Archive for December, 2009

Almost Close Enough

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

We boarded the 350 foot ferry in Porto Montt, a ratty city that really only serves as a port. We all arrived in the check-in building a good 4 hours before the ship was scheduled to set sail. By stroke of luck, I was in close proximity to two couples who seemed like fun. One was from England and one was from Seattle. This made for a grand total of 4 nice couples that I would know on this ship. The first two I met over a week ago, one in Pucon (from England) and another in Bariloche (from Israel). The Israeli couple proclaimed that they would be the only couple of their kind on this boat. They made this prediction based on their confidence in the predictability of their race. They were right. And I was proud of them for breaking the mold.

I knew things were going to heat up on this boat. I knew that bonds would be made based on the artificial environment that we would be living in for the next 4 days. What if you had to be around the same 200 people for 96 hours, on a boat? But to tell you the truth, my luck had already changed in Puerto Varas, where people seemed much more open and kind as a majority for the first time in South America. I hoped that this deliberate desolate direction would bring folks that were welcoming of others. I was surprised it took so long to ring true.

Fair weather travelers, those are the ones that stick to their pre-set groups and their lonely planets guide books. But something was distinctly different about South America; something that I couldn’t put my finger on. And then, like an omen, a late twenties dutch man said it plain and simple. “They are older.” Of course, why couldn’t I think of that. “By the time that most people travel to South America, they have already been on a bunch of trips. They aren’t as lusty over the rush of meeting other travelers.” Yes but does this mean that I am also less enthusiastic about meeting other travelers? I don’t think so, but it is possible that I am in fact getting over it, but don’t even realize how my signals have changed.

Nope, I think that since my progression of continental take overs have been in the same trip, that I still appreciate a good conversation with a random person.

We board the boat and our sleeping quarters seem like a identical labyrinth, but somehow, I seem to find a way to find my bed after the third night. We go through good seas and bad, many meals and many laughs. Cold days and steaming hot patches of sun. We even pass a glacier that is 90 meters tall at the face. But there were exactly two moments that I wish to never forget. The first of which takes this title.

The first day’s sun set took a particular behavior that I have never quite seen. As a matter of a miracle, on Christmas Day, I almost got to touch a sun set. Now what do I mean by that anyway?

How many thousands of peach and purple, red and yellow cloud soaked skies have you enjoyed in your gifted life? Probably in the hundreds if you open your eyes every once in a while.

Now how often have you almost been able to reach out and touch those clouds? I cam within what seemed like 50 feet in fact. Did the boat fly? Nope, thanks to the Patagonian weather systems, you can easily have high clouds in the distance and extremely low ones right next to you. The high clouds blocked out the sun completely, but light made its way across the sky and the low clouds above out boat caught them like a catchers mitt.
Gentle peach cotton candy stretched over the boat like a warm blanket. The whole sky dark, it held it’s breath for the blanket to protect us from the onward squall.

The second moment was another one of my world famous all alone moments, but this time it was by mistake. This time, after a rousing game of South American bingo; after the dance floor was too hot to stay inside for; I stepped outside to get some air. I made my way towards the front of the boat in what I believed to be the darkness of 10:30pm. Much to my delight, as I reached the front of the boat, I saw a bold faced cry from the coming sky. This Day Was Not Done.

There was life to be lived. Yet the rest of the world seemed dark, the coming stage a mile ahead, in the raging fjords was bright with black and white contrast. The local sky was covered with a thick blanket of night as the future barrel of our paths was vivid with a down pour in the left and staggeringly sharp cliffs to the right. Everyone was either inside dancing or sleeping when I came upon this dramatic scene. It was silent in this moment, sans the eerie huming of the radar 20 feet above me. I found myself caught in the same trance that a vampire might have induced on its prey. Infatuated just enough with the scene, to ignore the eminent downpour as well as the ice inspired air. Too perfectly unique to ruin by runing inside to share; I took a selfish posture. This moment was all mine.

Not since Turkey have I seen such a masterful use of black and white. These two moments and these two moments alone, made my Navimag trip unforgeable.

0
Posted in Uncategorized |

A Christmas Miracle

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

Arriving in Puerto Varas on Christmas Eve Eve, there was only rain. Dozens of groups of tourists rushed up the volcano to try and catch of glimpse of the sights before jumping back on the road. Rushed in their itineraries, they attempted to make South America into a rush-able Euro destination. The epic distances in this vast continent will crush the strongest resolve.

I sat inside and waited out the storm. It was time to spend one of my valuable extra days. The next day I met up with Morton, a 32 year old bridge engineer from Denmark. His first long trip was 2 years and he has been making 6 weeks a year to travel since. We both thought that visiting a volcano on Christmas eve was a good idea, so we agreed to go. We could only get a bus that dropped us off still 18 kilometres away, so we started walking. The sun was out in true Christmas Miracle fashion as we walked down a dirt road with our thumbs out.

