Category Archives: Bus travel

Shant-outings*

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*Thanks to Joshua for the oh-so-punny title

As mentioned previously, Shantou is tucked into the coastline of the South China Sea, making it the perfect jumping off point for day trips to the numerous surrounding islands. On our first weekend in China, myself and the other Canadian exchange students took the ferry for 1 yuan (~20 cents) across the Shantou Harbour and landed on the idyllic shores of Queshi island. We were greeted by a woman expertly dissecting pineapples with a machete and neatly skewering the slices onto long skewers. An entire pineapple for 7¥ ($1.5) seemed a reasonable price to pay for a snack as we walked along the island’s meandering paths.

View of Queshi from the Shantou side of the sea

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Our goal was the pagoda we had seen every morning we walked along our side of the harbour. On our way up the mountain, we explored a series of naturally formed granite caverns with such enchanting names as “Rainbow Lying Cave,” “Happy Fate Cave,” “God’s Shoe,” “The Platform for Watching Sight of Flame Mount,” and “Three-Tier Cave Toilet” (on second thought, maybe that last one was 2 separate stops…)

View of Shantou from the Queshi side of the sea! 

Terrifyingly steep steps into the caves!

Lovely lunchtime stop
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Giant Buddha (only after an entire photo sesh with G.B. did we realise we had been sitting in front of a sign that read, in Chinese, that pictures cost 2¥ each… and consequently a terrifying encounter with the giant security guard ensued)

After eating lunch in the pagoda at the mountain peak and paying our respects to giant Buddha back down on the ground, we headed back to the ferry. Before we had even landed back on mainland, we were already receiving WeChats from our host students, inviting us out for an evening of quintessential Chinese cultural fun: KTV.

KTV (aka karaoke) is more than just a past time in China… it’s practically an art form. Whole streets are lined with massive KTV buildings, each hosting a multitude of private rooms where groups can order food & drinks and custom-create a karaoke setlist of K-Pop and the newest Swifty singles. At KTV, the most stoic and shy of students suddenly comes into their own and discovers their latent pop stardom, belting out sexy ballads with no restraint or reserve whatsoever!

Post-KTV, we were up bright and early to board the bus taking us to a village about 2 hours from Shantou. Interestingly enough for a self-declared Communist country, healthcare is not publicly funded in China, and therefore many citizens cannot afford basic medications or even a simple doctor’s visit. Thanks to Guangdong-born Hong Kong billionaire philanthropist, the Li Ka-Shing foundation has instituted numerous charitable works to address health inequities across the country, including the one we were participating in that morning – Medical Aid for the Poor (MAP). Once a month, MAP physicians set up free clinics in villages near Shantou, providing free medications, blood pressure readings, and specialist consults. They also provide home visits for any rural citizens unable to transport themselves to the clinic.

My lunch at MAP won the honour of being the most interesting food I have ever eaten to date: I was so proud of myself initially for trying what I was convinced was liver, since I had never had that before. But when I checked in with my Chinese friend, she blithely corrected me: “Oh no, those are blood clots. Maybe pig? Probably dog.”

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Home visits & tour of the village temple

Since we were spending so much time in “small town” China (remember that Shantou’s population is a mere 5 million), we thought we should grab the chance to see big city China at its most iconic: Hong Kong.

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For being so close to Shantou, it was a headache and a half to actually make our way to HKSAR. A chartered car, a bullet train, a subway, a walk through two sets of customs, and another subway later, we were finally in our Hong Kong home for the weekend – an itty bitty hostel room on the 14th floor. The rule was that some part of each person had to be touching their bunk at all times, otherwise there was not enough space for us all in the room!

Hong Kong had some noteworthy features: milk tea, pork floss toast, the mind-blowing bus ride up to Victoria Peak (call me small town, but I have never seen buildings rising up higher than the surrounding mountains!!), and the hilarious experience of finding our way up to the “Highest Bar in the World” and negotiating with the hostesses and fellow patrons for rented pants so our male compatriots could actually enter the bar (because apparently, while shorts are incredibly offensive and inappropriate, ankle-skimming polyester gems passed around to 3 different gentleman in 1 hour are far, far more acceptable). However, in general, I do not feel the need to go back to HKSAR. I feel so privileged to have spent the majority of my time in “small town” China that actually felt unique, and not simply like a crowded version of any forgettable kitschy American town.

