Category Archives: :Location: Sudamérica

Don’t cry for me, Argentina…

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Like this title, the thought of departing from this amazing continent was unfortunate but realistically inevitable.

We bid South America farewell today, after taking a train back to Buenos Aires from the beautiful river-country of Tigre. Argentina did a superb job of keeping us distracted from the sad farewell by throwing a random private river tour at us on our final night, offered by a friendly, flamboyant fellow who said that the tour would include a stop at a rustic old wine bar. The river tour was gorgeous, although the “bar” was definitely just someone’s empty house on the side of the river, in which were hidden several bottles of wine, which we enjoyed free of charge… and possibly permission as well.

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It continued to cushion our transition by having us end up on the same trans-American flight as our awesome French WWOOFing friend who taught us how to climb the Andes way back in December (click here for backstory) and hadn’t been seen since!

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Thirty-four thousand feet over Bolivia, however, the reality of leaving has finally caught up to us, so it’s time for some comic relief.

You see, Argentina is a country of endless natural beauty full of fascinating, generous people. There is spontaneous tango dancing on the streets and entire animals being cooked to a perfect medium-rare on every corner. It is a paradise of colour and music. The streets are paved with empanadas and the rivers run rich with dulce de leche. But there are times when you want to just take the whole country aside and say, “¡you guys are ridiculous!”, and it is those moments to which this post is dedicated.

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And so, without further ado, the Top Ten Quirks that make us roll our eyes and say, “Oh, Argentina…”

10. Why are good old fashioned Cheerios considered kiddie-food, yet respectable adults start every day off with a package of gas station-style chocolate cookies?

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9. Why do all store clerks ask you if you want to break your purchase down into monthly payments, regardless of whether it’s a new car or a pack of socks? Do I want to be worrying about paying off my ice cream cone six months after I’ve finished eating it??

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8. How can you have an intersection of two four-lane roads, plus pedestrians and motorbikes (who often act like pedestrians, at least as far as sidewalk usage is concerned), and have no signs, lights, or even marked lanes?? (Congratulations, however for somehow accomplishing this without killing everyone.)

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7. Side-ponytails and mullets? Really?

6. Why do the majority of public washrooms seem to go out of their way to have something weird about them? Toilets come with seats, why do you take them off? Why has the side of the bathtub been neatly cut away, requiring a full mopping of the bathroom after every shower? Why are hot water and toilet paper luxuries, but bidets taken for granted?

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5. Why is it that city buses follow a strict network of stops, yet the luxurious, cross-country, hot-meals-served-to-you-by-stewards-in-uniform buses can be hailed on the side of the road or stopped at any passenger’s whim? And, for that matter, do we all have to listen to the young punk driver’s skipping mix CD of classic rock, folklore, and Lady Gaga?

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4. Why are coins still hoarded with such voracity? I can see the 50 centavo coin in your cash register, and yet you’re asking me if you can give me SweetTarts as change instead?

3. (To be fair, this is far more directed at Uruguay, but we mean it with just as much affection):
Do you really need mate so badly at any given moment that you have to carry a thermos of hot water under your arm as you ride your bike through rush hour traffic?* And for that matter, is it so necessary to have a toothbrush in your pocket at all times? (but no toothpaste…that’d just be too much!)
*Editor’s note: Yet another instance of this blog not accurately reflecting the authorship in its entirety, because I plan to get a suitable thermos as soon as I no longer also have a 25-kilo backpack to manage.

Spot the mate!
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2. Why are there at least two security guards at McDonalds and none in the banks? Is the Hamburglar that much of a threat?

And finally, tender subject though it is, the number one quirk that makes Argentina so ridiculously lovable…

1. Despite what the ubiquitous Argentine bumper stickers, political rallies, street signs, graffiti, supermarket names, postcards, and children’s pyjamas may say:

They’re called the Falklands.

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Paradise found!

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During our travels, we had encountered several Uruguayans, and whenever we asked them for recommendations on where to go, we would receive the same answer: “You have to go to Cabo Polonio.” Described as a tiny fishing village of forty inhabitants hidden amongst sand dunes, with no electricity and no way of reaching it save for horseback or 4X4, Polonio intrigued us enough to attempt a trip there. Exactly as all our Uruguayan acquaintances had described, our bus dropped us off on the side of the highway. It was already night, and we were totally lost in the pitch black but for a tiny light in the distance. We stumbled towards it and found it to be the park office, where presently, a 4X4 dune buggy pulled up, and we clambered aboard to be carted off into the darkness.