We figured hitchhiking would be a fitting backpacker’s holiday activity. There was not even so much as a nibble until our luck changed even further. I tried to maintain a “I just want a ride, not to kill and eat you.” face as cars wizzed by. A car began to slow and I thought it was not a good idea to run up to it. Didn’t want to get scarred. The back door opened slowly, I still wasn’t clear about the offer. A young college looking kid got out and invited us in.

His Mom was the driver. You could tell that she used to hitch quite a bit in her day. Still very much fit, with deeply earned smile lines, she said “We’ve been looking for some hitches all day.” This was not to be mistaken as a “We are hunting for hitchers.” But more of a “We wanted to lend a hand.”

It turns out that they were going to the top of the volcano as well. We conversed and shared 2 hours of volcanic experience. They dropped us off at a beautiful waterfall, which was out of their way.

After we eventually got on the same bus back to town, we agreed to cook a huge Christmas diner (Yet another miracle). We shared conversation with new people. People who embraced strangers on the most sacred day of the year to not meet strangers. It was a backpackers Christmas. But the real miracle was not that we had perfect weather. It had nothing to do with getting to a place that public transport would not let us get to on this day. It had nothing to do with sharing a feast either. It was the floating feeling that I only get once a year, late at night, Christmas eve. It was the feeling of warmth and security in this universe. That warm silence. I had it, from my bed. Alert and unable to go to sleep, yet complete. I shared this feeling in a room full of 7 other sleeping travelers. Some things are hard wired after all. Thousands of miles away from those I love, I was not alone.

0
Posted in Uncategorized |

Yellow Means Go

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

It’s been a few weeks since my parents went home and a nagging suspicion is fast growing a valid premonition. I had a hunch that the south of South America might leave me with a long deserved lull in social experience.

I’m speaking of the balance in life that seems to rain true on most intimately important instances. That is, what comes up must come down (and fortunately, up again). Coming in from a fantastic 4 months in Europe and Africa, I hope that the balance is not equal in time.

At first there were just not a whole bunch of people in each of my given hostels to even talk to, but now it is a question of compatibility. Yes I’ve met some interesting folks, but their fierce differences don’t lend to the instant and timeless friend ships that I had the benefit of in New Zealand.

But this is not the first rodeo that I’ve been to. There is a whole world out here that needs living.

I’ve crossed over to Argentina once again to Bariloche, in the Lake District. Rolling in the bus on the way to town I am struck down by the ruggedness of this endless post card. As always, the bus keeps driving past some of the most picturesque visions I have ever seen. Be it tourist bus or transport bus, it always seems to ignore the very best.

One thing in Bariloche that is fun for the whole family are the mounds of yellow blossomed bushes. With flowers similar to snap dragons, these weeds of hope sprawl along the roadside. Their audacity could cause a scholar to concede in yellow as a primary color. With unbelievable resiliency, they punctuate the land disproving the hypothesis that South America is just a mirror continent of North. Plants don’t grow this way back home.

Blatantly in a botanist’s beard, golden pollen would gather. The land lacks a distinctive pine vapor that will be found in all the beauty of the America in the North. I went with a few guys from Canada to a viewing point and was pleasantly surprised with a café which had one star prices and a 12 star view. Empenadas were just a dollar a piece. Had this been in Europe, they would have been 10 euro.

Bariloche is a place of many tourists, but also a hefty dose of outdoors within reach. It is also the chocolate capital of Argentina. Quite wonderfully priced as well. I went on a 30K mountain bike ride which was almost completely up and down hill.

As I switched into 24th gear I powered down the steep hill so quickly that my fastest cadence could not keep up with my kinetic velocity. I could have done without the hills that I had to pedal in first gear to get up. To tell you the truth, I jumped off my bike to walk it up the majority of the times.

I promise that these posts are more of a vent than a cleverly constructed allegory (not quite sure I used that right, probably not), but as things make their way to paper, they tend to make their way to sense for me as well.

The point of it all, as it appears in this moment, is that when you get the opportunity of a declining hill, you shouldn’t just coast down it, because there will be an up hill battle around the corner. As we say in Californian Culture, “Bomb It”. When life seems easiest, when it is in it’s brightest burst of yellow, that’s the time to give it your all. That is the time make your mark on things. When things get a bit shit, jump off and walk your bike. Walk it to the top with Ernest. Save your best for the decline. And then Swing for the Stars.

0
Posted in Uncategorized |

What would you do with a Volcano?

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

I arrived in Pucon at 8am via my second overnight bus ride in a row (getting up at 4am the two mornings before that) feeling good. I felt alert and cogent. At this rate I could easily cross the planet in 30 days via overnight bus. I made my way to a hostel to which no one from reception would become awake for hours to come. The hostel was more of a house, complete with a living room, dining room, large backyard. There was a pool, though no water. I though of how clever it would be to advertise a pool and then have the laugh of telling the guests that “We said pool. We never said water!”

I pulled out my iphone and checked my email in the living room of the house as I waited for the staff to wake up. I got something from American Express that said I owed $65,000 and that my minimum payment was $30,000 which was due a few days ago.

