine can dull the senses enough to get the job accomplished. Last night, at a Frommer's-recommended, Italian restaurant where the decor and service were fabulous, but the food well short of the mark, we fought just such a meal.
Schim enjoyed yesterday's wine tour, but was disappointed that the tour guide on the bus spoke only a couple of words of English. He wanted to learn more about the complex system of aqueducts that water this community and its vineyards from melting snow in the Andes. The aqueducts were designed many hundreds of years ago by the Incas to create an oasis in Mendoza which is in the heart of a huge desert formed by the dry air that sinks as it crosses the mountains.
I have sufficient Spanish comprehension (barely) that I understood a little of what the guide was saying. The wonderful wines here - malbec, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot - compose 80% of the wine produced in Argentina. The second-most important crop is olives and olive groves were interspersed with the vineyards we saw as we crossed the dusty suburbs of Mendoza. The extensive aqueduct system is fantastic indeed and huge volumes of water are controlled and shunted through almost every street in the city and suburbs, providing the necessary water to populate the city with beautiful shade trees and green parks. I wish that I could have understood more, too, but I expected the tour guide to speak Spanish and felt that it was my responsibility to learn enough Spanish to understand. I communicated that to Schim during one of the breaths he took during last night's meal and the battle was on.
We toured and tasted at two wineries, the first a mid-sized winery named Bodega Weinert, where modern equipment was used to squeeze, ferment, age, then bottle the wine, much for export. The guide at the winery, who spoke both Spanish and English, said that there were far more modern vineyards in the Mendoza area which would make them equal to any of our California vineyards, no doubt. She was a pretty impressive creature herself, a beautiful, brown-eyed brunette about 27 years of age and she did a wonderful job answering questions in both languages.
The second vineyard was Don Arturo, a small, family-owned enterprise, where the owner's 18 year-old niece conducted the English-speaking group (this bodega divided us into two groups) of tourists through the wine-making process on her first day on the job. There were only five English speakers in our group and, with notes, she nervously performed her job flawlessly, despite the constant barrage of jokes, flirtations, proposals of marriage, and droolings of Schim and me. She smiled constantly, laughed appropriately, and answered almost every question asked, which is pretty impressive for one's first day on the job.
The first vineyard did not make much of an attempt to sell us wine. Most vineyards here consider the tours to be promotional and informational, not a marketing endeavor. So, atypically, 18 year-old Sophia tried to convince us to buy a bottle of the wine produced in the small vineyard. Perhaps, it was because the wine at Don Arturo is only consumed in Argentina and not for export so they have a limited market. I resisted her sales attempts, but when I learned that she was paid a commission for her sales, I weakened and bought a $27 (dollar) bottle of their finest Malbec, more than one needs to spend for a good wine here. I figured that we would probably buy wine with dinner anyway and the sweet, young thing could have a successful first day on the job. We later saw her giving a fist-pumping, victory sign to her cousin, the daughter of the owners, and smiling her broad, gorgeous smile at the completion of her first tour. She was delightful. The wine, not so. The Malbec, opened for a corkage fee of less than $2.00 at the restaurant, was exceedingly tannic and overly dry. Even the waiter, whom we told to have a taste, agreed with this assessment. "Muy seco," said he. Ah, well, maybe I started her on a successful marketing career and that made it all worthwhile.
Today, is a laundry and lounging day as we prepare for the next leg of our journey, a 4-6 hour bus ride through the Andes. I didn't think it would be that long a trip, but Canadian tourists in our hotel informed us that it took them 8 hours to travel from Santiago to Mendoza when a military roadside inspection extended their bus ride. We have the time, so I won't let that bother me, but the elevation and roads without guard rails could upset me considerably. I will keep the Xanax in my shirt pocket in case the going gets too tough. Hasta mañana!
February 1, 2007 - Mendoza, Argentina
"Pennsylvania 6500… da dum, da dum," sang the front-toothless wino to us right on key as we sat in the park with our laundry bag, waiting for the lavanderia across the street to open at 9:00 a.m. He was disappointed that we wouldn't contribute to his pile of coins, but was delighted to learn the locations of our residences and that initiated the lovely serenade. A few lines of several Frank Sinatra hits also came out of the unshaven face before he shook our hands (we thought he would never let go) and headed to the bar around the corner. He returned with a box (yes, a box) of white wine that he held up like the Stanley Cup to show his two friends that he had scored.
It must have been cheap wine because another of his friends headed that way with an empty, liter, coke bottle and returned with the bottle 3/4 full of vino tinto (red wine). When we picked up the laundry at 8:00 that night, the boys were in pretty bad shape, staggering wildly as they stood up from the park bench to cheer our arrival. The singer staggered toward us as we headed back to our room and followed us for several blocks wondering why we wouldn't stop to enjoy his continuing musical overture. Were we afraid? Never, and we haven't felt fear since arriving in Argentina. This is a great country to visit, especially while the exchange rate tilts so widely in our favor.
After many years' experience, Schim and I equally share the moxie, the eyesight, the analytical skills, and the natural male proclivity to identify and evaluate the finest of the distaff members of the Argentine population. We do so on a regular basis, actually it is what we still do best, and is the single most prevalent topic of dinner conversation, "Look at that over there, there in the brown top, oh my gosh, etc., etc., etc."
Why then, am I the only one who writes about the fantastic beauty we see around us? One can only wonder. One wonders, also, about the lack of photos on the site where Schim shares the space with one of these lovelies. Think the wine-tour guides, the waitresses, the hotel desk clerks, etc. I, on the other hand, appear frequently with these damsels in an honest attempt to recapture for the readers what the country and the people are really like. Why does he feel so driven to make sure that his countenance is never seen with the lovelies we encounter on our daily activities? Might he never get permission to travel again? One does wonder.
Today, we walked to the bus station and back (more than 3 miles) to purchase tickets for a 9:00 a.m. departure for the ride over the Andes to Santiago, Chile. The ticket cost $18.00 and they said that they have several buses that make the trip daily. That information instilled a lot of confidence in me, but I will still carry the Xanax in my shirt pocket in case the switchbacks create too much anxiety. Argentina has been good to us, the people friendly, Buenos Aires and Mendoza especially beautiful, the beef delicious, and the weather only a little too warm on occasion. "Don't cry for me, Argentina, the truth is I never left you...!"
February 2, 2007 - Mendoza, Argentina
Whoaaa! Now, that was a bus ride! Two-lane highway all the way through the Andes, switchback roads to climb and descend with the front of the bus seemingly hanging over the edge of the abyss, and no guardrails.
The biggest mountain was descended over 40 switchbacks (they had them numbered). Our double-decker bus passed heavily-laden trucks on blind curves, on the few straight-aways, and anywhere else that the driver felt daring. The scenery was absolutely spectacular! Think of a two-laned road through the highest of the Rockies. It was a once in a lifetime trip because I wouldn't do it again, but I'd recommend it to anyone. I was glad that I had the Xanax in my shirt pocket and I popped a half pill partway up the climb to the continental divide. I did no screaming and talked civilly throughout with the Chileans seated around me, who agreed that the trip was peligroso (dangerous).
The movie shown was a Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall flick that I used to distract me from the lurking dangers, although I sneaked regular glances so I didn't miss anything. Schim moved to the front seat, one ahead of ours, but I was happy right where I was. I needed no more excitement. We passed numerous snow-covered mountains, including the highest in South America, Mt. Alcanagua (or something like that - I have no map with me in the internet center). That mountain may be the highest in the western hemisphere.
They served sandwiches and orange drink or water to avoid a stop during the trip. The fantastic views, the bus ride, the movie, and lunch cost all of $18.00 and we arrived thirty minutes early on the run which lasted 6.5 hours.
Next, we had to find a hotel, since we had no reservations, of course. We exchanged our remaining Argentinean pesos and caught a cab at the very hot bus terminal that was a teeming mass of humanity. I asked the cabbie if he knew a hotel and he took us to one that I wouldn't have kept a dog in, so we moved on to his second choice, a three star hotel that is a little small, but clean and reasonable at $79/night. Each subsequent night is only $55. It is centrally located in a nice neighborhood, so we took the place. We currently plan on spending three nights here before taking a bus to Valparaiso and Viña del Mar on the coast. Two days there and we return to Santiago so that Schim can catch his plane home.
Fantastic! To Schim's friends and family, consider yourself warned. He will be returning shortly. He has already asked where we are going next year. I told him that I am going to Australia and New Zealand and he is going to Portugal. Maybe, we can email one another. Hasta Mañana.