Buildings, buildings everywhere…

The day after arriving back in Shantou from HKSAR, we were again packed into a bus, this time to trek several hours to Nan’ao island, where we spent a lazy day hiking up to yet more pagodas, watching our bus driver carve roast chicken with his bare hands, and getting yelled at by locals for daring to swim in the ocean (apparently, that’s just not done).

All in all, our Shant”outings” made an already memorable exchange even more extraordinary. And after three weeks of this, I still had a week of true holidays left…
(To be continued!)

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West: A Farewell to Planes, Trains, & Automobiles

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Uncouth ways of getting from A to B characterized our travels around Pinar del Río, Cuba’s westernmost province, from the very moment we left Baracoa… which is, incidentally, in Cuba’s easternmost province. Or, more accurately, from about two hours after we left Baracoa, at which point the bus came to a halt on the top of an idyllic mountain pass.  The driver got on and off the bus several times, finally to conclude, in a succinct announcement to the passengers, “Estamos rotos.” We are broken. Talk about an existential interruption to an otherwise relaxing travel day!

Over the next half-hour or so the lingering effects of the bus’ air-conditioning began to give way to the piercing Cuban sun, and one by one we all got off the bus. Like the cast of Lost, our isolation brought out the best in us (this was the point, after all, where Sara started penning the first Cuban installment of our trusty blog) and the worst in us (like the Italian guys who immediately stripped down to their briefs and got unpleasantly day-drunk off their souvenir rum). Regardless, though, we all let out a cheer when, six hours later, the second bus out of Baracoa came into sight. Though it carried passengers of its own, it was still able to accommodate us all, even if some of us (read: one of us in particular) had to sit on the floor. (In all honesty, once I abandoned all sense of decorum and just lay down in the aisle I was actually incredibly comfortable!)

Josh and the art of having incredibly appropriate reading material for the occasion:
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All of this to say that by the time we arrived in Viñales thirty-five hours later, we were quite excited for some alternative modes of transport. And Viñales delivered. What followed was, in the spirit of WestJet travel writing, ‘three perfect days’ of exploring this otherworldly paradise on horseback, bicycles, and cattle-trucks.

Day 1: Horseback

While the cycling culture of Viñales is what initially drew us there, it soon became apparent (though not entirely clear why) that certain trails on the map were not for biking. Instead, the local wisdom seemed to advise that horses were the best bet. Seeing as horses tend to be just as common on Cuban roads as cars (or bikes…or bicitaxis…or motorcycles with sidecars), we decided to go for it. Our very knowledgable casa hostess hooked us up with a friendly father and son, both named Eduardo, who took us out on a very comprehensive tour of the Viñales countryside. It immediately became clear why they had frowned at our idea of cycling these trails:

Viñales is one of those bizarre microclimates that gets a daily 4:00 pm thunderstorm.  As such, paths like this one are perpetually running red with iron-rich muck.
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Our faithful steeds for the day and our guide, Eddy Jr. (On the right. Obviously.) Eddy is 11 years old and more skilled working with horses than we could ever dream of ourselves. We also enjoyed swimming with him later in a beautiful lily-pad-clad lake as he challenged us to races and handstand competitions.

Father and son watch us as we descend into one of the many caves that hide in the forest.

Our trek took us to a family coffee farm, much larger than the one we had stumbled upon in the Sierra Maestras. One of the (incredibly exuberant) employees gave us a detailed tutorial on the sorting, splitting, and roasting processes. He became a recurring character in our journey when he popped up that evening as the MC at a dance club across the street from our casa.
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Sara trots past a secadora, the giant huts used to dry tobacco leaves.
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Inside the secadora, tobacco leaves dry for months after having been sorted according to where they had been on the plant (top = more sunlight and older leaves = stronger flavour, but burn much faster. The balance of top-versus-bottom leaves is what creates the exceptional smoothness and even burning quality of hand-rolled cigars). 90% of the farm’s tobacco leaves will be sold to the government to become Cuba’s signature export, while 10% remain here, hand-rolled with no filler added, to make some of the smoothest and strongest cigars in the world.
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Throughout the day (and in a few of the pictures above), we could see the legendary mogotes in the distance, giant limestone monoliths that look as though they were dropped out of the sky. I wondered if it was possible to get closer to these, to actually walk right up to the point where they rise abruptly out of an otherwise Manitobanly-flat prairie. The next day would answer my question.

