Sabbatical 2012 [Day 13-16] Rio de Janeiro

Travel

Travel to Rio de Janeiro was done with pretty much no problems. LAN was a pretty decent no-frills airline. They had the same Boeing model that we flew on AA, but it was much nicer inside. The flight in was interesting – we had to circle around the city a few times before landing. I was amazed at how tall the mountains surrounding Rio were. I knew that there were the big hills right in the city, but not quite what was surrounding it. The views were already spectacular from the plane.

No machine guns. Again. Maybe machine guns aren’t the norm? Come to think of it, greeting people who have already passed through security lines and been allowed to board a plane with machine guns may be a bit excessive. Maybe they are afraid that somebody slipped in with a pair of nailclippers on their carry-on and need to be well equipped to handle it.

Immigration was the simplest yet. We already had our visa, so we didn’t have to pay the reciprocity fee as in Chile and Argentina. Stamp the passport. Our bags were being loaded onto the carousel when we arrived. Nice! Then we just walked through the “nothing to declare” line and that was it – nobody looked at our declaration forms.

Now to get some money. Just have to find the giant selection of ATMs and money exchange places like the last two airports. They’re always located right when you leave the baggage area, all hoping to steal your rt money with horrible exchange rates and fees, or hiked up ATM fees.

Well, not at Galeao. I asked in the worst made-up Portuguesified Spanish where an ATM was, and they pointed up the steps. We had to go 2 levels up escalators and walk way down to the end of the terminal, where we found ALL of the airports ATMs. What. The. Hell.

It seems like whoever laid out Brasilia laid out this airport, too. Wouldn’t it be nice if we just had one single “convenient” location for getting money? Nice and compartmentalized. Nevermind where you are coming from, going to, or that it is the absolutely worst location for anybody entering the country who needs Brazilian Reais. To top it off, most of the regional banks don’t seem to work with foreign ATMs at all, so it starts feeling like you’re playing slot machines on whether or not money is actually going to come out of this device. This should be an amazing mess when Rio hosts the World Cup in 2 years, and again with the Olympics in 4.

Language

Shit. Shit. Shit. The last time I was in a country where I didn’t speak the language was China, and somehow I survived. I had a lot of help, though. Company-arranged cars, English-speaking hotel staff and car drivers, and we were nearly always chaperoned by co-workers.

I had convinced myself that I’d be able to get by with my limited knowledge of Portuguese, understanding of some basic verb conjugations and how to pronounce the letters. Just take my Spanish and process it through a Portuguesifimifacion 2000 filter and I should be good, right?

No. No not at all. It turns out that pronunciation is far more important than I had expected, as it can sound like very similar words. Cab drivers were confused by simple things that I didn’t pronounce correctly, like “hows it going?” or “cinco nove cero (5-9-0)”.

To top it off, my brain was still in Spanish mode, so all that my tongue wanted to say was Spanish sounds. It wasn’t working well.

It took a good day or so for me to get accustomed to the new sounds, and for my brain to shift to actually even attempt to speak the proper language. I’m slowly re-learning a lot of what I knew at some point from my informal Portuguese class at UT. Unfortunately, it’s probably not quite enough. By the end of our time in Rio, though, I was forming complete sentences and a few people even told me that I spoke Portuguese very well. I think this really means “wow, you speak Portuguese at all”. Hey, I’ll take the encouragement.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep having fun saying words like ‘restaurante’ (pronounced hes-tau-ranch-ee), Botafogo (hehe), Ipanema (contrary to common englishifications, ehp-ah-nehm-a), ‘obrigado’ (oh-brie-gah-doh). It’s really quite beautiful, although sometimes still a bit silly sounding as people seem to always draw out their vowels as if trying to teach somebody the correct pronunciation of something.