February 4, 2007 - Valparaiso, Chile
Have you read Schim's latest view from Santiago? What an improvement over his shorthand reports earlier in his stay in South America! He is writing more like me. That shouldn't surprise me, however. He is using my deodorant, my shampoo, my hand lotion, and probably even my toothpaste when I am not looking. No wonder he is starting to write and even look like me. He is getting a tad more relaxed and less starched with his dress and is even beginning to wait patiently at mealtime until the waiter arrives on the normal Latin American schedule. Now, if only I could get him to stop blow-drying and to learn a little Spanish, this part of the trip would be a success.
Yesterday's tour was terrific, or terrible, depending to which of us you listen. I thought the guide was wonderful, her English and Spanish very good. Schim thought that she should have shown us more of a town that has little else to see other than what we saw in the four hour tour. I guess he was looking for Disneyworld somewhere. We asked to be left out in the Mercado Central, a huge fish and fruit market in central Santiago where we planned to have lunch. Schim was upset at the shills from the multitude of restaurants in the market who were aggressively vying for our business. He then got frustrated in the restaurant we selected when they didn't give him an English menu and he snarled at the waiter to, "just bring me some fried fish." He loved the fish, however, and his lunch was better than mine. I ordered what I thought was a fish ceviche (I pointed to a dish being eaten at the next table) and wound up with a large clam ceviche (ceviche is raw fish or seafood cooked only in lime juice with cilantro and a few raw onions). The clams were tasty, but very chewy and so many in number that I didn't need to order anything else. It turned out that the least patient guy got the better meal. There must be a lesson there, somewhere.
Oh, yes. The tour ended at a jewelry shop featuring the lapis lazuli stones that are found only in Afghanistan and Chile, mined here in the summer months, because the mines are high in the Andes where they have too much snow in other seasons. The stop at the jewelry store upset my partner, too. He thought that they should have told us in advance that we were going to stop there. At least they served us a taste of the national drink, Pisco Sour, while we looked at the beautiful gems. Much like a caipirinha in Brazil, the pisco sours of Chile and Peru are sweet drinks with a whiskey sour taste. Ours was good enough so that when we sat down for pizza at dinner (Schim's turn to select a restaurant) we both ordered a Pisco Sour.
This morning, we checked out of our Santiago Hotel and headed for the bus terminal for a trip to the Pacific Ocean. We are now in Valparaiso, the largest port in Chile and, before the Panama Canal, one of the largest in the world. The adjacent town, Viña del Mar is a typical beach town with high rise apartments, hotels and condos that remind me of Ocean City, Maryland. We will probably stay here three days or so before heading back to Santiago from which Schim will head home to his loved ones in Florida. Whew!
I will have to figure a way to work my way north to Panama City, Panama, by the 15th of February where nine other members of my family will meet for our first-ever overseas family reunion (and a touch of fishing). I will stay in touch where possible and disclose my plans to you as they develop. In the meantime, I will enjoy my last few days with a traveling companion/dependent. Hasta mañana.
February 5, 2007 - Valparaiso, Chile
We had a great dinner last night! Schim had great fish soup and some fried fish, while I had an avocado and chicken salad and sautéed albacore tuna. Topped off with some lovely red Chilean wine, (we both like red, fish or not), we engaged in our typical Abbott and Costello routine with the waitresses and had a marvelous time. Everyone was extremely friendly in the tourist-free restaurant which overlooked the fishing fleet and a fishing pier where fisherman with rods and hand lines were trying to catch their own dinner.
On the way out of the restaurant we had a perfect view down on the stage of a Folkloric dance show that celebrated dances from all of Chile's regions. Even Schim, not a man with much patience for cultural things, was interested and we remained until we feared the exit of the large audience might make our departure more difficult. It was a delightful evening.
The morning brought a long and unexpected walk as our internet cafe was not open, so we strolled the steep hillside enjoying splendid views of the old houses and the sea. Then came the tour with the guide we met at the hotel the prior evening before dinner. She gave us a wonderful tour of Valparaiso, the old, blue-collar port city, and its sister city, the newer and much more modern tourist haven of Viña del Mar.
The city of Valparaiso has 45 hills plunging into the sea and at one time had 45 funiculars climbing the steep hillsides. There are 15 remaining today, but the one that could take us to our hotel is out of order because of a lack of electricity owing to a downtown gas explosion the day before our arrival in town. Three people were killed in that explosion and several more may still be in the rubble. We occasionally have similar natural gas explosions at home, but in an old town it is even more devastating.
I owe the people of Viña del Mar an apology. I described the city, only from my view across the bay and the reading of a few travel guides, as a commercialized beach town, not unlike an Ocean City, MD, or any large American beach town. I was wrong. There is a beach there, mostly in the section called Reñaca, where condos cling to the hillside and outside elevators take residents up the hill to the higher floors. Inside elevators (with a shaft) would do no good on these properties which step back as they climb the hill. The condos overlook the promenade and the beach in this section of town. This part of town is commercialized and beach-oriented, but I'll take it over Ocean City any time.
Viña del Mar was created when most of Valparaiso was destroyed by an earthquake and the wealthy moved to a flatter area around the next point of land, but overlooking the same bay. It is a very well planned community, easily traversed on foot (Valparaiso, with its 45 hills is not). After the guide dropped us in Reñaca at a highly-recommended restaurant, Schim and I walked the promenade for several miles before catching a bus back to town. The restaurant was even better, though more expensive, than the night before and the walk after the wine we consumed was therapeutic. We caught the subway which turns into a train by the time it reaches Valparaiso and we headed to our rooms, exhausted and needing the late siesta. Tomorrow, we have no plans, but I need to start thinking about where I am going from here after Schim departs. I will think further on it. Adios.
February 6, 2007 - Valparaiso, Chile
"I think I will open my update with a description of how beautiful the ocean and the cities have become since the sun came out," I told Schim as we approached the funicular that would carry us up to our hotel. Just then, SPLAT, the unbelievable ability I possess to provide sea gulls a moving target came into play and an unseen high flyer scored a bull’s-eye (see my trip to Rio de Janeiro for another experience)! The man behind me was splattered somewhat, too, but I took the brunt of the gull's volley which had been produced, no doubt, by a full day's dining on rich seafood to generate such a humungous volume of caca.
My neck, hair, shirt, and shorts took the direct hit and the poor guy walking behind me took a little of the ricochet. I was drenched with the stuff and Schim, of course, rushed to take pictures. This guy is a real friend. A couple of local men offered napkins out of their pockets but I needed a shower and a Hilton Hotel-sized bath towel. After Schim finished composing award-winning photographs, we ascended the funicular and I gained the sympathy of all who saw me. Preliminarily washing the shirt and pants in the shower, I climbed in afterward to cleanse myself. Fortunately, the stuff is water soluble and, with a little soap and shampoo to assist in the process, I am clean. Hopefully, the clothing will dry enough by morning to go into the laundry bag for our trip back to Santiago. Everybody is good at something, but why must I be so good at being a target?
Before the salvo, we spent the morning in Viña del Mar where I took a couple of hours to plan and price the rest of my trip to Panama. Due to constraints of time, more than the State Department warnings about civil unrest in the country, I have had to eliminate Bolivia and Lake Titicaca (there's that suffix again) from my itinerary. I will leave on Thursday morning, before Schim leaves for home, to fly from Santiago to Lima, Peru, then from Lima to Cuzco for my ascent to Macchu Pichu. I may stay in Cuzco for a day or two before taking the 5:00 a.m. train to the sacred city in order to acclimate myself to the elevation. Then, I will get my once-in-a-lifetime chance of seeing this holiest of Inca cities, which other travelers tell me is a very spiritual place.
If Chileans were any friendlier it would be scary! Today, we had a fisherman welcome us in English to the fishing dock where all the small commercial boats are stored and fishermen were working hard baiting hooks for tonight's fishing. He was proud he could communicate in English and, even though it was only one word, he was thrilled to death. The Chilean people are wonderful.
Hopefully, Schim will agree to accompany me to dinner tonight - he skipped last night due to diet, his budget, or some religious observance. I will even give him his choice of restaurants, which I don't do very often due to the diseases one can catch from the food of street vendors. I will advise you further from Santiago tomorrow on my last night in Chile. Hasta mañana!
February 7, 2007 - Valparaiso, Chile
The Schimmer is gone!!! I thought of a number of ways to begin today's update, but none other would do. Schim left a day early, less than an hour ago. Either he tired of my company or he was eager to see his significant other before she jets off to care for her sick mother only an hour after Schim's arrival, had he left on schedule. I don't think that it was my company of which he tired; I waited on the guy hand and foot: helped him in and out of cabs, into his restaurant chairs, onto and off trains, translated menus for him, supplied his toiletries, etc. It must have been the significant other that caused his premature departure. She looks so good, I think that I might have left early, too.