Day 2: Bicycles

Our obviously-very-well-connected casa hostess somehow made two bicycles appear the next morning, pointing us down the street which would eventually turn into a highway that wound through the mogotes. We got out onto the open road and felt the familiar exhilaration of highway cycling, except that instead of the grain elevator-dotted cornfields of southern Manitoba we were surrounded by mogote-dotted tobacco fields.

Tinker Creek’s star cyclist brings her skills to Cuba.
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Yep, you can! (Walk right up to the base of a mogote and touch it, that is). Most mogotes aren’t this vibrantly coloured…this one bears the Mural de la Prehistoria, a gigantic work of art depicting the evolution of life on earth.
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Our reward for our early start was having the entire mural to ourselves to experiment with cycling selfies. And some brief respite from that piercing Cuban sun.
Mural y mogote
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As the heat was reaching its peak, we sought refuge in la Cueva del Indio, a magnificent cave that once served as a natural fortress for an entire indigenous people. Half of it is filled with water and requires a boat to navigate, giving it an eerie River Styx quality.
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Day 3: Cattle-truck

The one typical Cuban treasure that Viñales lacks is a beach, but there are plenty of taxis willing to drive you the 2ish hours to nearby Cayo Jutías for a fairly significant price. When we asked our casa hostess (who by this point was starting to seem less well-connected and more positively magical) if there was a less expensive way she said yes, and that she would arrange it for the next morning. We just had to be at the door by 8:00.

While there were no cattle on the truck, it certainly could have served that purpose. About 15 of us cozied up on the bench that ran along the inside edge, and Sara was given the noble task of pulling the door shut as it swung open on every bump.
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Sara and I enjoy the Cuban tradition of bringing a drink with you into the ocean.
Jutías drinks!

Who needs a resort when, as you lie on the deserted end of a remote beach, a friendly fisherman approaches you and asks if you’d like to buy the lobster he just caught? We went out for a quick pre-lunch dip, and five minutes later heard him shout to us, “I have your lobster! I’ll just leave it on your towel!”
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The aforementioned 4:00pm daily thunderstorm, combined with some washed-up driftwood, provided a perfectly ominous photo-op.
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While our days were filled with nature at its most gorgeous, our nights were filled with fascinating people, like our hostess’ husband Eddy (yes, there are apparently a LOT of Eduardos in this part of the world!) who worked at the local cigar shop, and two lovely German travellers with whom we spent the evenings eating, dancing, debating the complexities of Cuban politics, and sharing stories from the days’ adventures. ¡Muchas gracias a todos de ustedes para compartir estos dias lindisimos con nosotros!

Eddy instructs us on the finer points of cigar-smoking. “Don’t use the lighter, it’s too direct. Light this stick of cedar paper, and then rotate it gently.” “Ah, like roasting a marshmallow,” I say. He doesn’t respond. I should have known…marshmallows are quite an enigma in Latin America. (But seriously, it’s like roasting a marshmallow.)
 

Our Deutsche travel buddies, Steffi and Marta, inspired us with their own travel stories and the incredible work they do back in Germany, before a game of Dutch Blitz that lasted well past midnight.
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¡Hasta próximo, Viñales!

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Collision 

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After finishing my official month at the hospital, I stayed on in Tuxtla for another ten days with my family, enjoying the freedom to sleep in, help out around the house, and await Josh’s arrival in Chiapas. After nearly five weeks of living on my own, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the thought of living as a couple once again. My time alone in Tuxtla had taught me an incredible amount about myself that I simply would not have learned in the same way if I was traveling with someone else. From the seemingly mundane (but for me, actually quite revolutionary!) lesson of learning to appreciate and even enjoy technology, to the possibly life-altering opportunity of being forced to work in both the ER and Pediatrics, to the maddeningly frustrating yet impossibly proud moments of having to depend solely on my own Spanish skills for communication, to the terrifying yet indescribably rewarding moments of having to depend solely on my own social skills for friendship… Because of experiences like these, I’ve always found it incredibly valuable to spend some time apart from each other, continuing to build our individual lives, and then also adding all the new lessons and challenges learned as individuals to our shared married life.