Our transportation… but picture riding atop this in inky blackness!
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After a few minutes of bumpy driving, we reached a park office and a ranger came out. “Tienen una carpa?” he asked brusquely. (Do you guys have a tent?)
“Si, por supuesto!” we responded, eager to prove that we were prepared to camp, since we were entering a national park, and as we Canadians know, national parks were made for camping!
“Hand it over,” he demanded.
“… ?!??” replied us.
“Tents are prohibited in Uruguayan national parks. You’ll have to leave it with me.”

Away went our romantic plans of camping on the beach and enjoying to the fullest this rustic experience. Plus, our tent was our baby, from which we hadn’t been separated since we received her. Could we trust this man to care for her as we did, and did he realise how indispensable she was to us?!? Regardless, we handed it over, and with many bemused looks exchanged between the two of us, our buggy continued to bump away into the void.

About halfway through the forty-minute journey through the dunes, we became aware of a strange sound, and if we strained our eyes in the blackness, we thought we could make out odd white shapes just in front of us. We finally realized that the sound was the roaring of the ocean, while the whiteness was huge waves crashing ashore, barely ten meters from where we were driving. We were completely surrounded by and lost in the darkness: the only relief came from the beam of Polonio’s lighthouse.

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We were dropped off in an open space, and while we stood bewildered by the disorientating blackness and the vicious winds, we heard a disembodied voice asking if we needed a place to stay. Disembodied voices normally aren’t the most reassuring, but when your only other apparent guide is a lighthouse surrounded by menacing rocks, even a disembodied voice can sound relatively friendly.

We followed our shadowy host through ankle-deep sand and waving sea grasses, arriving finally at what turned out to be not a hostel, like we had been expecting, but his own house. Gabriel, our host, offered us the loft of his tiny, one-room beach shack, and while we hauled our bags up the ladder to our room, he lit candles and invited us to share his dinner of buñuelos de algas (aka seaweed fritters) and a single glass of red wine for the three of us (“The glass is new!” he told us proudly.)

After eating our fill of fritters, he then invited us out for a drink. We stepped back out into the dark and the howling winds, wading through sand dunes until Gabriel commented, “Well, we’re now on Main Street!” In the dark, Main Street felt exactly like every other sand dune we had just crawled through. (In the light, it turned out that wasn’t far from the truth.) We entered what looked like a massive heap of vines, but turned out to be a bar, dimly lit by candles, with little private “rooms” formed by bamboo partitions overgrown by living plants. Josh and I sat there with Gabriel, feeling as though we had stumbled into Lothlórien.

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Main street in the light of day. (Note the large bush behind Josh? Yep, that’s the bar!)
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The next morning, it was the sun that woke us up. The window right next to our bed was lit up by a dazzling glow, and rolling over, we were greeted by the view of the sun rising over the Atlantic. We ran outside and directly into the ocean, because what we had been unable to see the previous night was that there was absolutely nothing between our front door and the shoreline.

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View from our front door:
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We were planning to stay only two days in Polonio before continuing northwards. But when the day of our planned departure found us lounging in hammocks while gazing dreamily at the ocean, we suddenly wondered why we were in such a hurry to leave. If seven months had taught one important lesson about travel, it was that seeing ten new and different places will never be as amazing as finding one incredible place that you love.

So, two days stretched into an unforgettable week filled with sunrise and sunset swims, watching dolphins frolic so close to the shore we could see their faces, enjoying many performances by a hilarious folklore music troupe from Ushuaia, and many candlelit dinners (in Polonio, there isn’t any other kind!) of shrimp empanadas and shark ravioli, all caught that morning by the town fishermen.

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Shark* sighting from the beach!
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*Turned out to be a dolphin, but the picture was too good to pass up!

Lunch in our favourite empanada place (with our favourite traveling music troupe, Los Pinguïnos de Ushuaia, serenading us!)
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Josh taking on the Atlantic (…and valiantly losing)
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Everyone Together practice (having to go back to practicing in the basement will be hard after this location!)
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Lessons learnt?
Never be in a hurry to end a beautiful experience. And always take travel advice from the locals. Lonely Planet just doesn’t cut it!

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The land of meat and mate*

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*This title could also refer to Argentina, but impressively enough, even Argentines admit (albeit suspiciously) that Uruguayans actually surpass them in their love of mate.

The comparison between Uruguay and Argentina has been likened to that between Canada and the USA, where one is the smaller, gentler, and more mellow version of the other. Since Argentina was already one of the most tranquilo and lovable places we had ever encountered, we were curious to see how Uruguay could compare.

Incredibly enough, not only did Uruguay hold its own against our beloved Argentina, it came very close to completely stealing our hearts.

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We arrived in Uruguay by boat, slipping quietly down the Rio de la Plata from Tigre, Argentina:

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We spent the night in the port town of Carmelo, enjoying our first taste of wonderful Uruguayan hospitality, as well as wonderful Uruguayan pizza from our lovely hotelier who insisted on ordering our dinner for us. After a lazy day spent walking along the river, we boarded a bus for the sprawling capital of Montevideo.