We had a fantastic last day together. We toured the Valparaiso home of Chile's late poet, Pablo Neruda, a friend of Fredrico Garcia Lorça, Spain's most famous poet. The home was beautiful with a view from the Bella Vista hill that gave the hill its name. It was a four story home with twisting staircases and majestic views of the sea and harbor. A delightful art collection and the poet's personal effects made an interesting visit. At least Schim enjoyed the view, but his comment, "I think they are a little short of tourist sites," indicated, once again, his lack of interest in most things cultural.
We then had a long walk together back to the funicular and up to the hotel to check out and head to the bus terminal for the hour and 30 minute ride back to Santiago. It was a great ride and I checked back into the hotel we had used before while Schim called the airline to see if he could advance his departure.
When Schim got his flight arranged, we headed back to the Central Mercado to the fish market for our last meal together. Schim had the fish stew that he has come to love and I had (are you ready for this?) Piurre, some kind of raw mollusk (I think) that we saw fishermen using for bait in Valparaiso. This foul tasting seafood (I wish somebody could find out exactly what it is) comes in red clumps that look like huge brains and has a soft shell that fish mongers cut through with a sharp knife. It tasted like a kerosene flavored oyster, no matter how much salt and lemon juice that I poured on it at the instruction of the waiter. The waiter said it was good for the stomach, while the old woman fish monger in Valparaiso told us that it was a substitute for Viagra. It was worth a shot, but that was my last Piurre. Six hours later, the foul taste still resonates among my gums.
We walked a mile or more back to the hotel and Schim showered in my room, changed clothes and headed for the airport, clean, starched, polished, and ready to fly. He looked great in the final photo he had the desk clerk take of us, while I stood in my travel clothes, dirty from two days of bus travel, sweaty from the long walk, and with tears in my eyes about his departure. Sniff, I'm still a little choked up.
The company has gone and now I face Peru alone. I am looking forward to the adventure and looking forward even more to meeting my family on February 15 in Panama. Ah, yes. I need to remind you that my webmaster/daughter will be making the trip to Panama, too, which means that there will be no updates posted between February 14th and 25th. After she returns from Panama on the 25th, the updates will begin again with a description of our time together in Panama. Here's hoping that includes a tall tale about catching a marlin and about a great family gathering. I also hope to update you from Cusco (or Cuzco, I've seen both), Peru, before and after my trip to Macchu Pichu. Hasta luego!
February 8, 2007 - Cusco, Peru
The flight from Santiago took 3.5 hours to reach Lima, Peru, but it was pretty smooth all the way. After an hour's wait in Lima, and I should mention that Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Lima all have very modern airports designed to be easily navigated, I boarded the plane to Cusco for the 1.5 hour flight into the mountains.
This flight was as crowded as the one from Santiago, but the schedule was changed to make it a direct flight which only took 55 minutes. It was cloud covered most of the way, but when it came time to land and we got below the clouds, the green mountains were stunning. The pilot had to maneuver between the mountains to find the flat spot that was the Cusco Airport and he did it perfectly. I made both flights with Xanax in my pocket, but never had to use it. When I fly more frequently, the anxiety about flying seems to lessen.
The arrival here included a no-show from the hotel with whom I had made reservations from Santiago, highly recommended by travelers in Frommers. I was mostly interested in their handling of tours to Macchu Pichu. When they didn't show, I hired a cab driver to take me to that hotel. It was a 10 minute cab ride from the hotel to downtown, so I just told the cabbie to head to the plaza to look for a hotel on my own. I declined to stay at the first place the cabbie stopped, after looking at a room, and then took a room at the next hostel at $35/night, including breakfast.
I spent a miserable night; the altitude sickness everybody writes about hit me and I developed a throbbing headache that stayed with me all night. I drank three cups of the cocoa tea the hostel staff prepared and ate the leaves as instructed, since this tea is supposed to help with the altitude malady. I also took a pill one of the young Indian (Inca lineage) staff ran next door to get at the farmacia. I had seen the pill advertised on billboards at the airport and on the way in the cab. Neither the tea nor the pill diminished the headache which caused the bad night. I still have some bronchitis, so am having a little problem breathing on occasion. I am walking very slowly and have decided to stick around the hotel today until I start feeling better. Here's hoping an afternoon siesta will help.
Macchu Pichu is a three-hour train ride from here and I must get to an agent to plan the trip, purchase the train ticket, the park ticket (Macchu costs $68 to enter), and make a reservation for a night in the city of Aguas Calientes at the park's entrance. Everything I read pointed to an agent being the best way to coordinate everything.
The city of Cusco is a city with a huge indigenous influence, colorful costumes, and shops selling wool and alpaca sweaters and many postcards. I only know this from the ride in the cab and the 1.5 blocks that I walked to get to the Internet center. I have done nothing else since my arrival. I have been exhausted since my arrival, another altitude adjustment problem and I'm hoping that post-siesta I will have enough energy to find a travel agent. I am aiming for Sunday for the trip to Macchu Pichu, so for those looking for an impression of that site you'll have to hang in there for a couple more days.
Schim emailed me that he arrived home and is beginning to look through the thousands of pictures that he took, so a few more may be posted on this site in a few days. Adios.
February 10, 2007 - Cusco, Peru
Pet owners may want to cross me off their list of potential dinner guests after my meals of the last couple of days. Yesterday, still suffering the effects of altitude sickness, I strolled to the Plaza de Armas (the central square) and found a restaurant that looked like it served local food. I ordered what turned out to be a potato form composed of a mix of mashed potatoes, avocado, and chicken. The sides of the form were decorated with red pimentos, and a black olive sat playfully on the top. A little bland, but good. The next course took the prize, however, a brochette of alpaca, the cute little furry creature used as sweater material, pack animals, and apparently as meals around here. The meat was delicious, like beef, but lighter and I'd order it again. They only kill alpaca between two and five years of age for eating. Oh, knock off the moaning! Think of all the veal you have eaten.
Today's lunch was memorable. A picture will follow when I get the film back to the USA. It was a roasted (ready?) guinea pig and it sat whole on my plate with its teeth and claws exposed, waiting for its picture to be taken. After the shutter snapped, and after ineffectively trying to cut through the thick hide, the waiter asked me if I would like the kitchen to cut it for me. Would I ever? It is not something I would eat regularly, but if it stood between me and starvation I would eat it again. It was roasted which seemed to make it dry, so I would recommend ordering it with sauce - another menu selection. For the curious among you, it was all dark meat and tasted, of course, remarkably like chicken. Ready for lunch, now?
I am ticketed to go to Machu Picchu (notice the change in spelling) tomorrow, Sunday. I opted for a one day package that takes me to Aguas Caliente, buses me to the park entrance, provides an English-speaking guide, and returns me to Cusco the same night. I am not studying anthropology and don't feel a burning need to study the site thoroughly. I do feel a burning desire to get back near sea level. I visited the Lan Peru Airlines office to see if I could get my ticket altered to get back to sea level as soon as possible. No problem and no charge. Pretty amazing. I depart Monday at 10:45 headed for a couple of days of sea level adjustment in Lima.
Since I am feeling a tad better, I thought that I would mention the difference in traffic conditions and the courtesy afforded pedestrians in some of the cities I (we) have visited. Buenos Aires drivers will take you out! They stretch the red light and have no qualms about knocking you down; bus drivers seem to take particular thrill in brushing you back. Drivers in Mendoza were much more courteous, giving way to pedestrians and obeying traffic lights. Montevideo and Colonia have many fewer cars and all seem to obey traffic signals and afford common courtesy to pedestrians. In Colonia there is no trouble crossing even the busiest streets since there are so few cars.
Chilean drivers, in Santiago, Valparaiso, and Viña del Mar, are very courteous to pedestrians and will even stop to wave you across the street. Here in Cusco, there are so many cars and such narrow, cobblestone streets, that there is constant, heavy traffic. Drivers will intentionally move closer to the car in front of them so that you can't cross between, even when they are stopped in the midst of a traffic jam. The cars are all tiny here, but you'd better have eyes in the back of your head. Well, so much for the South American traffic report. Tomorrow is on to Machu Picchu which I will report on from sea level. Hasta luego.
February 12, 2007 - Cusco, Peru
Machu Picchu!! The Inca Ruins at Machu Picchu are certainly located at one of the most awesomely beautiful places on the face of the earth. After climbing steps for 10-15 minutes at 7,874 feet above sea level, the breathtaking panoramic view of Machu Picchu that is famous around the world sits before you. It is one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen in my travels.