Accommodations

This was our first experience with staying at a vacation rental rather than a hotel or hostel on the trip. We found a nice but humble penthouse apartment in Copacabana on AirBNB that was owned by a French couple who seemed to do a lot of traveling. The place was clean and felt like a real home. It had a large rooftop terrace which we enjoyed the city and sky views from. We even got to have our own bedroom which was very welcomed as we were both tired of waking up from each other’s snoring.

The house rules were basically to not eat any of the delicious french cheeses that were sitting in the freezer, or French wines that were in the wine fridge. Drats! Guess we’ll have to make caipirinhas.

Oddly, the kitchen was a bit lacking in cookware. Some of the pots and frying pans were simply designed to not have a handle. I have no idea why this would ever be beneficial or desired. There was also a pretty meager selection of knives – no chef’s knife to be found. Either this French couple doesn’t cook much, or maybe they take their good cookware back with them to France when they are not in Brazil.

Copacabana, despite the imagery brought by the famous tacky song, reached its peak in the 50’s and kind of went on a seedy decline since, but seems to be back on its way up and is now safe again to wander around. The whole 5km or so beach strip extends about about 5 blocks wide with nonstop highrise condos and apartments, and stores and restaurants at the street level.

Food

Food was a mixed bag in Rio de Janeiro. We had some great Brazilian food (although far too large of portions) in an old, hilly part of town called Santa Teresa. We probably finished about 1/3rd of it.

Then we decided to make some food, which was nice for a change. At the grocery store, we bumped into an older American expat guy who struck up a conversation with us about the neighborhood. He recommended a bar called “Acadamia de Cachaça” – precisely what we (thought) we were looking for. Cachaça, for those of you who don’t know, is a spirit distilled from cane sugar. What makes it different from rum? Well… nobody seems to know.

Oddly, the food at that bar was pretty decent (though Alex’s was mediocre), and the Cachaça was pretty awful. The Caipirinhas that we were served were bitter, weren’t filtered from seeds or pulp at all, and had a nasty alcohol finish. Not quality by any means. Academy of how to not make drinks, I guess.

Natural Beauty

There is no mistaking it, Rio de Janeiro is absolutely one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life. Despite a large city being nestled on the few flat areas between the mountains and the beaches, that is exactly what makes it so amazing. The mountains all look structurally unsound – as if they were hand-crafted of clay and were ready to collapse at any point. Cariocas (the name given to people from Rio) seemed to think the same, because several mountains feature giant artificial support structures to keep them from collapsing.

The beaches are bountiful, and several of them are quite long. Each has its own character, vista, and appeal. They all have beautiful Brazilians.

The sky is clear at night, and blue in the daytime. The temperature is perfect. The mountains, where not too steep, are lush with tropical foliage and wildlife, including monkeys!

There is a good reason that this is the most visited city in the world.

Jesus Christ – The Big Guy

One of the biggest tourist attractions in Rio is to go up a mountain to see the gargantuan statue of Buddy Jesus. It is visible from nearly any spot in the city where your view isn’t blocked by one of thousands of midrise buildings.

Going on a weekend was not the best idea, because hoards of locals go up to visit the statue and take pictures on their day off. We had to wait about 3 hours or so to take the next available swiss-style train up the mountain. It was worth it.

Some other important guy. No Horse.

Incredibly vistas of the city, sea-formed clouds pouring over the mountain, winds, and tons of people mesmerized by their favorite character in history – Christ, The Redeemer.

Pão de Açúcar – Sugar Loaf Mountain

Waking up early on a Sunday was a great way to go to Pão de Açúcar – one of the more notably vertical mountains on the coastline. It has a very long cable ride up to the top from one of the neighborhoods, and after the 3hour wait to see Jesus by train, we thought it would be best to try to beat the masses.

It worked – mostly. One nice thing about Catholic nations is that on Sunday mornings, everybody is stuck in church and it leaves the city wide open to roam around without the locals and tourists getting in the way. Dining on a Sunday can be a bit of a challenge, though, as most decent restaurants seem to close.