Oh Shit; game over. I had been compromised. My card number fell into the hands of someone along the way (likely someone who I had never met at home) and it had racked up more debt than I could dream of. How ironic? The person who has all but completely said goodbye to material possessions has a bigger credit card bill than anyone he has ever met. Wow, I have to go home, like tomorrow. And get some high paying job, so that I can work my ass off for…… Lets see, how long would it take me …….

It was definitely something that I was capable of, but with the recent hikes in APR, I was sure I would not be in my 20s the next time I would be traveling.

Why didn’t I think that I could get away with the fraud protection angle? Because I had turned off my phone number 10 months ago, rendering American Expresse’s ability to contact me all but impossible. I haven’t used this card for over 3 months. Someone could have been living like a king on my credit for quite some time by now. It would be ruled as negligence on my part in a court for not even checking my account for 3 months.

Christ, someone could have just stolen my password to the online access from an internal database. With that they could have updated my contact information to their phone number, thus sidestepping me completely. People who commit identity thefts are not idiots after all. They are nerds. When they catch the car, they don’t bark at it, they chop it up and sell it’s parts.

Well, at least I was going to say hello to all of my friends back home soon. But lets face the music. Get to the bottom of this, get some closure. I opened up Skype and made the call.

“Ring Ring…..”
“American Express, this is Charlotte how may I help you?”
“I think someone has stolen my credit card number because I have a huge charge on my account.”
I winced as I said this over the phone. Pacing up and down the hallway, others in the hostel were beginning to wake up for breakfast. Overhearing bits of my conversation “$65k” as I was shaking up and down the hallway.
“I’m sorry, you broke up for a moment. Can you please repeat that?”
You mean I had to go through all of that again? With the magnitude of compounding interest, I think I just racked up another 200 bucks. This was becoming an expensive phone call. What if someone only bought something for 40k a few months ago and the sheer speed of the interest had grown the cancer into $65K. My diligent 750 credit score was probably an Ethiopian 220 by now. I didn’t worry though, it would be back about the time that I had finished paying this debt. I couldn’t believe it, I was about to be shopping those debt consolidation companies that I always laughed at.
“I said, I think I have a huge debt that isn’t mine….. I received an email…… do you think you could check my account?”
“Sure, but let me first say that if that happened to you, you are covered by our credit protection service and you wouldn’t be responsible for that.”
We will see, after they have record of “me” picking up the phone and approving the charges for $40K of lumber in a Nebraska Home Depot. They had to rent out every flat bed in the fleet that day. It was an extra $1,200 which was easily approved after the first call.
“Can you check and see?”
My heart flutters into overdrive. This is it. Game on? Or Game over.
“It says here that you owe us $65. You had a membership renewal fee of $50 and you didn’t pay it so there is a $15 late charge.”
“Oh is that all?” “Well, Pay it right now with my bank account on record.”
“Can you see the email that we sent you? We would like to know if our system is sending out bogus emails or if it is a spammer online.”
“Actually, I think I know what the problem is.”

I checked the email again and it was definitely a byproduct of my last 4 days of nonstop travels. The email was correct with respect to American Express. And they waived the late fee, respectably.

I was in Pucon, the Lake District, Patagonia by some people’s definition. What was there to do here anyway? Well there was a lot, but the number one draw was the active volcano that the town hugged. I signed up to climb it and heard of the prospect of snowboarding down it. This was, unfortunately, one of those things that had to be done in a tour. And again, when trying to fact gather about the difficulty, feasibility, and price of snowboarding down an active volcano there were unique stories from everyone you asked.

All in all, it turned out being an $100 excursion, out the door. The stories of difficulty varied all from double black diamond, to not worth carrying up the board, to “I’ve been skiing all my life and I wouldn’t do that run if you paid me.”

I went to the equipment shop that was run by three young French men. They asked me whether I was goofy or regular foot. What degree my stance usually was and a bunch of other questions that I should have taken as a sign that I was not experienced enough to do the run.

“Left foot, forward.” I said as I tried to keep a balance of not revealing too much of my lack of experience, yet finding out enough about the run to be well prepared. I snowboarded for about 5 years when I was a little kid, but then dropped it to make room for my healthy obsession with bodyboarding. That obsession would take importance over snowboarding for 11 years.

Just before leaving on this trip, I went snowboarding with my buddies for the first time in over a decade. I had declared that I would either not be able to stand up, or I would be better than I ever was as a kid. The later proved true. I am still, far from skilled in snowboarding. I can do S turns, but not in the black diamonds.

I told my guide that I had been snowboarding for 5 years, but had been away from it for about 10 years because of an infatuation with surfing. I used surfing because I knew that it was likely that he would, just as spell check, not recognize nor respect the sport. While abroad I often refer to bodyboarding and Surfing as one in the same. If you are stuck with the meaning of bodyboarding too, think of Boogie boarding, but ad some skill and respect (the later was a favor).