But as amazing as travelling alone can be, and as amazing as married life can be, the truth is that the transition between the two can be tricky. However, the Tuxtlayork crew were incredible (as they tend to be) at immediately welcoming Josh into our group and planning a week full of activities to show off our beloved Chiapas. As the experienced Chiapeneca, I got to play hostess to Josh, instructing him in the art of combi-riding, introducing him to the wonders of the Cañón del Sumidero, and ensuring that he was well-versed in the flavours of Tuxtla, including my favourites of michelada and tascalate. With Tuxtlayork, we returned to Sancris for a final weekend, and from Sancris, left on a twelve-hour round trip to seek out some of Chiapas’ maravillas:

Sancris 4.0: Columbian arepas, Mercado de dulces, & Maya Vinic fairtrade coffee!
Arepas!!
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Yes, that’s a chingón of souvenirs!
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Las cascadas de Agua Azul
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Agua Azul

Misol-Ha (where Josh beat us back to the bus by swimming across, rather than walking):
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Palenque: site of Mayan King Pakal’s legendary reign
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Site of torture and subsequent decapitation of criminals (yep, the torture seems gratuitous)
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With all our exchanges coming to an end around the same time, our final few days in Tuxtla were a blur of goodbye dinners and tearful hugs. We kept each other positive by talking about next summer – Sandra was going into her final year of medicine, so we decided a combination celebration/reunion was absolutely essential. The only question remaining is in which country it will be held!

Jammin’ … classic setlist of Radiohead, Romeo Santos, Fall Out Boy, and Heathen Eve originals
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Despedida 1.0 😦
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Marimba lessons from the experts
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Beautiful farewell dinner (complete with Mexican sushi!) with our host families
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Far sooner than I was ready for, it was our turn to be dropped off at the Tuxtla airport to catch our flight to Cancún and continue the next leg of our Mexican adventure. Thankfully, the airport was tiny enough that we could disregard all the PASSENGERS ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT warnings, and Valeria and Valeria escorted us with besos and a running photo-documentary all the way to the security checkpoint… at which point our final hugs were supervised by armed guards and the Valerias were then escorted back to the waiting area.

Despedida 2.0 😦 😦
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No es un adiós, es solamente un ¡Hasta pronto! a mi querida Chiapas.
And for the moment, es un ¡Hola! a Quintana Roo

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This Adventure Made Possible By…