We bought our tickets for the cable car, immediately got on the next one, and began our ascent. Nothing too notable to mention in words other than we noticed how terrifying it looked to be on the flights landing at the airport near to the mountain. They came very close to the mountain after pulling a giant U turn, and immediately had to land on a pretty short runway along the ocean. Yikes. As long as they don’t clip the cable on the way down…

The rest of this magnificent place is best told with photos.

Fitness & Fashion (or lack thereof) on the Costa Sul

After lots of sight-seeing, it was time to finally hit the beach. After all, its Rio de Janeiro! The beach was PACKED. Not too many people were in the water, although it was a fairly comfortable temperature and seemed visibly clean. Mostly kids and elderly men pretending to be kids were the only ones playing in the crashing waves.

It is probably already known, but there are lots of gorgeous people in Rio de Janeiro. Race is widely varied – from caucasian Portuguese descent, latino mix, or African descent, or any combination thereof. A substantial number of people could pass for underwear models. Certainly not everybody is completely fit, and I’d say not even half. But the point is that it may be something close to half. Nowhere in my life have I ever seen such a fit, sexy group of people who take such great care of their bodies.

Women, no matter what their shape, age, or skin condition all wore bikinis. Sometimes you hoped they revealed a little less – or bought a size that actually fit their rolls. Sometimes, you wished they showed a little more. But bikinis it was.

Guys wore either tight-fitting speedos – brief or square-cut trunks. Or they wore board shorts. It was probably about half and half, but it was nearly guaranteed that if the guy was in terrible shape or was over 60 that he was rockin’ the smallest, tightest speedo possible. Funny how that works out, isn’t it? I admire their lack of shame.

So, that’s all fine and dandy. Wear as little as you want on the beach, as far as I’m concerned. Especially if you have the body to do so. The thing that stood out the most was that this beachwear was also acceptable clothing to be wearing pretty much anywhere in the Costa Sul. Going shopping in a classy mall in Ipanema? Speedo! Hanging out at a local bar? Speedo! Movie with the girlfriend? Board shorts and soccer jersey!

Button-down shirts, jeans, or any form of casual dress-shoe were almost nowhere to be found. It was quite the opposite of Venezuela, where wearing shorts and flip flops indicated that you were probably poor and of a lower social status. Brazilians didn’t give a shit. Its hot, they’re near the beach, and they don’t want to be bothered with changing clothes or putting on some pants over that sexy speedo for anything.

So it seemed.

Money

Rio is an interesting lot. On the drive from the airport, we passed some pretty poor neighborhoods that looked like they’d be lucky to have any form of running water, electricity, or sanitation. Then, once you’re in the Costa Sul, you feel like you’re in the wealthiest place on the planet – rivaling Champs Elysees. The further west along the coast you went, the more money there seemed to be. There is certainly lots of disparity between people’s wealth.

Rio and Sao Paulo have rocketed up to be in the top 10 most expensive cities in the world. This is partly due to the strength of the Real, but also gets boosted by the tourism and inflation within the country. Think New York, Boston, or San Francisco pricing relative to the rest of the USA..

Bonus Day!

Monday, we wake up around 7:15am or so, ready to head out of Rio to Iguazu. Everything is pretty much packed and ready to go. Its kind of sad, really. I groggily check our flight information. Everything is in order – flight leaves about 10:30am. Gol Airlines doesn’t show any sign of going bankrupt. I check the hotel information in Iguazu. Uh… crap! We made the hotel reservation for the wrong day! Oh no!

I go back to the trip itinerary. Wait, maybe… oh, looks like we leave Rio TOMORROW. I quickly inform Alex of our extra day in Rio. We were both kind of surprised that somehow we both managed to completely get the day of our flight wrong. Both of us are fairly seasoned travelers.

We had no complaints, though. There was so much more to do and see. Time to get the day started – no rush or pressure this time.