Either way, the guide thought he was about to share a run with some pro surfer. His voice became audibly excited as he began to ask me questions about my home breaks. He was a part time surfer himself. At the top of the run, he would offer to switch cameras with me so that we could take pictures of each other going down the mountain. He was also excited about taking pictures with me at the top. I was about to disappoint this guy, big time.

But first we had to get there.

We hiked for 4 hours. The paths switched back and crossed directions many times. The path was like a latter due to the amount of people who had hiked it before. The foot steps were very well plotted. I hiked with ice axes in case we missed a foot hold. We were to dig it into the volcano to prevent us from sliding too far down. I was carrying my board and boots in a special backpack. It was a lot lighter than I though but the weight distribution on my lower back would leave me not capable of hiking a national park the next day.

We hiked and hiked until we finally made it to the top 4 hours later. I was expecting to see deep red lava but was greeted with a slicing sulfuric sensation as the wind changed directions. There was steam rising from it, but we were not at an angle that we could see the lava. It was amazing how many people walked out passed the suggested safe area to try and snag a photo of the lava.

As everyone else began to suit up to slide down on their butts, I got a bit of advice from my guide. He said “Listen, we are really far from a hospital, so just ride within your skill level. The first part is hard and icy, but after that it’s a piece of cake.” It began to grow evident why no one else in the group (or any other group that day) had elected to get down any other way than on their butts.

I thought “If I can hike up it, then it isn’t very steep. And if they can go down on their butts then it isn’t that steep. And if it is that steep, then there isn’t any reason I can’t just go down slowly. Unless. Unless of course it was all ice. Then I would be screwed.”

I strapped in and saw that it was pretty freaking steep. To make things worse, it was very porous and icy from all the footprints. There were deep channels as well from people sliding down on their butts. Nothing I couldn’t handle (I thought). As I tried to stand up for the first time, I learned that my backpack would be an additional obstacle. It would pull my center of gravity back toward the face of the mountain. I overheard a voice say “Wow, that guy must have a ton of confidence in his riding ability. I would never do that.”

Nope, not confidence in my riding, just a huge want to experience it. I just wasn’t going to let my lack of experience count me out of a new one. I chose if I got to do something. It wasn’t me trying to get a job that I didn’t have enough experience for, but couldn’t get that needed experience because I didn’t have enough experience. This was not the chicken, nor the egg.

After a series of failed attempts to stand up, I eventually did and went down the first hard bit slowly. After that the guide realized that I wasn’t going to be the wizard that I let him believe I would be.

But the rest of the mountain was wide open and untouched. I found myself, yet again, in a situation almost all alone, enjoying something that most people who even came this far would sadly never get to. This was walking on The Great Wall of China all over again. It all comes down to taking the proper chances and ignoring the herd when the time is right.

As close to powder as I have ever achieved, I sliced through the fields of unpacked, volcanic, snow. The run lasted for over a half hour. I was just the guide and me.

When we got down the volcano and back to the hostel, I devoured cherries from one of the trees in the back yard that yielded enough to feed ten hungry men every day. When I was completely full I napped in a hammock that was strung between two of the trees.

Now, what would you do with a volcano?

The Pics

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2114161&id=24501923&l=1ff261a9b5


0
Posted in Uncategorized |

Welcome to the Moon (Part two)

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

I took a sleeping pill to try and beat this awareness. I could feel the water being stolen from my skin. I elected to fumble around in the dark and drink someone else’s water bottle. It was a better fate to have your water bottle be stolen than to listen to your camp mate dry heaving all night long. I figured I would just give which ever sorry soul who’s bottle I nabbed mine the next day.

I pulled out all the stops. Sleeping pill, and audio book on my ipod. If this didn’t send me to dream land, nothing would. I did end up getting to sleep eventually, though it only lasted for 2 hours until one of the other people in the room tossed a pillow at my snoring face. I sprung to attention (unaware of the pillow of course). It was only 3 in the morning and I would not sleep for one more moment that night. I was too hot and too cold as I cycled through all the permutations of heavy synthetic down jacket, 3 layers of wool blankets, smart wool socks, and imitation ugg boots. This was the first time I would use my “insurance policy” as I would call it. A synthetic down jacket that was both super light and super thin. It had been sitting at the bottom of my backpack for the past 10 months waiting for an occasion like this. I cramed it into a space bag, squeezing out all the air until it’s size was a completely manageable mass. The next day we were back in the Land Cruiser.

We stopped at a lake that was full of flamingos. What in the hell were they eating at this altitude? We were so far away from everything. It was the same as the llamas and llama like creatures that we kept driving by on the road. How were they surviving at this desolate altitude. And then we would pass over another mountain ridge that bore tons of Icelandic type shrubbery. They looked like the hair from a treasure troll. But then those fields contained no life at all. This is where I could imagine something living, but it seemed that the Bolivian creatures prefered a challenge. And then we would pass another ridge and see hundreds of flamingos. Like god was playing a game with us. Seeing if we would eventually find out that we were just passing through a series of dioramas that he had made for a school project.