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Anna Maria Esposita for finding us on the side of the road in Salerno, putting up with our feeble attempts at Italian, and magically making our luggage appear out of nowhere.  Maya, for introducing us to AirBnB in the first place…our travels will never be the same.  Our barista in Vietri Sul Mare (thank you for the doughnuts, we hope you made it to Australia!), and our wildly flirtatious maitre d’ (that wine was impressively strong!).  Fernando, for the ride to the Tiber (we’re sorry if we gave the impression that we wanted to boat back to Rome).  Pope Francis for instilling humanity into our visit to the Vatican.  University of Manitoba College of Medicine for changing the direction of our lives while sitting in a Roman burlap tent!  Jamie Pierce, for pointing us in the direction of Cinque Terre in the first place.  Kaya and Aeden for being the best roommates we could have asked for, and Sarah, Alicia, and Stacey for getting lost with us in one of the most beautiful places on earth.  And for the calamari cones.  Genius.  The Lemon Man, for delicious homemade wine with a side of really disgusting jokes, and the Pizza Man for abusing/believing in your employees (either way, you made a pizza in record time, well done!).  Pak Kashmir Doner Kebab for starting a 3-month-long love affair with kebab…and for not judging us when we came back twice in one day.  The Sprachcaffe receptionist for helping two confused travelers find a place to sleep in a language school.  Pietro for being a (very charming) walking encyclopedia of Florentine espionage.  All’antico Vinaio for your legendary sandwiches and free wine refills (no, seriously, it’s for real!).  The lovely couple who shared coffee with us on the train to Venice.  Archie & sons…your front hall will forever evoke in us a sense of oriental mystery.  The kiosco girl (and all of Vienna, for that matter) for your patience as we realized we knew literally NO Deutsch (“Card!…48?”).  The Musikverien Usher for engaging us in a Viennese musical intrigue and, therefore, much better seats!  Our Bulgarian/Brazillian (Bulgrillian?) cellist hostel roommate.  We tried to find you on iTunes but alas we were…so far…but…so close.  The Heinrich and Kress families for welcoming us so generously into your homes (and travel snacks that nearly broke the bus tables!).  Artur & Irina, we feel like we have a real home in Germany thanks to you.  Robert, Christian, and Erwin, we hope we can jam and play Dutch Blitz again one day!  Johannes for an unexpected evening of German tango (we’ll bring our dancing shoes next time).  Julia & your roommate for making us feel so at home in Köln.  Viel Glück to both of you in your new jobs!  Oma for always talking about your home country and inspiring us to retrace your Sunday walks down the Rhine.  Maybe one day we can go back with you!  Linda, dankjewel for your bikes, your lovely attic, and taking a chance on us as your first AirBnBers!  Edwin and Farah, for taking the time to hang out with us even with your wedding being a week away.  Once a WOOFer, always a WOOFer (ps come to Manitoba, we’ll take you to the snake pits!)  The stars, for aligning so perfectly as to allow us to have a lovely lunch with Dorien.  The Alma Dixons for getting us to and from Europe in the first place (Mom, your axiom of ‘would you rather have stuff or memories?’ has successfully stuck with me into adulthood) and for showing us all the places you always talk about.  The Farnham Dixons for a lovely afternoon and some authentically British fish’n’chips (sans mushy peas, thank-you!).  Wendy for taking this whole motley crew into your home and showing us around Glastonbury. Elly for introducing us to your family (I cannot imagine a more adorable kid to blow bubbles with than your granddaughter) and an evening of reminiscing about icebergs and penguins.  Pete & Patricia for the most incredible Welsh hospitality, and for driving us all over the country at all hours of the night.  Mark Hanford for keeping us simultaneously amused and not dead as we threw ourselves off cliffs into the sea (still waiting for those carpets!).  The disembodied Welsh couple whose voices helped us find our way out of the mist and back to the path somewhere on Mount Snowdon.  Jack Johnson, for being you, and for entirely coincidentally being in Paris at the same time as us.  Andréanne, for showing us around your beautiful new Swiss home.  Irene and Martin for sharing so many things with us: your inspiring work and outlook on life and faith, the truly breathtaking landscapes, and yes, the little bears :P.  Andreas and Simone, also for sharing so many things with us (like mother like son, eh?): your friends, your family, your food, your car, your bike…. That night with the giant map (and the many road trips that ensued) is still a memory that we talk about regularly!  Aric and Gabriel, for being as excited about the high-ropes garden as we were and never judging us on our (lack of) Swiss German. Joël for sharing your beautiful pays et famille. Yannick for the best duck I’ve ever tasted, and Hélène for showing us the work you’re doing to help new immigrants become self-sufficient in Toulouse.  Ron, Nicole, Aimée, Sean (and yes, Cougar) for making us recognize the name Carcassonne, even if we’ll never pronounce it properly.  Les Cabys des Taillades (et oui, de Paris aussi!) for sharing your passion for history, many hours of games (we now have our own Möllky set!), French puns, and more wine and cheese than any North American could comprehend.  Mami Caby, for a beautiful afternoon in St. Jean du Gard, and the silk scarf that’s currently on display in our living room.  Isaac and Sylvia of JUCUM Barcelona for the generous hospitality, the 2AM tour of your majestic city, and showing us what we truly believe is the best beach in Europe.  Hind, Nour, and Adam for helping us finish off the bag of snails and confirming everything we’d heard about the welcoming nature of Moroccans.  Nour, of Sahara Desert Crew, for an unforgettable few days of sights and culture unlike anything else we’ve ever seen (also, your mad photography skills. ‘Nuff said.).  Cafe Restaurant Nora, for providing a literal oasis in the desert (Nothing tastes as good as Berber pizza and Berber whiskey at +50C!) The Samnoun family for taking us in when our hostel was suddenly infested with bedbugs, and Bousha for introducing us to the madness of the Medina (and many, many friends ;)…)

And of course, contributions from VIEWERS LIKE YOU!