Alex Gets Sick

The only downside to the day was that Alex began to get sick with a sort of headcold. He went back to bed since we didn’t have an itinerary set for the day. Being sick in Rio is no fun, but at least we had a nice base camp to hang out in.

Jardím Botanico – Botannical Gardens

Once Alex got a nap in, and I finished my workout routine, we grabbed some lunch and headed to the Jardím Botanico – bottanical gardens. They were stunning. Lots of plants, some monkeys, 200 year-old palm trees, walking trails, zen gardens. Photos.

Centro

Alex was tired and headed back, but I wanted to see the city center where there were some museums and old buildings from when the city was founded and was the capital of Brazil before it was moved to Brasilia in the ’50’s.

Emerging from the metro in the Centro is like getting off a plane in another city. No longer along the coast, people were now dressed for success in full business attire, hurriedly walking from their workplace to their chosen mode of transportation to get home. Business suits, button-ups, blouses, dresses. Aha! I guess Rio does have some fashion sense after all. You just have to leave the beach and not be out on a Sunday.

The Centro has some old buildings which are cool to look at, and I stopped at the building where Congress used to meet. A nice guy there gave me a lot of explanations of how the government worked, and how the building had transitioned from being a national building to now just be used by the state government.

He also was inquisitive about our own politics, and what I thought was going to happen in the elections. Naturally, I have no idea, but I shared my thoughts about the candidates and why each one may win over the other.

I was surprised to learn that voting in Brazil is not just a right – its mandatory. Failing to vote in an election is punishable by a hefty fine, and also could prevent you from getting a job, a passport, or visa. Mandatory democracy sounds like an interesting concept. I have to wonder how that would change the political landscape in the US.

Oh, and of course – what centro wouldn’t be complete without a guy on a horse? This guy has a Catholic grenade. watch out!

A Gente – The People

We had some mixed experiences with people in Rio. I thought that being a laid-back beach place in paradise that everybody would be bubbly and happy. It was actually rarely the case in our experience, though. People in the service industry seemed kind of aloof. We were lucky to get eye contact, let alone a smile. Nobody joked around. Cab drivers didn’t even attempt to make conversation or inquire where we were from. Sadly, we didn’t feel much love from the people. I guess, like any heavily touristed city, the locals get a bit jaded and just want all of these invaders to GTFO. I understand. So we did.

Actual Departure

Well, once we figured out the day of our flight, it was time to rest and get ready to head to Foz de Iguaçu, Brazil to go see some of the world’s most beautiful waterfalls.

I know you’re sick of us foreigners, but I’ll be back, Rio. Definitely. Até logo.

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Sabbatical 2012 [Days 10-11] Montevideo. North Eastern Block.

Travel

From Colonia, Montevideo is best reached by bus. The bus line was quite nice – featuring comfortable seats and even had wi-fi on board that had a better connection than our Bed & Breakfast. The ride is scheduled to be about 2.5 hours. I was expecting this would be a fairly direct route, but we seemed to stop in places that didn’t even have a town. Just random spots on the highway along-side farms. The landscape passing by gave us a demonstration of many farms, cows, horses, pigs, and pretty much every kind of pastoral view you could imagine. Again, it felt like driving through Ohio – except with random scatterings of palm trees along the road. The landscape didn’t align with these palm trees or vineyards, but somehow it all fit together in its own way.We got to Montevideo in the scheduled time without any issues.

Pizza & Food

The first food I wanted to try in Montevideowas the pizza. This is largely in part due to Christine Hebl’s blog about their trip to Montevideo, and how they stumbled into a place and ordered pizza that looked funny but tasted good. Well, we actually sought out pizza, but the first place we wanted to eat was closed, so we wandered to the next restaurant which also had pizza and looked almost exactly like what Matt & Christine had ordered. It was indeed quite delicious – almost like a giant cheesy bread. Alex got a sandwich which he said was amazing.