Even though the weather was grim, with ferocious winds and sudden downpours, we walked along Montevideo’s Rambla (waterfront), nearly being swept into the river by gusting waves. Any energy lost in maneuvering the Rambla was more than compensated for by the gorgeous asado we then consumed for lunch at the famous Mercado del Puerto (The Port Market, est. 1885). The Mercado can best be described as the Forks Market… but with every food stall filled with meat, and only meat. Lured to a table by a free sampling of Uruguay’s signature drink of Medio y Medio (half champagne, half wine) and by the demonstrative platter of sample cuts of meat, the Mercado’s parillas proved well-deserving of their fame (when your appetizer is several chorizos, you know the entree is going to be amazing!)

Swept away by La Rambla:
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Josh’s lustful gaze roams over the many parillas of Mercado del Puerto:
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After a few days in Montevideo, we were ready to explore some of Uruguay’s more remote beauty… But that is a story for another blog! 🙂

Birthdays, birthdays, everywhere!

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Since this week was apparently a very fertile week in my family, I thought I would do a special birthday post for the following cumpleañeros:

Qué los cumplas feliz
que los cumplas feliz
que los cumplas BORDEN y SEAN y MADRE!!!!!!
que los cumplas feliz!

Con mucho amor de
Sarita y Josué
🙂

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Córdoba Part II: For the adrenaline junkie

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Having learnt all there was to learn from the capital city, we headed south to La Cumbrecita, a pedestrian-only village (the bus drops you off in a parking lot and you cross a bridge on foot to get into town) founded by the survivors of a German shipwreck of the Graf Spee (okay, I guess the history lessons weren’t completely over, though how a bunch of shipwreck survivors made it all the way to the dead center of the country was never clearly explained).

The town is hilariously Deutsch in everything from its alpine-style houses to its abundance of chocolate shops. We found the one campsite in town (which happened to be the most visually stunning we’d encountered thus far, despite the wild horses which seemed inordinately interested in our tent) and spent the next the next couple days eating goulash and knackwürst and zip-lining across magnificent waterfalls at the “Alpine* Adventure Park” with our leiderhosen-clad guides. A thoroughly good time was had by all.
*Note on just how German this town is… Did anyone else notice that we’re in the Andes?

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Remember the ham buns we raved about? Here is the source!
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Waiting for the trencita – En route to the Alpine Adventure Park! (yodel-le-eehoo!!)
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The alarmingly friendly horse: our tent may be green, but it’s not on the menu!!
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Our last stop in Córdoba was a town called La Cumbre, where we spent a couple lazy days enjoying the much-awaited break in humidity (autumn has finally reached the southern hemisphere!!!) and drinking mate with Martín, the owner of the campsite.

Our last day there, however, we made up for our laziness by throwing ourselves off a cliff while strapped to burly Hispanic men and large sheets of silk: aka paragliding!

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Fechu, our paragliding professional, picked us up at our campsite and drove us to the top of a mountain, where we stood on the edge and stared in awe at the minuscule rivers in the valley below, trying to fathom our descent. As we stood patiently, being strapped into innumerable harnesses, Pablo, another paraglider, asked Josh to move forward a bit. Then to take a few more steps forward…

All I heard next was my husband yelling, “Wait – we’re going?!!” and suddenly there they went, off the edge of the cliff and disappearing around the mountain.

As I debated whether or not I should let someone know that Josh and Pablo had just vanished, Fechu called another guy over to “hold me down.” As they lifted up the parachute, someone kept hold of my harness and yanked me firmly downwards, to keep me from floating prematurely away! Suddenly it was my turn to be told to “Run – you need to run forward now!”

“Towards the edge?!” I shrieked.

“Yes, go!!!”

So I ran (as fast as one can run when strapped to both a brawny Argentine as well as a parachute)… but suddenly, my feet weren’t touching the ground anymore; instead, they were swinging freely as the wind whooshed beneath them. Every dream I’ve ever had of flying was realized in that glorious half-hour of circling thousands of meters above the earth. With nothing touching me but the seat of the harness, the sun on my face, and the breeze around my legs, I felt more peaceful – and more invigorated! – than I could ever have imagined.

Going…
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Going…
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Gone!
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My flight from Josh’s perspective:
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After a few minutes of flying, I guess my silence worried Fechu, since he called, “Te gusta?”
(Do you like it?)

“Si, me encanta,” I responded, amazed he could think any less, “pero no tengo palabras!”
(I love it, but I just don’t have the words for it!)

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The entire time in the air, I had two thoughts:
1. This is incredible.
2. Mom really wouldn’t be happy about this.