Un regreso tan largo

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¡Hola amigos y familia del fin del mundo!

Uh oh… hace mucho tiempo que no he hablado en español, entonces espero que pueden entenderme.

Después tres aviones y 16 horas de viaje, Josué y yo llegamos finalmente en Norteamérica. En principio, visitamos por una semana con la madre de Josué en Alma, Michigan. Que bella sopresa que mi madre estuvo en el aeropuerto también, y ella pasó la semana con nosotros y la familia de Josué en Michigan.

Nuestro concierto en Alma, MI (con la madre de Josué):

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¡Panchos americanos! 

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Después una semana lleno de muchas historias y comida estadounidense (los porciones enormes :O (Comentario de Josué: pero nada como la comida de Verónica o Lanus!)), Josué y mi madre y yo viajamos por bus hasta Ottawa, Ontario, Canadá (whoohoo Canada!!!!!!!!!) para visitar con mi hermana, mi cuñado, y mi nueva sobrina Cedar!! Cedar se nació en noviembre, entonces estuvo la primera vez que yo la vi. Que bella semana que pasamos con mi familia en Ottawa – lleno también de muchas historias y fotos, la comida canadiense (mi cuñado es un cocinero excelente!) y ¡lecciones de mate, por supuesto! Mi hermana esta muy entusiasmada para llevar su propio mate a su trabajo 🙂

Aviones, trenes y automóviles (¡y buses tambien! :P) con la madre de Sara:

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Querida bonita gordita sobrina ❤ (con su pantalones chilenos!)

Image Y, para saludarnos a Canada, 20131112-204353.jpghabía NIEVE por 2 horas en Ottawa!

Con los “Air Miles” de la madre de Josué,  podríamos recibir una vuelta gratis si nuestra vuelta terminó en los Estados Unidos. Entonces, de Ottawa, viajamos por tres aviones hasta Fargo, North Dakota, una ciudad cerca de nuestra hogar de Winnipeg, Manitoba. Si, que raro: viajamos por el mismo cantidad de aviones para viajar de Buenos Aires hasta Norte América que de Ottawa hasta Winnipeg!!
En Fargo, los abuelos y tíos de Josué nos encontraron al aeropuerto, y junto conducimos hasta Morden, una pueblo donde viven los abuelos de Josué. Después algunos días allá, FINALMENTE Josué y yo regresamos a Winnipeg.
¡Que viaje! Pero, no esta el fin de nuestras aventuras… 4 días después que llegamos en casa, empezamos nuestro trabajo al , un campamento bíblico por los niños. Pero, este es una historia por otro tiempo…
A todos nuestros amigos y familia argentinos: No podemos exprimir que preciosos son ustedes a nosotros. Muchísimas gracias a todos por su generosidad, su hospitalidad, su paciencia, y su amistad. Argentina va a tener por siempre un lugar muy especial en nuestro corazón, y estamos muy entusiasmados para regresar y visitarlos otra vez! La invitación a nuestra casa en Winnipeg es siempre un invitación abierto.
¡Hasta luego!
con grandes abrazos de
Sarita y Josué

The other ocean

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And so, after two and a half months of sheep-shearing, hitchhiking, feria-shopping, strawberry-picking, hosting, artesenal beer and way too much pizza, we bid our sad adieus to El Bolsón and were bus-bound once more.

We stopped in Bariloche just long enough to eat lunch by the lake and sample some of their world-famous chocolates, and then we were off and running to Valparaiso, Chile.

Relaxing at our hostel in Bariloche:
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Mamushka, Mamushka! (sung to the tune of “Solishka”): Home of Guillermo Wonka, the Latino chocolatier…
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After a wretched overnight bus ride and classic Chilean border crossing (read: three hours spent freezing outside at 2AM while the border guards sipped coffee and debated amongst themselves whose turn it was to turn on the x-ray machine to scan our bags), we arrived in Valparaiso at 5 AM: exhausted, homesick for El Bolsón and Argentina in general, and wanting only to find a campground pronto.