 

The City

Alex noted that Montevideo felt like the Eastern Europe of the region. Perhaps it was like coming to Ljubljana after visiting Milan. It was quieter, cleaner, people were friendly and seemed slightly less stuck up than their Buenos Aires counterparts (not that wee have any complaints about people in Buenos Aires!) The buildings are shorter, and there are lots and lots of monuments dedicated to heroes and politicians of various sorts. In centers of Plazas. Mounted on horses, of course.


There are also lots of naked baby sculptures.

We noticed was that you definitely feel much less enclosed in Montevideo than Buenos Aires or Santiago. For instance, from the road our hotel was on, we could look straight down the road and see the ocean. If we walked the opposite way up the road, we’d reach the main street which seemed to run along the highest point of the peninsula encasing the old part of Montevideo – the “barrio historico”. If you walked across that street, you’d see the ocean on the north end of the peninsula. Even if you got lost, you couldn’t get too far.

Navigating this city was thus quite easy. You have clear boundaries (water) which are visible from most blocks, and you knew whether you were heading to or away from the water based on the slope of the road. Roads were given pretty simple one-word names and were clearly marked. The signs all featured about a 3” strip of advertisement space across the top. Usually it was purchased by some cell phone carrier, but occasionally, you’d see something like “Pizza 2039-2927”. Mmm, generic anonymous street sign pizzaria.

Doing our initial walkaround of the city, we finally saw some guys with machine guns standing in front of a bank, and they even had a chaser car for the bank money collection. Unlike most men carrying machine guns, these guys were all smiling and almost giggling the whole time at their own job. Its as if they thought their purpose was somewhat overkill, and they smiled like “Yeah, we’re Ocean’s-11-awesome”.

We also saw lots of horse-drawn… garbage trucks.


The following day, we woke up and got some food. I hated my omelette, but Alex liked his. We walked the Rambla on the southern shore of the peninsula. Originally, we hoped to go for a jog down this stretch but it was freezing cold outside and neither of us were too excited about running in the cold sea breeze. The views were nice, the beaches deserted, and the number of people jogging were surprisingly few for a city that size. We walked to Pocitos beach, which was a decent hike, then back in towards the city where we found an open-air food market in the middle of a street. There were some gorgeous houses along the main avenue which I very much enjoyed walking along. Until I was too tried, and it was time to take a cab back to the city center and sit in a café for a while.

We headed to the market by the port, which wasn’t so much of a market as it was a giant building stuffed with lots of Parilla restaurants, all serving basically the same meats cooked on open fire flames. Alex couldn’t resist, and ordered a half-size plate of sausage. The waiter/cook was delited to have us there, and asked us where we were from, and gave me a free plate of French Fries because he felt bad that I had nothing to eat while Alex was trying the meat (I didn’t mind). People are really so nice. As much as I don’t care for meat, the parilla was an interesting thing to view. They had an amazing system in place for grilling meat – I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Walking back to the hotel, we came across a little wine store that looked like they may do wine tastings. Why not? It ended up being a fantastic experience. There were two very nice women working at the store, and the one giving us the tasting set up a little plate of bruschetta for us to have with the wine, and some chocolates to try with the liquors. The wines were an amazingly different Sauvignon Blanc which had far more fruity notes than I’ve ever had in a Sauv Blanc. The red was some hybrid varietal between … Petit Verdot (I think?) and Merlot. It was chocolaty, tannic, and delicious. The liqueurs we tried were a tannat liquor – similar to port, and a dulce de leche liqueur, similar to Bailey’s but without that funky finish. Everything was superb. Service was great, and we learned a lot and had some good laughs with the ladies.

We were talking about Uruguay, and the small population. She said they needed more people – and if we knew anybody looking for a country to live in to send them to Uruguay – they’ll happily take them, even pay them to immigrate. Perhaps Uruguay should post ads along the US/Mexico multimilliondollar border and provide a free cruise that departs from the Rio Grande. I can’t think of anywhere else that may have lots of immigrants looking for an ideal place.