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The landing worried me: I’ve heard all kinds of horror stories of knee-wrecking impacts and having to run your feet off. But as the ground started to loom closer, Fechu maneuvered it so that we landed softly on the ground, with as much impact as sitting down on a chair. The only mishap? We landed in a horse pasture, and both Josh and I landed right in poop.

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Afterwards, we were waiting for a ride back down the mountain when they asked us if we’d like to go see the nearby Río Pinto. We readily agreed, and got packed into a truck with four Argentines who had also just been paragliding. When we were dropped off at the river, we discovered that our ride back to town wasn’t leaving for five hours, so we were stuck here in the middle of nowhere with four strangers.

Amazingly, the strangers turned out to be some of the funniest and kindest people, four friends reunited for a week-long vacation who were happy to share their time together with us. After lunching together on asado, we found a gorgeous swimming hole and spent all afternoon relaxing, getting driven back to town in time to catch the most amazing sunset over the mountains.

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Yanina, Seba, Victoria y Leo: ¡Muchísimas gracias por un día inolvidable! 🙂

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Córdoba Part I: For the history buff

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After spending nearly six months talking to Argentines about our travels, there was one thing we’d learnt for sure: you gotta go to Córdoba.

Everyone had their different reasons, but the general vibe we got was that this was Argentina’s ‘character province’. And even after Mendoza’s flying melons, I think they may have been correct.

Our time in the capital city was spent mostly on history lessons. In the 70s, Córdoba city was the headquarters of the military coup’s brutal secret police (the D2), as well as the prison where ‘the disappeared’ (aka any man, woman, or child who voiced the question of where democracy had gone) were kept, often until their deaths. The prison has now been turned into a museum (El Museo de la Memoria, “The Museum of Memory”), its walls eerily left in their original crumbling state. It’s hard to say what the most powerful aspect of this museum was: the fact that such atrocities have happened so recently and yet are relatively unknown internationally, the sign at the end that says “if you were born in the early 1970s and are unsure of your identity, talk to us, we can help” and actually means it, or the fact that people we consider peers here in Argentina personally know people whose whereabouts are still unknown as a result of these actions. It’s bizarre to be on the other side of the world and still have history hit so close to home.

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Names and faces of The Disappeared
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Library of forbidden books
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Our second bit of history came from the nearby town of Alta Gracia, which in the 30s was the childhood home of Ernesto Che Guevara, aka this guy:

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Thanks to my trusty Latin American Revolutions course at UofM, I knew there was more to Che than the classic picture that’s on every punk rock poster and the odd Taco Bell commercial, but his home-turned-museum more than confirmed this. It was a very well-done tribute to a man who loved life and fought with integrity against injustice.

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Ernesto’s med school grad picture
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Evolving modes of transportation:
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Che Guevara used this toilet! (we didn’t 😦 )
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Alta Gracia dique built by the Jesuits in 1659
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Granja #6: A lesson in optimism

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In its write-up, our sixth farm described itself as a perfumery, something different and interesting. In their email correspondence with us, the hosts seemed overjoyed at the idea of our stay with them.

Within our first day or two with them, we discovered that neither of these were so.

It was a generally uncomfortable experience, which is all I’ll say for now so as not to dwell on negatives. The positives were (a) that Sara and I spent two full days picking walnuts, and invented our own cosechador de nueces out of a plastic jar, some wire, and a piece of bamboo, and (b) met some of the kindest, most interesting fellow WWOOFers thus far. Between a French couple that had met in Morocco while she was studying journalism and he was studying oceanography, and an impressively dreadlocked Czech/Irish couple who had got jobs as shouting soldiers in the filming of King Arthur thanks to their general unkept look, we always had plenty to talk about.

The most striking thing about these travelers, though, was their ability to stay positive even at this particular farm, where relations with hosts were awkward if not sometimes downright tense.

Sara and I have sadly observed that the one thing that seems guaranteed to bring people together, regardless of nationality or experience, is complaining. Despite the beauty and crazy adventures that are constantly surrounding us here in South America, it’s often hard to relate to anyone without finding something to whine about. And now, when finally there were things we could’ve easily let annoy us, we found ourselves with people that seemed determined to genuinely get to know each other and show love to our hosts even if it was not always reciprocated. It was definitely both a breath of fresh air and a challenge to both of us.

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Cosechador de nueces, design copyright Pedro Wieja 2011
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Welcome to Hotel Massacre*…
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Hike up Loma Bola
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For Scott Donnelly: Fine dining in La Paz – The tale of a tenacious journey.
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* In case you’re concerned: “Hotel Massacre” was the affectionate moniker given by the WWOOFers to the absolutely terrifying, bat-infested crumbling building where we were told to keep our stuff and in which we were welcome to sleep as well (no one ever seemed to take this offer up…)