Apparently, however, Chilenos only sleep “with a roof above their heads!” making campgrounds a scarce commodity. It didn’t improve matters that the only person in the bus terminal available to help was a crotchety custodian with only one tooth left in his mouth, which he used to squawk at us instead of forming discernible words.

Needless to say, our first impression of Chile was less than favourable.

We found the single campground advertised at the (closed) information booth and made our way there, praying that the owner of “Doña Elena’s” would take kindly to two backpackers waking her up at five in the morning.

Doña Elena could best be described as terrifyingly formidable – but very kind. She led us down three flights of rickety steps to her tiny garden, where we set up our tent beneath a papaya tree that kept dropping fruit on our head, and finally, we went to sleep, wondering why in the world we had ever left Argentina.

That afternoon, we decided to explore our new neighbourhood. We had walked only five minutes down the block before coming across this beach:

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After seeing what lay in our backyard, we decided to give Chile a chance.

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Valparaiso is a city of brightly painted houses stacked crazily atop each other, tumbling down the mountain towards the sea. Whole blocks of incredible street art, tiny twisting alleyways, and cobblestone roads make getting lost in this city a most aesthetically pleasing experience. In order to explore the city fully, one has to take the ascensores, Valparaiso’s vertical public transport system dating from 1886, that will pull you up the mountain to yet more streets and cafes and getting-lost opportunities.

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On board the ascensor Concepción:
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Valparaiso is a funny mix of old and new latinoamerica: street wrestling matches can be found alongside massive (4 floors!) modern malls in the neighbouring Viña del Mar, which have everything from 5 McDonalds to movie theatres. (Yep, we saw 2 movies in 4 days, and had movie popcorn both times. It was fantastic!!)

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After a few days of getting tossed around by enormous waves in the icy Pacific, sampling strawberry and banana soft serve ice-cream (amazing, FYI), and ogling the magnificent street art in our beautiful Valpo, we hopped a bus to Isla Negra, a tiny town perched on the ocean, where the poet Pablo Neruda had built one of his many homes.

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We shlepped ourselves and our bags all the way from the bus terminal to the only hostel in town, called La Locura del Poeta: Eco-Hostel and Lodge, advertising “buena onda y energía positiva,” only to have Sandra, the owner, tell us dismayingly that there was no room. Our faces fell down to our toes, and I asked her desperately if she knew of any other place in town where we could stay, or camp. Immediately, her face lit up. “¿Acampar? Si, ¡yo tengo espacio para acampar!” With that, she led us to her backyard, dragged a lawn chair out of the way, and motioned triumphantly to a patch of sand beside her pool. Poolside suite for two? ¡Si, por favor! 🙂

La Locura del Poeta:
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That evening, Sandra invited us to a bread-making lesson, at which we met some of the other guests, including an adorable Chileno couple who not only took meticulous notes on everything Sandra said, but also insisted on filming the entire bread lesson, as well as the macramé lesson that followed.

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The next day, Josh and I wandered the town, having lunch on Neruda’s balcony (where I finally got to have a Pisco Sour – Nerudian style!) and watching the sun go down over the waves.

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We returned to Valpo, planning to leave the next day, but due to some unforeseen circumstances (click here for more details…) had to remain in Chile another week. Although our time in Chile had a rough start and an even rougher end (purse thefts and Embassies and water-borne illness, oh my!), Valpo remains the most beautiful city I have ever seen, with some of the loveliest memories.

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Ps. If we needed even more reason to remember Chile fondly, guess what we found in Valpo after FIVE MONTHS of searching Argentine supermarkets high and low?

Peanut butter. Real, honest-to-goodness, “ideal para sandwiches y recetas deliciosas” peanut butter.

The real kicker? It was imported from Argentina.