We were slowly lowering in altitude until we would be at 15000 feet for the next night’s sleep. We made it to the edge of the salt flats by sun set. The next morning we were to edge out onto something that could be seen from space. Something that was the biggest of its kind on the planet. Something so foreign that one could easily believe they were in a dream. I am talking about the Bolivian salt flats. But first we would spend the night in a salt hotel. It was literally completely made of bricks that had been carved out of the ground. You could lick the walls if you wished.

We ate dinner that night and oddly enough it was quite bland. Perhaps they did this on purpose so that we would get a greater experience out of the hotel. One of the people from our group had the initiative to grab a spoon and carve a piece out of the wall to season the meal with. It worked like one would have imagined. It was wild.

The next morning we got up at the 4:30am time that our driver told us to. We were all packed up by 5am and waiting by the car, with no driver. We felt like a bunch of idiots. “That shit! Why are we up so early if he isn’t even going to get up?” 5:30 came and the twilight was quite strong. We didn’t want to miss the sunrise so we found out driver’s room, knocked on the door, and received a repeat Spanish message of what he had advised us the day before.” Rule number one of international travel: Always check to see if there is a time difference. As it turns out, we were up at 3:30am and Bolivia was an hour different from Chile.

We got in the car and drove out to the flats. “How big exactly where these things anyway?” We were all thinking. We drove swiftly for thirty minutes in one direction and didn’t see a thing other than white.

The sun began to reach the boarder of the horizon as the salt took shape and color. I jumped out of the vehicle and my boots made a noise close to the sound of boots smashing into ice. The crunch, crunch, crunch livened me as I took astronaut like strides across this foreign land. I felt like I could have been upside down. My senses confused. The rest of the people in the car were slow to exit. This lack of enthusiasm shocked me. Not since I dove the great barrier reef had I been so disappointed in my companions appreciation for their surroundings. This is what we traveled three hard days to get to. This is the big draw. Maybe they were beat. Maybe they were not really built for this. They were, after all, just students on holiday. They had been living in one place for the past 3 months, they hadn’t been living on buses and boats and out of a backpack. This was not the time to pout. This was a once in a lifetime occasion. Enthusiasm should find its way to the front of your being. This is not a rehearsal, [Life] this is the real thing :)

They eventually all made their way out of the vehicle but two would soon be returning to the tightly packed bench seat. The driver was repetitively quick to order us back into the car to go to the next spot. I wanted to spend the day there. I wanted to run experiments on how things reacted in this wild land. So clear and flat. The white took different shades and personalities with every moving second and the sun made it’s dominance known. Then the sun broke over the land and shadows shot in silly slender strands for what seemed like miles. I imagine this would happen everywhere if everywhere were so shamelessly flat.

I had to do it so I just did. I lay flat on the surface and licked to test my hypothesis. Salt it was, and damn good salt at that. This portion had cracks that formed scales the size of double beds. It was the wet season, but they were in the middle of a drought. In a few short months this place would incur a half inch of water on the surface, forcing it into the worlds largest mirror. With every moment, the Sun gave it reason to grow brighter and brighter. Soon it would blind us in it’s glory.

A silent howl hung over the horizon as out driver demanded we get into the car to see the next spot. We drove for another 20 minutes until we hit an island in the middle of the alabaster lake. It was covered in 1000 year old cactus. Some of which stretching twenty feet high. What an odd and random edifice? We had breakfast here as an ostrich made it’s way around the island. We chased it and fed it bits of our corn bread to the tune of “Ragaton” which blasted from our car.

This island gave the vastness prospective. As the sun grew progressively high in the sky we set out to employ our creativity in the limitless prospective shots that the walls of white evoked. Since everything was a flat color, one could fool the camera into appearing that you had a tiny person in your hand, or that you were surfing a pringles bottle. We had been brainstorming the day before for hours on how amazing our shots were going to be, but once we were there, the others were too tired to follow through with much of anything. This coupled with the sun being too low in the sky to really confuse the perspective into a magical state. Before I knew it, the driver was calling us back into the car and the others were actually willing to go. I was the single one who was seeking to savor this sacred situation.

We rolled on to the next three stops which were opportunities to buy things. It was disappointed to say the least. Later that day, I started my journey back to Chile. There was one other girl making her way back the same way who had just had the tour from the more expensive. Lonely Planet endorsed, company. After chating with her I realized that my suspicion was correct. It was the exact same tour. The only difference was the price.

The next day it was was back on a 24 hour bus to Santiago and then another 10 hour bus to Pucon, the Lake District of Chile. I felt invincible. I could just live on buses. I was immune. This I would soon learn was not true. My mental faculties would soon break down in a most memorable way.

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2113817&id=24501923&l=f5683b88c6

0
Posted in Uncategorized |

Welcome to the Moon

Monday, December 14th, 2009

After 24 hours on a bus to San Pedro (the Chilean boarder town to Bolivia) it was time to get ready to sit in a off road vehicle for the next 4 days. The town of San Pedro was desolate but touristy at the same time. It in it’s self had a bunch of things to do, but I was more interested in what was waiting over the boarder.