Did I have a spiritual experience? I can't say that I did, but then, I do not worship the Sun or the Condor or occasionally make human sacrifices of young virgins like the Incas. If I did, maybe the spiritual happening would have occurred. I was talking to a Vancouver resident and she felt the energy in the place. Then again, she has also had visions (in Juarez, Mexico, no less) and believes in many of those mystic west coast things. Maybe, I was just not in touch with my metaphysical being and didn't have granola for breakfast.
Don't get me wrong; this was a spectacular experience. It began with a 4:45 wake up call to give me time to shower, shave, and board the tour bus for the train station to catch the 6:00 a.m. metrodome bound for Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu. If the experience of Machu Picchu had not been on the end of the train ride, I would pay to take the train again. I have ridden trains north and south and east and west through Switzerland and through many other beautiful settings, but this train ride was special. It was important to sit on the left side of the train to gain the best view of the gorgeous mountains and valleys and to look down on the Urubamba-Vilcanota River swollen from the rain of the evening before and full of the most vicious rapids that I have ever seen.
I think that white water rivers are rated 1-6 and, if this is so, the Urubamba was a 10! Nobody could navigate that stream for the 120 kilometers of the train ride. It was that savage in several places. The river, no wider than 60 yards at its widest, could only be watched sporadically, however, because the views of the cloud-shrouded mountains were equally awesome.
During the entire length of the trip I was thrilled to observe the subsistence agriculture practiced by the Andean people. It must be my geography background. I saw corn, wheat, another grain crop (barley?), pumpkins, sunflowers, and other crops too numerous to mention and too difficult to identify at a distance. All were grown in small plots interspersed with grazing animals. I saw cows, steers, oxen, horses, goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks, burros, and others I may have forgotten. I saw all of these animals grazing free, some close to the train tracks. I also saw all of these animals tethered and also being led by a native on a rope, some through the tiny, red towns through which we passed. Well, the chickens and ducks weren't tethered or being led, but I saw a lady leading a sheep down the main street of a muddy village and pigs rooting in the mud untethered along the front door of a village home.
The houses were made of homemade gray or red mud bricks which eventually would melt with the ravages of nature's forces. Often, grasses or roof tile were placed on top of the walls enclosing livestock areas and separating fields to protect them from the rain. The villages were muddy places from the previous evening's rain and life in them looked pretty grim. Many, happy smiling faces waved at the train as it passed, however. Incidentally, on the ride home, I saw whole families helping in the plowing of fields with the man riding the wooden plow which was pulled by a pair of oxen and the rest of the family bent over weeding. I looked carefully at all of the agriculture and saw not one farm machine. No tractors, no combines, no metal plows, nothing. These people work very hard to eke out a living. I saw only one rather large herd (maybe 50 head) of dairy cattle and it was being milked by hand by the entire family. They were milking where the cattle stood in the mud in several locations in the large enclosure and the milk was carried in large plastic buckets from cow to cow. It was a fantastic train ride, one that I thoroughly enjoyed in both directions. As I said, the train ride was well worth the expenditure of the eight hours it took roundtrip.
Not so the bus ride from Aguas Calientes up to Machu Picchu! This was a dirt road with a total of 20 feet of guard rail through 10 switchbacks. The buses had to back up to allow each other to pass on the narrow road. The switchbacks on the road between Mendoza and Santiago were nothing compared to this one. To top it off, it started to drizzle about halfway through my tour of Machu Picchu and the road got slick on the way down. Thank God for the photographer from Minnesota sitting next to me since our conversation distracted me from the lurking danger.
Not to fear about the rain spoiling photos. I got 35 great shots with my disposable camera which should make the webpage shortly after my trip to Panama. I also bought a CD which thoroughly explores the Inca's most sacred city. Now, it is back to sea level in Lima. Adios!!
February 13, 2007 - Lima, Peru
Sea level is a wonderful thing! We don't think of our altitude very often, but after being at 11,145 feet for a few days, sea level is a wonderful place to be. For those of you, like Schim, who think me a wuss for complaining about the elevation of Cusco, Google altitude sickness and read about it. 75% of people suffer some sort of altitude sickness at places over 10,000 feet when not acclimatized properly like yours truly. Some folks die of the stuff. But, for me, it's over. Sea level is a wonderful thing!
I just finished a morning tour of Lima and this city is the surprise city of my winter trip. I knew Buenos Aires would be wonderful, people talk about Mendoza and Viña del Mar, but Lima was a pleasant surprise. I listened to another traveler, which is usually a great source of travel information, who said that there was nothing to see in Lima, "Just get to Cusco and skip the place," he or she said. Wrong! I am only here for a couple of days because I was looking for respite from the oxygen deprivation of Cusco. It turns out to be a wonderful place, full of people almost as friendly as the Irish and they take national pride in their friendliness. It shows.
This city is in a huge coastal desert and gets less than 10 inches of rain a year (that is the definition of desert, of course) and most cars do not even have windshield wipers. The average daily temperature is 72º and there is usually a wonderful ocean breeze. A little more humid, perhaps, but it reminds me of San Diego weather. This would be a great place to winter, especially in the very upscale Miraflores section of the city where many tourist hotels are located. It is safe to walk anywhere in this part of town, day or night. My hostal has no air conditioning and, with a fan, I slept comfortably awakening to a gorgeous, sunny day with a nice breeze and a temperature in the mid 70's.
If you are so inclined, there are at least a dozen casinos in town and wonderful, though small parks watered with agua supplied from Los Andes. Notice that my language is starting to become a problem. I am writing in Spanglish. You've got to love a town that has such a strong European influence and one where the Spanish conquistador Juan Pizarro is buried. There is also a strong Franciscan order of monks, still 45 strong, ensconced in a monastery that I visited on my tour. Catacombs below the church house thousands of indigenous people who converted to Catholicism before passing on, as well as the deceased monks.
You have to think fondly of a place that is world famous for its cuisine and which serves cuy (guinea pig) and alpaca. The national dish is the delicious ceviche, raw fish marinated in lime juice with cilantro and onion. Lima restaurants compete each year to see who makes the best. I had lunch today at the place (Alfresco) that won last year's competition. Delicious!
You also have to love a town that loves to love! There is a park down the street along the ocean called "Parque del Amor," or Love Park. A huge statue of a naked kissing couple is the focus of the park and the statue is gorgeous at night when it is brightly lit. Once a year, tomorrow - St. Valentine's Day, there is a kissing contest held in the park. The record holders kissed for six hours consecutively and tourists are encouraged to enter. What a place. The city is another destination city I highly recommend to you, especially since Machu Picchu is only an hour's flight away.
Tomorrow, I head to Panama, so this will be the last update for 10 days or so. Don't give up on me because I am taking a break. When the whole family heads home and I am left alone in Costa Rica, I will treasure the communication, sometimes the only English I hear in a day. Hasta luego!
February 25, 2007 - San Jose, Costa Rica
It is hard to believe, but they're gone. The family vacation flew by rapidly, but a great time was had by all (if I may speak for them). The vacation brought smiles and tans all around. Sadly, there is no marlin story to tell, except that we were shut out in our two day quest to hook into one of the huge, black beauties. That doesn't mean that there are no fishing stories to tell, however.
After trolling for two frustrating days and visiting Tropic Star Lodge in famous (to salt water fishermen) Piñas Bay, Panama, we were only an hour and a half from Contadora Island where the women and children awaited our return, when the mate on our 58-foot boat spotted a flock of birds feeding on the water. The captain was headed back at full speed, but the mate convinced him to make one last try at whatever the birds were feeding upon. The water was churning with amberjack and each man aboard caught one of the twenty-pound fighters in a great battle which each one of us will remember for a lifetime. The previous day, I had caught a 30-40 pound Dorado (mahi-mahi) in a tiring fight featuring several great leaps. I got to fight the fish only because the mate handed me the rod to help another angler who had a second one hooked. His was lost, but mine was dinner that night, prepared by the captain and crew while we were anchored for the night at Piñas Bay. The mahi mahi was poached with onions, green peppers, garlic, and some spices and was, quite simply, the best fish dinner any of us had ever eaten. With a salad, black beans, and rice, there was still fish left when all had eaten their fill.
The ladies and grandchildren had been snorkeling and catching some rays poolside while we were away and they endured the fishing tales each of us told upon our return. We brought along one of the amberjack as proof of our catch and to provide the grandchildren with an eye in which to place their fingers. I don't know why, but all children touch a dead fish's eye when they first see it and my grandchildren were no exception to that rule. The amberjack was given to a local restaurant where we had eaten the night before and I'm certain that it was enjoyed, too, since a missing fish eye doesn't diminish its taste.