En route to the end of the world…

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When we last left you, dear reader, we were making our way gradually southward to the town of Ushuaia, which marks the southernmost point of human civilization. After 31 hours in three different buses (a trip which included spectacular views of the sheep-speckled Patagonia countryside, eight hours straight of medieval fantasy movies, and six hours standing in line at Chilean customs*), we arrived in Ushuaia and made our way in the dark to our campsite, which was also the winter season ski hill.

Grazing sheep dashing out of the way of our bus:
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Tierra del Fuego: “Land of Fire”
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We were in the process of setting up our tent when the campsite manager rushed outside and insisted we spend the night in the Refugio (“refuge” aka very rustic ski lodge), because it was too cold and too rainy outside. It was neither, but he was so sincere he was hard to resist. So, we spent the night on the floor of the refugio along with Pablo, the Catholic-Hindu Uruguayan who ate cereal out of a cut-in-half milk carton with a spoon he had borrowed from us, and was planning to camp just as soon as he bought a tent.

We spent the next few days exploring the town at the end of the world, and found that Ushuaia is a town where one doesn’t walk – one climbs. Built on the mountainside, Ushuaia is made up of vertical streets and cars parked at impossible angles, street signs bearing not only street names but geographical coordinates, an ocean harbor opening expectantly to the Beagle Canal, and, of course, the earmark of human civilization: many many MANY kitschy gift shops!

Looking towards the harbour:
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We planned to hike to the local natural wonder, the Glacier Martial. Armed with many maps and instructions from the campsite manager on how to complete the “three hour hike” to the glacier, we set off to find the trail that was supposedly clearly marked as soon as we reached the top of the ski hill. At the top, we found a marked trail, but after several hours of walking through ankle-deep mud (bear in mind that all the snow has just melted here, and it rained every day we were there!), it soon became clear that the trail was in fact heading in the opposite direction that we wanted to go. We were faced with a choice: turn back and repeat our chilly, muddy trek with nothing to show for it; or press on with the promise of a taxi ride home from the glacier (if we could manage to find it before dark).

The rainbow at the top of the ski hill (our campsite was right at the bottom!)
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Happy springtime! The trail of mud and freshly-melted snow:
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We pressed on. With only an hour of daylight left, we suddenly saw our first sign of civilization all afternoon: the tea house at the foot of the glacier mountain! A friendly taxi driver at the base of the mountain assured us that yes, this was the way to the glacier, but it was still a three-hour round trip from where we were! Crushed, we stood on the darkening mountainside, trying to decide what to do. Did we make the mature, responsible decision to take the taxi back to our campsite and attempt the hike again the next day, when we would be assured enough daylight to make it there and back? Or, did we press on like lunatics into the unknown, up a mountain and back again, possibly in the dark?

Up we went! Up the incline, across a rickety bridge, through a gnarled forest completely frozen over with snow, down an ice bridge and over a stream, arriving finally at… a lot more mountains.

Josh trekking the ice bridge:
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We stood looking around in utter bewilderment. We had followed all the directions perfectly, we had passed all the landmarks, and according to the map, the glacier should have been in front of us. But unless we were really missing something, there was no glacier to be found.

Freezing cold and at a total loss, we decided to take a breather at the benches by a little information placard. And there I read the following:

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In other words, we had made it to the glacier. We just missed it by 10 000 years.

The Glacier Martial:
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All was not a total loss! The trip up had given us beautiful views of the mountains, and had only taken half the time we thought it would (we were realizing at this point that Ushuaians have absolutely no sense of time), so the teahouse was still open for another thirty minutes. Fueled by our desire for hot chocolate, we sped down the mountain, arriving with one minute to spare – just enough time to call a cab and order two hot chocolates to go!

All in all, a successful day.

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*A note on Chilean customs: Any travel to Ushuaia requires, for some inexplicable reason, a two-hour drive on a stretch of Chilean highway. In other words, one needs to exit Argentina (passports checked, all bags scanned, many customs forms filled out, all passengers interrogated). Next, a half-hour drive through no-man’s land. Then, enter Chile (repeat all steps as above). Two hour drive through Chile. Exit Chile (repeat steps as above). Re-enter Argentina (repeat steps once again).
Total time in Chile: 2 hours.
Total time in customs lines: 6 hours.
Word of advice? Do not bring apples, no matter what the Chilean Minister of Agriculture may tell you.