Similar great conversation was experienced at our hotel, Hotel Iberia. The owner was so friendly and funny. We chatted with them for some time before Alex went off to grab even more BBQ with his friend from middle school in Saudi Arabia. I had leftover gnocchi from the night before, and sipped some Tannat in the hotel, occasionally chatting with the hotel employees. It couldn’t be more enjoyable, really.

Back to Buenos Aires for a single night before we head off to a flight to Rio de Janeiro. Time to practicar o português para falar muito bom. Uff, this is going to be a bit more challenging, linguistically!

Sabbatical 2012 [Day 12] Buenos Aires – Level Up

Thanks to Pluna – we really didn’t have many options for flying out of Montevideo to get to Rio de Janeiro. So, we had to return by boat to Buenos Aires. This was not by any means a bad thing, as Buenos Aires was an awesome city. We were also excited to stay at a different part of the city – Palermo.

The ferry ride from Montevideo is quite a bit longer than Buenos Aires to Colonia, as it is basically at the opposite end of the bay. The ferry is also a lot smaller than the Colonia ferry, but also quite fast. Rest assured, despite its smaller size, it too has a duty-free store and also smells like perfume. It also has a small cafe where I discovered that you can buy the most disgusting tortilla (as in Tortilla Española) with spinach and about 1 cup of salt, pre-packaged in a plastic container left to sit in its sulfery awfulness. Two bites of that and I threw it away.

We get back to Buenos Aires. Ah, so familiar. Cab it to Palermo… wait. What is this place? Its completely different from Recoleta, and any of the parts we had walked through. Really, it is like we just arrived at a new city.

Palermo, unlike its above-ground-cemetery and walking-zombie-lady neighboring borough, has much shorter buildings that seem to be kept in very good shape. The streets are much more quaint, and have lots of interesting little cafes and restaurants – which is of course expected at this point from Buenos Aires. But they’re just a bit more chic – a bit more quaint, and the clientel is a LOT more attractive. Money and beauty may be synonymous in some places. But, maybe Palermo just attracts a different kind of person than Recoleta – like the kind of person who… doesn’t like living by a huge creepy cemetery.

Our hotel, “Five Cool Rooms” – which sounds less like a hotel and more like a sequel to a Tarantino film – was substantially nicer than the Ayres Recoleta in every regard. It was hard to spot from the street because its only facade was a door and a small sign. Once inside, it opened up to a nice, chic glass-enclosed courtyard, with no street-facing rooms. It was quiet. It smelled amazing. The beds were the most comfortable we’ve had yet on the trip. Shame, really, that we didn’t stay there to begin with. They did outright lie to us about the hot tub working, though.

Not having good food on the boat, we were both quite hungry and grabbed some food at a cool café.

Palermo even has bars in their stores. Now that is how to shop!

We walked around Palermo, realized that we needed more money from an ATM, and thought we’d go find a bank for an ATM. Simple, right? We’re in a major, well-off part of town. No, not simple. We walk to the main drag, and there are no banks. Turn around and walk further down, no banks. It was baffling. I don’t even remember when we found a bank, but it took us nearly 30 minutes of walking to find a bank, and another 10 to find one which would accept foreign cards.

Time to spend that money on drinks. On a terrace. With a nice view of a square. Complete with obnoxiously slow service that we’d come to expect at this point.

Lesson learned. Next time, stay in Palermo. A nice way to end our 2nd visit to Argentina. But bring money.

Don’t cry for me, Argentina, we’ll be back in Iguazu in just a few days after hitting up Rio de Janeiro.

Sabbatical 2012 [Day 9] Colonia de Sacramento de Fotografía

After several days in large cities, it was time to do something a bit slower paced. Why not head to another small UNESCO town in Uruguay?