The following day, the younger men and the children chartered a small boat for a two hour trip to give the kids a chance to catch fish. That trip was also a success as all five on board caught at least one pescado (fish). The largest of all was caught by my seven year-old grandson who caught a five or six pound permit (we think that's what it was) which we all shared for lunch upon their return. It was prepared two ways at the restaurant beside the swimming pool - one large portion of chicken fingers (absolutely scrumptious) and a couple large filets done al ajillo (with garlic and butter). There is no marlin story to tell, but the fish we did catch were delicious. The fishing part of the vacation was a tremendous success, despite the fact that son number two never hooked into the marlin he sought. The trip will be remembered forever.
We spent two nights in Panama City before a one and a half-hour boat ride to Contadora. The day was dedicated to locating the military haunts of son number two and my brother. I think that both ex-GIs were surprised and pleased to see the uses that the country has made of these bases since the USA gave them back to Panama. We got to see some sights that were off-limits to most GIs in the past because of their military importance. One, Ancon Hill, had a fantastic view of the entire city, the harbor, and the Panama Canal. Many photos were taken.
We spent a couple of hours watching a cruise ship and a container ship pass through the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal, which was fascinating to all. The container ship had to pay $245,000 in fees to get through the canal, one of the highest tolls ever. The smallest fee ever paid to pass through the locks was 39 cents by an American swimmer who swam the entire length of the canal in several days. Some people have amazing goals, don't they?
We dined that evening at a very nice restaurant that had a dinner show where native dances from all over Panama were demonstrated. Many photos again. Perhaps, my webmaster will share a few of those photos with you when she returns tonight to a snowy Detroit.
The country of Panama appears to have a vibrant economy. Two hundred new high rise buildings are planned in the next few years. My brother noted that the entire skyline of skyscrapers was non-existent when he was there in 1960. Two hundred more skyscrapers will make for a pretty formidable skyline, already jammed with tall buildings. Several new, very modern shopping centers serve the city, surprising my brother who wrongly surmised that no Panamanians could afford to shop there. The government has made it very attractive for Americans to move to Panama, promising no income taxes for twenty years to anyone who moves there. Ex-patriates must prove that they have an income of $500/month to qualify for that citizenship status.
Six of us left son number two and his family, which includes the grandchildren, in Panama where they headed for some family time at a resort and a little fresh water fishing in one of the canal's lakes. We took a one hour flight to San Jose for a quick, three day tour of Costa Rica, almost my home away from home. The first night was spent in a great restaurant overlooking the beautiful lights of San Jose and the central valley. The food was great and the view even better, especially when I took them higher up the mountain to a fantastic view of the city I had discovered on a previous trip. I think they were very impressed with the panoramic view!
The following morning we toured Cafe Britt, a coffee plantation, where everybody enjoyed the comedic tour and a lunch. Many photos were taken again and quite a few dollars spent on coffee and coffee products in the souvenir shop.
We were picked up at Cafe Britt by two young men whom I hired at the airport the previous afternoon to take us in their van to our tiny hotel. I contracted with them to drive us to Quepos and Manuel Antonio for $50 less than the mini-van I had reserved on the internet. It wasn't the $50, but the fact that the Dodge Caravan was so small that the luggage wouldn't fit with the six bodies. The boys did the driving, the luggage fit (mine remained at the tiny hotel for my return, except for my backpack), and we were on our way.
Unfortunately, we arrived in Quepos after dark, but secured three rooms in a Best Western overlooking the ocean. The location turned out to be fortuitous as individuals could tour the town on foot whenever they desired. The weather was as hot and humid as usual, though not as humid as I have experienced in this location on other trips.
The three youngsters (people in their 30's and 40's seem like youngsters these days) took a four-hour canopy tour the following morning and returned awed by the experience. Then, our guides took us to Manuel Antonio to show them one of my favorite beaches in the world. The place has gotten much more commercialized than in my first visit nine years ago, but the newcomers were still excited by the place. They got even more excited when I showed them the hotels that I had preferred for us (they were full) and a band of about 20 monkeys climbed the hotel's roof, jumped off its balconies, and down the adjacent palm tree to feed on the bananas thrown out for just that purpose by the hotel. My daughter ended up hand feeding several of the critters by holding a banana up to the roof and enjoying the contact with the ones who jumped on her arm to dine. Quite an experience for an animal lover like her.
We took a few photos of 10-15 bats (pointed out by the bartender) that were sleeping on the underside of the leaves of an adjacent palm tree and headed back to the beach. On the way back, we saw a deer emerging from the jungle and strolling into an adjacent Bed and Breakfast where it was apparently accustomed to being fed by the owners. A few more photos were excitedly taken.
The following morning (Saturday) was spent in Quepos' weekly fruit and vegetable market lining the street overlooking the bay and ocean. Then, sadly, it was time to return to San Jose, with a stop on the crocodile bridge to observe at least 20 of the creatures sunning themselves on the mud below. Several were more than 10 feet in length and did not look particularly friendly. I opted not to climb down and introduce myself. Costa Rica has an enormous wealth of these wildlife observations and experiences.
And now they are gone! They have landed safely in Miami and are awaiting flights back to Philadelphia and Detroit with an eye on the snow storm that is supposed to blanket both areas. I will watch on the internet until I am certain they have arrived safely.
This means that I am now alone and, while I don't like to beg, it means that I need an occasional email to keep me company. Hasta luego!
February 26, 2007 - Escazu, Costa Rica
Though I had just ticked off another year of life the day before, there must still be a little athleticism left in the old body. I had warned my family that one needs to be very careful walking in these Central American countries, because where they exist, the sidewalks are uneven, the rain water gutters at the curbs very deep, and walking is very dangerous. My brother, with his very bad knees, was the only one that I saw trip even slightly during their visit.
Yesterday, I left my hotel headed for the internet center to check the family's arrival at their destination airports only to find the center had closed before 8:00 p.m. I headed back to the hotel a little frustrated that I would not learn of the family's safe arrival (the snowstorm, remember?) until today. I was not paying attention to my own advice about the walking. As I stepped over the cavernous rain gutter onto the pavement 18 inches higher, my sandal caught on the curb and I fell. My body fell completely out of control (although very gracefully, I'm sure) to the sidewalk and I must have instinctively gone into a protective roll, winding up with my back against the wall surrounding the church across the street from my hotel.
A number of people waiting for the bus nearby rushed to my assistance, but I was already up, dusting myself off. Not one tear in my clean jeans, not one spot of broken skin, not a dirty spot on my shirt. Either a little athleticism remains or I was just very lucky. I prefer the athleticism theory, but I proceeded to the hotel and to dinner and learned just a few minutes ago that everyone in my family is home safely. This morning, the left wrist hurts a tad, but I'm sure it will recover nicely, although I will delay my trip to the golf driving range for a couple of days. Perhaps, I should have tucked and rolled a tad earlier or taken the brunt of the fall with my shoulder instead of my hands. I'll consider that on my next trip (pun intended).
Seriously, the walking here and in other Central American countries is treacherous. I have seen sidewalks stop at the end of a property leaving a six foot drop to the next property, which is a delight when walking at night. Also, there are many holes dug for repair without warning signs, flags, barriers, etc. One inadvertent step could lead to disaster. Apparently there is not a lot of litigation in these countries or governmental regulation to provide sidewalk safety and consistency. The countries are still great to visit, but always watch where you are going.
It is great to be back in Costa Rica at a place where I am very familiar. It is delightfully warm with a nice breeze every morning, though it does heat up in the afternoon when a siesta is in order. The weather is almost perfect and even better when I look at the weather map back home. Stay warm. Adios!
March 2, 2007 - Escazu (San Jose), Costa Rica
Every year I am amazed in one way or another at just how small this world has become. Yesterday, as I was walking the one mile trek down the hill to catch a bus to the golf course, I passed a large green sign on a bar that looked very familiar. It said, "Brendee's," and then something about "Americano." "Funny," thought I, "we have a bar named "Brendee's" in my hometown and that is an unusual nickname." Nah, couldn't be the same person. Wrong! On my way out to dinner last night, I had the cabbie (cabs are very cheap here) stop and I ran inside and asked if Brendee were there. Yep, there she was, the exact same person I had met one time at one of my lunch stops in my downtown area, though she was a tad older and heavier. Actually, she probably would have said the same thing about me had she remembered me at all. I might have been in her bar one time, but I'm not really sure that I ever ventured inside her place on the corner of Lemon and Mary Streets. I said hello, then went to dinner, promising to return.