I begun by shopping tour agencies. There was no way to just wing it and go around with a few buddies for 4 days off road. Sometimes you are just forced into tours. There were only 4 companies that operated on the Chilean side and the first warned me of the $135 visa that was mandatory for American visitors. Another agency said that you could pay only $60 at the boarder and that would give you a 4 day pass for the purpose of this excursion. Another said that you could use an ATM, Cash, or Credit Card for the visa. The point of the matter was that in Chile, you might get 5 unique stories and you have to use best judgment and a little luck to get by at times.

I read online that every agency is the same, save the price, so I decided to go with the cheapest one. It was a $40 dollar difference which is not nothing and from what I can tell, it was the same exact trip. As we got to the boarder, the customs official asked me for $60 and stamped a piece of paper. It must have been a bribe. Who cares?

Our drivers must not have been any older than 17 years old. They were doing this for a summer job, but were remarkably good at driving off road. They secured our bags to the top of the late model Toyota Land Cruiser with timing belts. Within the first 30 minutes, we had a flat tire.

The driver and the his companion in the front seat pouted and groaned as they examined the damage. Had they never changed a flat? They tried to waive down other tour agency drivers for help. The first blew by us, literally leaving us in the dust. But the next stopped. The drivers seemed to be stalling, as if the tire was about to magically fix itself. Maybe it was. Maybe I was about to see some Bolivian mind trick that the boys knew from home.

I thought back to when I went with my friends Dave and Warren, 1000 miles south into Mexico when I was only 18 years old. We quickly learned how to change a flat. We also learned how to deal with a tire fling off at 75 miles per hour (when the sun is setting, you are out of gas, and the next gas station is 30 miles away.)

It took about 30 minutes for the drivers to change the first flat. I say first because it was the first of 4 that we would incur withing the next 2 days. The next flats were fixed much more quickly, but I wondered if the boys knew that they should be letting air out of the tires to prevent them form popping so often. They must have known that. They drive off road professionally. Didn’t they?

The further we got into Bolivia, the crazier the land scape got. Over every mountain ridge the terrain seemed to be completely different. We drove for the better part of the day until we stopped at our first shelter for the night. It was at 5500 meters. Thats just over 18000 feet. At this altitude, many people get sick. They get head aches, nausea, vomiting, and muscle cramps. Put it this way, at this altitude, you have to think of every breath you take. The air is so thin that you cant afford to take the tinny breaths that you take for granted at sea level.
So I was wide awake when I should have been going to sleep. Even though I knew I was not going to die if I fell asleep, I for some reason, was wide awake.

To find out what happens next. Tune in tomorrow :)

0
Posted in Uncategorized |

Santiago

Friday, December 11th, 2009

Plain and simple, I liked it more than Buenos Aires. Many will dispute this opinion with me, but I have my reasons. It felt like a college town instead of a busy metropolis. It seemed laid back and down to earth in comparison to Buenos Aires. The landscape reminded me of both Granada and Sarajevo in the sense that it was a mountain town with a river that dissects its flank. It could have been the fact that we stayed in a hostel (which always have better locations than hotels) or that the ratio of colleges to muggers is far richer than its Argentine counterpart. One thing is for sure, there is more to this city than the international community gives it credit for.

It is a stark downgrade in danger when you see only half of the population wearing their backpacks in the front (as opposed to Buenos Aires having 100% of the population wearing their backpacks in the front). You don’t feel that crime is eminent in Santiago. It feels about as likely as any other capital city (with the exception of Japan, Thailand, and Switzerland.)

The steaks here are unfortunately not up to the Argentine standard of excellence (but where else in the world is?) The people on the street are helpful, friendly, and for the most part slow down their speech to give you a chance to understand (a welcome change from their previous colonizers, Spain). I had as nice of a cab ride as I have ever had in my life here when the driver not only made conversation (helping me with my Spanish), but made special effort to give me further directions on how to get to my final destination by foot.

The infrastructure is much better here than in Buenos Aires and it shows in the subway as well as the sidewalks. The drivers follow the traffic laws and don’t even speed. The fruit here is almost free. I purchased 1 (2.2 pounds) kilo of strawberries for 2 dollars here and they were the highest quality I have had in ages. To translate, 2.2 pounds of high quality strawberries in America can easily run as high as 10 dollars. The fun fact of the day is that a high percentage of the produce that we enjoy in America is actually produced here in Chile. Even in a remote tourist impacted town (yet to be covered later) can you find 9 high quality apricots for the incredibly reasonable price of 1.5 dollars.

Many of the shopping centers that we went to looked as well planned as something dreamt up in the heart of Irvine (the most preplanned community in all of California). The only difference is that you will see several well marked security guards as every entrance. These are not gun carrying men, rater ear piece wearing men.

Santiago shares the lack of homogeneous people that Buenos Aires does, but as you get out of the major city, you begin to see a much more ingenious flavour (and it is welcomed). Perhaps it was because we were situated near colleges (in comparison to Buenos Aires), but the women in Santiago were much more attractive. In the week that I spent in Buenos Aires, I could sadly count the number of stuning women on one hand. In the first few hours of Santiago, I nearly passed this feeble goal.