Travel

Colonia de Sacramento is located along the southern Uruguayan shore, about 2 hours across the bay from Buenos Aires. There is a high-speed ferry that gets you there in about an hour. The ferry station in Buenos Aires was immaculate and modern – and featured all of the luxuries of an airport, including baggage checking and duty-free shops. Unlike an airport, there is one major difference – customs and immaculate are taken care of before you even board the boat. I actually much prefer this method because usually the last thing you want to do when you first arrive in a new country is deal with their bureaucracy and paperwork.

The ferry was fast, comfortable, clean, and featured its own large and quite popular duty free shop. The ferry thus smelled like a perfume store. We got some hot beverages and Dulce De Leche chocolate snacks.

We arrive. We get a cab to take us the whopping 4-5 blocks down the street which had recently been renamed from “Florida” to 15-something-syllables-too-many of a person’s name. It was definitely a change for the worse. We got to our Bed & Breakfast, El Viajero. The staff was very friendly, the location was super quaint and inviting. This is exactly where to go to catch a break if you’ve been staying in cities where you can’t see the horizon.

Photogenics

I’ve come to realize that “UNESCO Heritage Location” really just translates to “photographer’s dream-town”. It is virtually impossible to take a bad photo in one of these cities. Even the cliché photographs such as staring down at your feet are totally acceptible, because you know what? Underneath those feet are 600 year-old cobblestone roads. Look at the texture!

How many photos can we take of windows offset to the side with a nice dooorway in a semi-colorful stucco-walled home? The answer is lots. How about some photos of the lighthouse? From the lighthouse? Oh look, some dogs sleeping and rolling around in the sun! An old fisherman on the pier with the sun setting behind him over the bay. A cat hiding in the breakwall. An old trailer. A trailer being loaded with chopped wood to fuel a parilla grill in a restaurant. Finally, its dark, and now foggy. Look how the light streaks across the plaza? A loose horse that is roaming around the park next to the shore.

Every 30 seconds brings a moment begging you to click the shutter. And you do. Colonia is like a drug that takes over your body and controls your eyes. Combined with a camera, it is a dangerous place. It almost felt scripted, as if a photographer or director had set everything up just right for the ultimate visuals and timing.

Editing photos and selecting the best ones becomes the biggest challenge.

We wandered around at night to find a place to eat, and it was much like wandering around Burton at midnight, except that people were actually out – sort of. Restaurants were packed and lively, but the streets were desolate and silent. The air smelled like burning wood, and reminded me of Christmas time in Burton. It was eerie after coming from Buenos Aires – where people were constantly walking the streets. It was a welcome change, though, and we were greatful to be able to take a breather and catch up on sleep before heading off to the largest city in Uruguay the following day – Montevideo.

Sabbatical 2012 [Day 6-8] Cleaner Airs. Land of Cow

Travels

Our plane emerged from the layer of smog engulfing Santiago. It ascended, and ascended, and ascended, probably just quickly enough to avoid running into the incredibly high Andes mountain range immediately next to the city. LAN came to our rescue, for a price, and agreed to get us to Buenos Aires for a slightly steeper cost than we had originally paid on Pluna [insert curse word here]. I think we have a return trip to Santiago, should we want to totally change plans and return.

We were now flying off to Argentina – land of cows and funny “J” accents. Buenos Aires is an enormous city. You could see how expansive it was from the air, but even more-so from a satellite map. It may not be quite as big as Beijing or Mexico City, but it is up there in expansiveness. None of them are as horrifying from above as the wasteland of suburbia in the desert that is Phoenix (and its greater area) though.

Our plane landed. Immigration was a breeze, despite me fearing that I’d have to pay a ridiculous importation tax on my personal goods. Nobody even collected the customs documents from us. Our baggage was waiting on the carousel before we even got there. So far, quite a great experience flying into the country. Still no guys with machine guns, though. Perhaps someday.