I did return on the way back from the Argentinean restaurant (I miss Buenos Aires) where I dined on a thick steak with chimichurri sauce. We had a nice conversation about her selling her place back home, then retiring to a five acre home overlooking the beach at Playa Naranja (Orange Beach) on the Guanacaste Peninsula. She got bored after two years and opened the new "Brendee's" about a month ago. She will probably be successful there, too, and she made a killing on the sale of her place at Playa Naranja. Just another example of how small the world has become.
After first seeing "Brendee's" yesterday morning, I walked the mile down the hill, immediately caught the bus to neighboring Santa Ana five or six kilometers away, then took a cab to the golf course, intending to hit a bucket of balls and chip and putt a little bit. I was stopped before I even got in the pro shop by a young (42) South Carolinean who had moved to Costa Rica only two weeks ago. He had sold his share in a 35 location restaurant chain and headed here to throw a different spin on a very difficult divorce proceeding with his second wife (who also happened to be his first wife, too).
He said to me, "It's boring to just hit balls; why not play a round with me?" Now, I am not usually that easy to sway from my intended activity, so I said, "Great! Why not? I hate practicing!" I played for the first time in nearly four months, without time for so much as one practice putt, using rented clubs ($40, but free from now on after tough negotiations), and shot 91. I really hit the ball well, but had a difficult time (this will surprise nobody who plays with me) putting on the tricky, Bermuda greens. He shot 86 in his second or third round of the week, but I kept it close most of the way before losing the 1,000 colones ($2.00) we had bet on the last five holes at match play. He bought me lunch and a drink, however, and headed out to play another 18 holes with a couple of California tourists. One round was more than enough for me, since I played without a glove or shoes and had blisters enough for the first time out.
After golf, I headed back to Escazu, checked at the email center for messages, then returned to my room and showered. I felt great and the extra coating of tan was not at all painful. For dinner, I changed out of my shorts and into my jeans, before leaving to reminisce over the Argentinean steak while dining at an outside patio. Hopefully, those back home fighting the snow, cold, and wind will now appreciate what I do each day when I am away - a question I am frequently asked. Stay warm. Hasta luego!
March 5, 2007 - Escazu (San Jose), Costa Rica
Yesterday, I ventured via crowded public bus (50 cents each way) into San Jose to visit some old haunts, like hotels, restaurants, the market, etc. I never enjoy the hubbub of this big city (a tad over 300,000), but I did get in a lot of walking. The little, boutique-like Don Carlos Hotel that I love was still there, the nearby parks still beautiful, green, and full of spraying fountains, and the market area full of life (even on a Sunday). The market wasn't open, but some shops had opened their doors and there were street vendors aplenty. A pretty colorful experience again, but just too hectic for me. I never noticed that feeling in a much more sophisticated Buenos Aires and it has more than three million people, if my memory serves me correctly.
I noticed a bus company that dealt almost exclusively with Nicaraguans and I found that interesting until I talked with the night clerk at the hotel (a Nicaraguan) and the uncle of the hotel's owners in a great conversation before dinner last night. I learned that more than 1.5 million Nicaraguans have moved here since the war in their country. The Ticos (the name Costa Ricans call themselves) seem to have integrated them into their society very well, although the Nicaraguans seem to hold the jobs that Ticos don't want, like maids, street cleaners, night desk clerks, etc. The Ticos seem to have welcomed them to enjoy the "Pura Vida" of which they are so proud, however.
"Pura Vida" is the national saying, repeated whenever something is enjoyed and means, literally, "pure life." In actuality, it means "it's a great life in Costa Rica" and is something that most of them believe. With the great weather and the friendly people, they have me convinced. The Ticos also say, "muy rico" often, which means very delicious or very rich and, perhaps, the frequent "ricos" evolved into being called "Ticos." Costa Rica, of course, means "rich coast."
I found a nice little, local restaurant last night, recommended by Ricardo (the Uncle), and had arroz con camarones (rice with shrimp) which was accompanied by a salad and french fries (of all things) on the same plate. With two glasses of not-such-good wine, the bill was under $10, which was a whole lot better than the tab I got the night before. Then, I decided to try a new, definitely upscale restaurant a block or so down the hill and I got hammered with the bill, even after passing up bottles of wine I knew to be overpriced, since they were Argentinean Malbecs with which I was very familiar. Two glasses of good wine at $9 a pop, which is unbelievably expensive in Costa Rica, and a delicious, though small tenderloin on spaghetti with huancaina sauce (Peruvian) and I topped the $50 mark for dinner. They will not see me again at the "Sebastian" and I will reduce my food expenses the rest of the week. While I may occasionally pay $50 for a meal at home, I do not need to do that in this country which is usually very inexpensive.
The manager/daughter-of-the-owner/attorney/single, gorgeous creature of my small hotel, named Noelia, returned Saturday from a month in Italy where she was studying Italian and living with the jet-setters. She had studied Italian for six months here, and then took the month-long trip to Italy to become completely fluent. She is now fluent in Spanish, English, Italian, and probably in Portuguese. Her brother, Pablo, had returned the day before from a vacation in the USA and her parents were spending some time in Rio de Janeiro. Pablo, who manages the hardware/lumber yard business, has an MBA. I was here a few years back when he was studying for his final exam. Another daughter is a medical doctor, although I have never met her. The youngest, Rebecca, whom I met several years ago and again this trip, is finalizing her studies as a physical therapist. A well traveled, well educated family, eh? Really wonderful people. Pablo had sold the van I drove here in 1999 after I was unable to sell it before my departure. He mailed me the check at home. He also assisted in getting my car (Glee) repaired and painted during another stay in the Tapezco Inn. I consider this family my friends.
Anyway, Noelia returned and I told her that I was ready to negotiate with her manager/attorney side over the price of my room. She quickly asked what I had paid previously and said, "Let's just do that again, if that is OK?" So, it is $20/night, including a full breakfast, personally prepared to order by the maid. This morning, breakfast included a large plate of sliced, fresh fruit (banana, pineapple, and papaya), orange juice, toast, two eggs, and cafe con leche.
Though I have found the price of food to be higher in Costa Rica this trip, the price of the small hotel has remained the same. It isn't fancy, the mattresses are thin and the beds hard, but the place is very clean, has hot water, and everyone is like family. You can't beat that for $20. Hasta luego!
March 8, 2007 - Escazu (San Jose), Costa Rica
It has gotten down to this: crossword puzzles while wearing shorts and tee-shirt during breakfast - looking down at the gorgeous central valley of Costa Rica, a paper back detective novel during the heat of the day until the siesta takes me, an occasional round of golf to begin to hone the long lost skills from last summer, interesting conversations with locals in English or Spanish about just about everything, and an inexpensive (usually) dinner in a nearby restaurant. Other than the perfect daily weather, that is about all that I have to look forward to each day. Of course, those enduring the never-ending winter back home would probably trade in a minute.
The crossword puzzles have taken hold while I dine at breakfast, though I never do them at home. I usually run through the horizontal and the vertical of a new puzzle one time, only filling in (in pen) those few items (three this morning) that can't be anything else. This morning, a three letter "Orbison and Acuff" had to be Roy, so it got the ink treatment. I won't look at the puzzle again until tomorrow morning when I will run through the list again, looking for the possibilities, now that I have lightly filled in potential solutions in the upper right hand corner of the box. And on, and on until the puzzle is finished. It takes me about five days to complete the puzzle and check the answers stapled on the back. I finished the first one perfectly, but the one completed yesterday had an error in one block (up and down). Who knew that an erne (I thought maybe eane?) was a fish-eating bird and that a pencil user was a writer and not a waiter?
Then, it's on to the internet center to read and respond to the messages from family and friends, check the Phillies page for grapefruit league news, and look at the hometown newspaper's webpage to check the weather that everyone is cursing there. Lunch and the detective novel make up the afternoon when I am not at the golf course.
Oh, that reminds me, for those interested, I used a different set of clubs yesterday (the assistant pro's) and shot 92. Not bad in the windy conditions with new clubs and a new, lighter putter that didn't solve any of my putting woes. The good news is that the young (42 year old) southerner was at the course again and decided to play his second round of the day with me. He had taken 1000 colones from me last time, but this time he fell in our skins game 12-6, netting 6,000 colones for yours truly. He will definitely be looking for a rematch with the old-timer he is certain he can handle. We'll see.
I am inside of three weeks from completing this year's journey and eager to head back home, though not so eager that I would endure the snow and below 10° F low temperatures that I would face now. I will probably bask in the sun and wait for the weather to warm a little more in the USA. Hasta luego!