But lets get back to the hostel, because this was a big part of why I found Santiago superior. We stayed at one of the highest rated hostels in South America and the staff was on the ball. They had any conceivable question answered almost before you could think it. Bud asked about going to Val Pariso with a tour (an artsy enclave just 2 hours outside of the town) and the woman answered with “No tours. If you go with a tour, you will see the city for 15 minutes. I’ll tell you exactly how to do it yourself.” She must have been reading my blog with that type of response. We were in a hostel after all, where the aim of the staff is not to pamper, but to ensure satisfaction.

We set off on a bus that would cost 5 dollars each way to Val Pariso and got to the bus station. As Bud walked in to the information center to get some bearings for us, he came back out and said that there was a nice Chilean man with an English accent who offered to take us around the town for a reasonable price. The man ended up having a Aussie accent (a mistake that I would have certainly made only ten short months ago, and is exceedingly common in non-common wealth nations.)

Though we had decided to wing it the day before, we were definitely heading in the right direction by not having purchased a day excursion. We wondered up and down the remarkably San Fransisco like streets with the help of our Aussie accented guide. I looked at my Mom and said “So we are paying him to help us wander?” Again, it was a step in the right direction. My Mom was enthusiastic to have a patented wonder of the city in Santiago, but kept on saying “Ok Alex, lead us in a wander/wonder.” I would laugh every time at the point that she was attempting to essentially purchase/plan/control an occasion whose only chance at existence was to be devoid of the three previous descriptions. She would quickly smile as she realized the proposition’s irony. It was the grown up version of the classroom appearing puzzled when their professor gives them a paper to write on their choice. So long have we been trained to follow directions, that we become lost when granted true freedom.

My Mom joked as she said “It’s great that I got to check off the experience of staying at a hostel, but no one needs to know that it was such a nice place.”

I said “See you later” to my parents with an awkward pause and then got a bit more specific “much later”. The fact that dawned on me was that I was just over the half way point in my journey and that it had the habit of growing in length. Who knew when I would actually return home. Who knew if I had actually even hit my half way point. This I was fine with, but pondered if it was becoming borderline abusive to those who missed me at home. I turned and quickly skipped down the stairs to the subway which would drop me at the train station. The 50 extra pounds of weight I carried in my backpacks had long ago been adapted for with my legs and back.

Dynamics had changed. This time with those who I love at home. This was a first taste of what was to come when I would eventually return. It reminds me of the old adage “This time it is personal.” I had been traveling with my parents for the last 2.5 weeks as an adult. Sure sharp and shocking changes had happened on my trip before, but they were always in a perceivably controlled environment, where the prospect of them sticking back home was always in question.

When leaving the city, an old man ended up walking me to the North Bus station (a truly Japanese gesture) which was on the roof level of a major shopping mall. This took the cake for the most confusing, unlikely, and well disguised bus station that I have been to in my 50 plus countries of travel (lifetime, not in this trip alone.)

I boarded the double decker that I would be living on for the next 24 hours with dread. My previous record for continuous bus travel was 14 hours from Sydney to Byron Bay. The Aussie Gray Hound was also the least comfortable long range ride of my life. It made me vow to never travel overnight by bus again. This Chilean ride of 24 hours was about to change that. So much in fact that I have elected to return the same way with excitement.

My next post will blow your fucking socks off, at least my experience was sock blowing. If I can convey it in cyberspace is another question.

0
Posted in Uncategorized |

We’re Poor!

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

We made our way to Uruguay for the day via fast ferry. We went to the city of Colonia which is a small and quiet vacation town. Here I was reminded of how much American I have lost over the past 10 months. As my parents strolled down the street shopping in the windows, I found myself bored to pieces. My consumer was dead.

I thought that it seemed an awful lot like my parents knew how to do only two things: eat and shop. Speaking of eating, I have regained about 80 percent of the weight that took me 10 months to shed in the past 2 weeks of dining with my parents. I’m not complaining here! 4 inch thick steaks twice a day for two weeks (with dessert and a starter) has been a lovely change from eating once or twice a day, something modest and almost never sitting. But it has taken its toll. I am beginning to look like an American again. It was something along the lines of breakfast, then two hours later a drink, then two hours later a big lunch, then two hours later another drink, then two hours after that a big big dinner. I had flashbacks about days where I simply didn’t eat anything because I was sitting in a train for its entirety. I then to a moment to reflect on if I am interested in that lifestyle of casual and social eating. Now that I had found out how little you can survive on, I found it wasteful to go back to the old ways. For that matter, I have fully realized how wasteful the American way of life is from start to finish.

Now on to how good the food is. I ate something called a tower of meat in Colonia which is steak, chicken, and beacon stacked on top of itself in a monument to cholesterol. I believe the expression is “liquid sex” when trying to describe what happened during consumption.