March 12, 2007 - Escazu, Costa Rica
Party!! I am always a little embarrassed when I return and people ask, "How was the nightlife" in whatever country I may have traveled. Embarrassed mostly because I rarely experience nightlife at my normal bedtime of around 9:00 p.m. An exception would be those countries whose dining habits require that I stay up until 11:00 p.m. (love those siestas) to start dinner, like Spain, although the nightlife begins there at what for me is early morning.
Over the weekend, I did it; I broke this year's record and stayed awake until 10:45 on Friday and 10:30 on Saturday to have something to report. Friday, I had dinner with a male, Costa Rican friend at a little restaurant/nightclub, Yakky's, about a block from my hotel. I had eaten there several times before, but never stayed for the evening's entertainment. This time, probably because I had company and he seemed to enjoy both the music and the numbers of beautiful, bronze-skinned girls who shared his interest in Karaoke, the entertainment of the evening, I stuck it out a little longer. I was there only for the nightlife research, of course, and took copious notes about the behavior of the locals. One note, noticeably scribbled after three glasses of wine, reminded me that these brown beauties would freeze to death back home with all of that skin showing. Research, mind you, but low-cut, sleeveless blouses seemed to be the dress of the evening. For some reason, I have no idea whether they were wearing skirts, jeans, or shorts. My notes come up empty there, but I would have noticed shorts, so the dress must have been slacks and bare, bronzed skin. I wonder if the bare skin distracted me? There were occasional songs in English, but most were sung in Spanish, probably done as well as most Karaoke singers back home. I didn't stay late enough to hear the drunken virtuosos, but there were enough off-key singers to drive me home at 10:45. I had consumed enough wine, too, although the glasses were small. My friend consumed seven beers (I had promised to treat) and with several orders of bar food, my bill was $21.00. I will write it off on my income tax as a necessary expense, of course, since I was doing research for this page.
Saturday, I went to dinner early, and was back at the hotel by 8:15. A little embarrassed to go to bed that early, I decided to try another location to size up the nightlife. I went to a fine restaurant overlooking the lights of the central valley, Le Monastere (locally called El Monesterio, despite the sign), where they have a basement (cava) where I had witnessed live music years before. They charged me $3.00 cover to get in, but I was psyched to do the research. The two-piece band was pretty good, the guitar player/lead singer excellent, and they sang a variety of English and Spanish language songs. The crowd, seated in two long rows of picnic tables in the narrow basement that may have served the monks as a wine cellar, really got into the group's rendition of "Achy, Breaky Heart." I know they got into it by their singing and the rhythm they kept with the previously distributed plastic bottles with rock salt inside. I confess to having tapped the bottle rhythmically a few times myself to several tunes. It was a great, fun environment in a romantic location, though with considerably less bronzed skin - probably because there were a number of gringos present and the wind made it a tad chilly. Two small glasses of wine later and research complete, I paid the $20 tab and headed home. I won't return to El Monesterio soon with those prices, plus the lack of exposed skin reduced the effectiveness of my research.
Sunday was "El Dia Nacional de Los Boyeros" in Escazu and a unique parade of the traditional, colorful oxcarts used for years in this country took place right across the plaza from my hotel. This was the third time that I have seen the unique parade which celebrates the farmers who still use oxen to pull the meticulously painted carts. The oxen and the farmers were colorfully attired and the parade was a great celebration of the country's history. A marimba band serenaded those of us waiting in the park for the start of the parade and a flat-bed truck held a band that played during the parade's procession up the hill to San Antonio, the more economically challenged neighbor of Escazu. I took a few pictures that I will soon get developed and try to display on the page. It was a good weekend and time is flying. Only 16 more days until my planned return. Hasta pronto.
March 16, 2007 - Escazu, Costa Rica
I am often asked if traveling alone isn’t boring, lonely, and dangerous. It is all of those things sometimes, but at other times there is a distinct advantage to being alone. Last night was one of those times. At breakfast yesterday, I met Cecile, a charming, 32 year-old resident of Paris, who was also traveling alone and spending her last night in Costa Rica after a three-week vacation. She had arrived in San Jose, spent one night in a small hotel in an outlying area, and then headed for the mountain rainforest in Monteverde to look for wildlife. She was in the rainforest every morning from 6:00 – 8:00 a.m. when the animals are most active and she succeeded in photographing the much sought after and rarely seen Quetzal, a beautiful bird with a long, gorgeous tail. Then, she headed for the coast to the remote beach town of Montezuma, located on the Guanacaste Peninsula and also noted for its wildlife preserves. She had returned to Escazu the day before her departure, via Continental Airlines and Houston, to Paris. She had declined offers of companionship from several friends back home because she just wanted to be alone. She works for the French government in an office of Economics and Politics and was feeling a lot of stress on the job. She appeared very refreshed and a little sunburned.
I sat at the table next to her for breakfast in our small hotel and we engaged in an interesting, 30-minute, political discussion about our countries and each government. She was not a fan of our President, George W. Bush, nor I of her premier, Jacques Chirac. I had to admit, however, that Chirac had been right about Iraq and that we were now engaged in a Vietnam-type debacle. I also had to finally admit to not being a fan of my President, either. It was a thoroughly enjoyable conversation and the musical, French accent of her English was delightful. As I left to go to the internet center to check my emails, I asked her if she were dining alone that night, and she said that she was. I wondered if she would be interested in dining together to continue our conversation, since I am always dining alone. She agreed and that led to the wonderful International experience that I may not have enjoyed had I been traveling with another person or (horrors!) on a group tour.
Since she wasn’t familiar with the area at all, I selected the restaurant, Le Monastere, where I had taken my family a month previously. The view of the central valley is spectacular from this restaurant and, since it specializes in French cuisine, I knew that she would enjoy the meal. The conversation never returned to politics, however. We spent the evening discussing travel, wine, French cuisine, my travels in her country, and her impressions of the USA. She pictured America as one big shopping mall with little to see, other than in the great National Parks of the west. I invited her to visit and let my wife and I show her a different side of America, and she responded, “Why not?” With little result, I have issued similar invitations before to those whose impressions of our country are terribly inaccurate and based on television and film portrayals. Although I still correspond with some folks who talk about visiting eventually, they never seem to find the time and continue to carry their misperceptions.
It was so much better than dining alone. We returned to the hotel by about 10:00 p.m., after taking a taxi ride to another spectacular valley view that I had also shared with my family. This morning at breakfast, she was packed, though with three bags, worried if they would permit her to take two carry-ons on the plane. It seems the eight pounds of coffee that she had purchased at the super market yesterday took more room than she expected. I told her that the drug interdiction officials might have some concern about the coffee and physically search her bags, since smugglers often disguise their contraband with the intense smell of coffee to confuse the drug-sniffing dogs. She was prepared to be searched but hoped that they wouldn’t open her coffee bags. I assured her that they were safe.
I was very impressed with the young lady, her self reliance, her sense of adventure, and her language skills. She is very fluent in Spanish, handling the rapid conversation of the hotel maids and the waiters flawlessly. Her musical version of English is excellent, too, and I know not how many other languages she may speak. Most Europeans impress me with their language skills honed enthusiastically in their school systems because of the close proximity of neighbors whose language is different. Our populace is woefully behind the Europeans in the mastery of a second, or even a third language. Unfortunately, too many Americans travel and expect everybody else to speak their language, which is not a realistic way to experience another culture. It was a refreshing evening and one of the benefits derived from traveling alone. Hasta pronto!
March 19, 2007 - Escazu, Costa Rica
I went to the beach yesterday! At breakfast on Friday, I met a man my age who was staying at my small hotel. He got out a video camera, set up a tripod, and took a video of the beautiful view from my breakfast spot on the patio of the hotel. His name was Mark, from Wilmington, Delaware, and he is a professional film maker who makes documentaries of families in foreign countries to sell to schools. He usually documents the life of children in an urban family and also a rural family. He filmed the urban family over the weekend and we made arrangements over breakfast to have dinner together on Saturday night.
I must say that Cecilia was a much better looking dinner companion, but during our interesting dinner conversation Mark mentioned that he was headed to Montezuma (where Cecilia had visited, too) and that he would head there by taking a bus to Puntarenas and then the ferry to the Guanacaste Peninsula. After he asked me a few too many basic questions, starting with where to catch the bus for downtown, I realized that he needed some assistance to get to Puntarenas, since he spoke no Spanish and was directionally challenged. Since I had nothing planned for Sunday, I volunteered to accompany him to the ferry.
I had last taken the ferry in the other direction from Guanacaste to San Jose on my first trip to Costa Rica eight years ago. I was driving on that trip, but I was interested in seeing the beach at the Pacific port city again. So, Mark and I went to Puntarenas yesterday, a two hour bus trip to get there, but fifteen minutes longer to return because of the constant climb behind heavy trucks struggling to climb up to the central valley.