As we went back to the docks to catch the boat back to Buenos Aires, the boarding station was empty. The last employee that was leaving for night and locking up told us that the boat left 30 minutes ago. My mothers eyes welled up with tears as the realization that Uruguay has a one hour difference in time and that we were stuck in Colonia till the next morning. I felt like scolding her for such a helpless reaction to such a benign setback. I wanted to say “Cry when the last ship sinks in the harbour.” But then my sense kicked in and I realized that this is the type of setback that I have been handling for the past 10 months. She was new to this type of thing.

We ended up spending the night in the Hotel that was connected to the restaurant that was responsible for the meat tower and catching the next boat out in the morning. Over the next bunch of days we ended up taking a bunch of tours that I will spare you the mind melting monotony of sharing. Well all but one. I am going to keep it brief, but it is worth mentioning.

We signed up for a load of tours without really even knowing what they entailed. One of which was while we were in the town of Mendoza (wine capital of Argentina). All of the tours leading up to this one were slightly not what the information center had promised. For instance, one city tour was only in Spanish which was fine for Bud, hard for me, and impossible for my Mom. One day trip which was hiking and climbing turned out to be hiking and repelling (the boring part of climbing when you go down.) We also had one 3 hour tour around the city where we got of the tour bus for a collective 20 minutes. But the tour that took the cake; the one that really drove the last nail in the coffin, was a day trip out to a canyon.

After sitting in a bus for 7 hours, we still hadn’t seen anything other than an expensive stretch of desert identical to Arizona. We only had stopped a few times for gas and snacks. I thought that maybe we had in fact done some sort of activity and that I had blocked the whole experience from my memory due to its lack of substance. I asked my mom if I was crazy, or did we just pay a bunch of money to sit on a bus, listening to a Spanish lady screaming into the microphone, for 7 hours without doing anything?

My Mom laughed and said she was thinking the same thing. We eventually got to a canyon (which was spectacular) and drove through the whole thing. Not for a moment, did it make any sense, to stop and let us walk around for even a half hour. Why the hell did we take a half hour at the gas station and another half hour at the snack shop? Now, the reason we all have endured 7 hours of blank dessert and screaming Argentines, is a good time to stay in the bus? This is why people don’t travel much. Because they aren’t doing it right. It is more taxing this way.

I feel less free at this moment than I do when I am chained to a desk job. Seriously, this was so backwards, it was polluting the water system. I knew exactly the fate of the weekend warrior.

That day, by the way, lasted for 15 and a half hours and we were out of the bus for less than three of which.

But it’s not all doom and gloom here in Argentina. We did happen to luck out on one of the trips we booked. We decided to spend two nights out in the mountains in a log cabin. The place we ended up was lovely. It was remote, yet awesomely equipped. There was only one catch. It only took cash and we didn’t have enough of it. The closest ATM was 40 miles away and we only had limited time in the mountains and the public buses would have taken the better part of a day to get back and forth.

What a lovely role reversal we had fallen into. Now, sort of, my consumption driven parents were forced to go on a budget (for a few days). Something that both of them have experience with, yet have been fortunate enough to be above for many years now. Bud’s solution was to ration the money for enough to have a modest meal three times a day and go on a short river rafting trip. My Mom’s plan was to get more money.

Tensions arose only minutes after we realized that our quality of life would be seriously different for the next two days. I giggled with joy to get to experience this and, even more, see how each reacted differently. This was far more interesting than sitting on a cramped bus for 15 hours.

Fortunately and unfortunately, my parents started to get creative and realized that they had some American cash with them that the hotel would accept. Also, the rafting place took credit card. Within a few hours it was back to the normal extravagance. It’s a good thing that we got to go river rafting, because it turned out to be much more fun than I had remembered it.

Not without worries, I dreaded seeing my Mother fall overboard. Of course, she did not. But I had serious anxiety about the possibility.

We went swimmingly down the river as our expert guide gave simple and direct rowing orders. Turns out, he was related to one of my parent’s friends that was about 2 degrees of separation away. Our boat rowed in unison to the point that we should have been on an instructional video. There were all sorts of safety precautions including life vests (standard), helmets (rarely seen), and safety/rescue kayaks (the first I have ever experienced) that followed the boat closely. But it was all in the guide really. He had a ton of confidence and was a great leader. He was the head of the operation and was responsible for everyone out there (three boats full).

In an agreeable fashion with my Mother, this excursion made up for the half dozen worthless tours we went on in the two weeks before. I enjoyed the time with the parents, but until these past few days, it wasn’t something memorable at all. It was just a 2 week reminder that the past 10 months were being lived in a fashion that is far superior to that of most.

I can only hope that my parents have learned something from being poor for 2 hours :)

Actually, in this trip, I have heard plenty of stories that I have never heard from them. I never knew that they kayaked with whales or backpacked through Europe for 6 months. I have slowly but surely been leaked a few gems over these past few weeks.

We have only a few more days in Santiago Chile, until my parents fly home and I continue my journey. They, I am willing to admit, will be missed.

0
Posted in Uncategorized |