We arrived in Puntarenas, caught a cab to the ferry, and Mark bought a ticket on the ferry that with perfect timing was disgorging passengers as we waited in line. He headed off to the ferry and I headed back to the bus depot. He will return in a few days after documenting the rural family in a village near Montezuma.
As a cab pulled beside me, answering the call of my raised arm, a couple of young Germans carrying humongous backpacks asked me in perfect English if I spoke Spanish. They wanted to know how to find the bus station to take a bus to Manuel Antonio and Quepos. I asked the taxi driver who told me that their terminal was right adjacent to mine. I asked them if they wanted to share the cab, but they said that it would be too expensive; they would walk. The terminal was a couple of miles away and it must have been 90º and very humid, so I said, "Look, I am going to taxi there anyway, so you might as well share the cab – my treat!" They reluctantly threw their huge backpacks in the cab and rode along. They were from a village near Frankfort and knew of the small town, Oberursel, where my son's family had lived for two years. After we arrived at my terminal, the young man, they were a couple, handed me a 500 colones coin which would have split the fare. I told them that, "I was young and poor at one time, too, but now, though I am old, I have more money than you. The treat is really on me." They were delighted and most appreciative. It is very easy to be generous and a big spender for a $2.00 cab ride that I would have had to take anyway.
I had a sandwich in Puntarenas along the beach across the street from the bus terminal and caught the next bus back to San Jose. The round trip bus ticket had cost me $5.80. I had an interesting day and I managed to help a few travelers along the way. This week, I need to concentrate on getting the golf game in shape and preparing for my imminent return stateside. Hasta luego.
March 21, 2007 - Escazu, Costa Rica
Rainy season begins here in April, according to the local weather experts that I have consulted in my hotel. It doesn't mean that it rains all day, just that it rains sometime every day for the duration of the season. Apparently, Mother Nature is preparing for the change, since the days are a little windier and temperatures have plummeted. In the evening, Ticos are bundled up and complaining about how cold it is when the actual daily low temperatures are only 60º or 61º. I just checked the current temperature back in PA. and 34º hit me squarely between the eyes. I will be returning home in exactly one week and will have an even more difficult time adjusting to those temps than the Ticos do at 61º.
There also seems to be a concomitant incidence of sinus infections and colds here. Perhaps, 61º is cool enough to get a chill and become susceptible to the bacteria causing illness. After suffering with bronchitis and sinus problems for most of the winter, I was certainly hoping to avoid another bout with bacteria by remaining in the tropics a month longer. The long term weather forecast back home has a few days exceeding 60º, but the low temps are still below 40º. The Ticos would absolutely shiver themselves to death, but I will bravely face the exposure to the germs.
My plans for golfing this week were canceled when my partner from South Carolina called at 6:30 one morning and sounded like death warmed over. Turns out he was down with that sinus infection and cold and had to cancel the day's round. I advised him to head for a Farmacia where the pharmacist will, no doubt, prescribe something. It is wonderful to get professional advice to self-medicate. Perhaps, he will recover sufficiently to play again by this weekend.
Today, I am having the laundry done by the maid in my hotel ($6.00), apparently while she is also washing the dirty linens. By this afternoon, I should have all of my clothing back and ready for the final week in-country. I want everything to be spic and span for my return home. I won't have much turn-around time at home, since my wife and I leave with another couple the following weekend for The Masters Golf Tournament in Georgia. We will only see a practice round, but just being able to walk this most beautiful of golf courses will be a thrill.
Tonight, I will dine with a friend I met here in my hotel on my last visit to this country several years ago. Henry was born and raised only 30 miles or so from my hometown and moved to Costa Rica 11 years ago because he was unable to make ends meet at home with only his Social Security check. He has since left the hotel, sharing an apartment with Joanna, another former hotel resident and registered nurse, who also needed to live where the dollar went farther after an unfortunate divorce left her with nothing. During my last visit, Henry and I enjoyed many conversations over drinks on the hotel's patio. Henry plays guitar, reads extensively, and is a great conversationalist. I am looking forward to our visit.
With only a week remaining until my departure, there are only a few updates remaining. I would be remiss if I didn't thank the Costa Rican people, as well as the Panamanians, the Peruvians, the Chileans, the Argentineans, and the Uruguayans for their hospitality. I could not have been received more warmly. The Peruvians and the Ticans should get special mention for their friendliness. Not a person passes me on the street here without offering a greeting of "Buenos Dias”, “Buenas Tardes”, “Buenas Noches”, or simply, “Buenas." Other greetings might include, "Que tal, Amigo, Caballero," or some other local expression, but always delivered sincerely with genuine warmth. There are not many countries where one can travel and feel the warmth of the hospitality that one feels in Costa Rica. Hasta Luego!
March 26, 2007 - Escazu, Costa Rica
Another weekend passed quickly with little to report other than a delightful brunch with Henry, my friend from my last visit here. He took me to a small restaurant that had a Sunday Brunch, featuring one of his favorites and mine - Eggs Benedict. For a country that doesn't have Canadian bacon, (and why would they?) the dish was a great surprise. Ham was a wonderful substitute for bacon and the hollandaise sauce was excellent.
On Saturday, I browsed the farmer's market held on the street outside my hotel every week, and bought a few trinkets to take home as gifts. Most stands at the market are food stands, however, with beautiful fresh fruits and vegetables. The week before I had purchased a mango that accompanied my breakfast for almost the entire week. I ate lunch at the market, a delicious pincho (skewer) of pork, but most of the weekend was spent lounging and reading.
Tomorrow, I will play in a golf tournament, invited by my southern friend and golf competitor. Tonight, I will begin packing for Wednesday's departure. I need to be at the airport before 7:00 a.m., apparently so that a three-hour check can be made to ensure that I am safe enough to be permitted to return to my native land. Actually, I feel good about the extra security on any plane which has me aboard.
This will be my final update, so I think it appropriate to look back on this winter's adventure. Would I do it the same way again? Not really. If I had my druthers, these are the few things I would change:
I would reverse the direction of the trip and begin in Costa Rica, where I have spent almost five weeks. I have been here before and, although the people are amazingly warm and friendly and there is always the "pura vida", it has become old hat and a trifle boring. If I ended the trip in Buenos Aires, where I had previously not spent much time, I could have better utilized the five weeks. There are many more things to see in that beautiful city, many more day trips outside the city to explore, and so much of interest that I cannot imagine getting bored. The reversal would not have been easily facilitated, however, because of the family gathering in Panama. I could have started in Costa Rica, I suppose, but I would have had to have spent a long time in Panama, which I didn't find an exciting possibility. I may have been wrong, because there is much more to see in Panama than I have seen in my two visits there which focused mainly on Panama City and Colon.
I made a foolish blunder and packed too many clothes, pressured by the appearance of that famous clothes horse, Schim. I would pack less, although now that I am in one place the variety is pleasurable. Even now, I am so tired of the clothes that I have packed that I am eager to get home and change my wardrobe. I will leave one pair of pants, four or five shirts, the infamous athletic socks, some underwear, and a few other things behind when I return. They are already promised to the maid/breakfast chef/laundress at the hotel, who thinks the large sizes may fit her husband. I would certainly not bring as many shoes. Counting sandals, I brought four pair and really could have survived with two or three pairs. I brought a dressier pair for sophisticated Buenos Aires and it was not really necessary.
I would also not fly directly to Cuzco from Lima, Peru. I would negotiate a stop along the way at an altitude that would let my body adjust before reaching the 11,000 foot elevation of Cuzco. Hopefully, I could avoid the full day's severe headache and the feeling of lethargy that ensued.
I enjoyed having Schim along for a part of the trip. I will have many fond memories of the adventures that he and I undertook. His attempts at the Spanish language were a daily entertainment far superior to any sitcom that I have seen. I would love to hear him pronounce Montevideo one more time. It was also wonderful to be alone again, forced to reach out to the native speakers for human contact, and able to go anywhere and do anything that I pleased without consulting another soul.
All in all, I think that it was a successful winter adventure and, of course, I avoided all of the bad weather at home. I hope that you enjoyed being along for the trip. I certainly enjoyed having you and especially enjoyed your emails along the way.
Will there be another winter adventure next year? At this time every winter, I am so glad to be heading home that I always think that the current trip will be my last hurrah. The end of golf season and the approaching winter always seem to have a way of changing my mind, however. There are always fascinating places like South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, China, India, and others yet to see. Be sure to check with me as winter approaches next year. Sayonara!