Even flying over the Buenos Aires outskirts, you could tell that the city was in a bit rougher shape than Santiago. Roofs were in need of repair, yards were unkept, and things just didn’t seem quite as tidy. Once we got to experience it ground level, this was largely confirmed. Dirty streets, everything needs a paint job, there is litter and garbage along the crumbling sidewalks – and yet still, somehow, the streets were more enjoyable to walk than Santiago’s.

When we first landed, the air still had a slight haze to it. It still smelled smokey. I thought this was Buenos Aires? That translates to “good airs”. I mean, come on, they had to pluralize “airs”, so there should be an abundance of these good airs, right? Not again! Then it started to snow. Oh, it is just winter! Ok, this white stuff isn’t fog, its snow! Cool, that makes sense. No, wait, whats that cloud coming up from the ground? Oh, its a huge thing on fire. Those aren’t snow flakes, they’re ashes falling back onto the highway like a blizzard. Alright, this makes sense.  10 miles or so away from the plane crash or house fire or whatever that was, the aires did indeed become buenos, and we had arrived at our hotel, Ayres de Recoleta.

Looks swank, right? Don’t be fooled.

Ayres de Recoleta has some incredibly great advertising, and looks very chic on their website. Entering the room, however, yielded something a bit less true. No matter how we photographed the room to show what it actually felt like, it looked gorgeous in photos. How could a hotel be so photogenic but so drab in real life? Three words. Brown corduroy bedding.

Food & Drink

There are no hot dogs in Buenos Aires. Ok, that is probably a lie, but I’m fairly confident that there is not an entire square of hot-dog stands selling “completo salchichas” anywhere in this city. Lets keep it that way, shall we, Argentina?

Alex and I wandered around trying to find a restaurant. First mistake – it was about 7:00pm or so – way too early. Nobody was eating. Its impossible to tell which restaurants are tourist traps with bad food, popular local restaurants with bad food, popular local restaurants with good food, or perhaps the ever-so-rare tourist trap with good food when you don’t have Yelp, Google reviews, or even people already out dining to show a percentage of total table occupancy.

So, what do you do? You walk. A lot. And then you walk some more. And then you go back to the best restaurant you passed after walking for 20 minutes in figure eight’s around the city blocks. When you’re nearly 30 years old, you have to contemplate about the restaurants that are incredibly popular among the senior citizen crowd. Perhaps they have great taste? Maybe its more authentic? Or, maybe it tastes like Denny’s or Bob Evans. Regardless, the eye candy will be assuredly slim.

Aging

Alex and I quickly learned that Buenos Aires women seem to age incredibly poorly. My uncle said he noticed the same thing about women in Italy – young women are gorgeous, and then something suddenly happens – maybe around 32 or so. There is this wall, and everything physically goes to hell all of a sudden. Its not just the women, of course – the men don’t age so well either. I suspect it is the diet consisting of 90% beef & dairy. Either way, kudos to American women (and most of the rest of the world) for aging gracefully and still looking damn good all through the Golden Years. Seriously, grandmas in Buenos Aires were something to fear – like a cracked out clown with bad makeup and misformed cheeks from puffing on cigarettes for 65 years – not the cute ladies we’ve come to love and hug and get kisses from in the US. Unfortunate. Shallow. I apologize, and hope the best for future Buenos Aires generations. Wear Sunscreen. Eat Vegetables.

Back to Food & Drink

The thing we later found out about the senior citizens is that they’re incredibly smart when it comes to scheduling their dinner. They get there right before the restaurant gets incredibly packed and then forms a line or is reservation-only. Early bird gets the worm, as they say.

The first restaurant we tried had several regional cuisines from all over Argentina. Our waitress was incredibly helpful in our ordering. I had something that had large kernels of corn, mixed with vegetables and cheese and Argentine goodness. It was already better than Santiago’s food. For dessert, we got this amazing multi-layered cake with Dulce de Leche, some nuts, flan, chocolate… pretty much everything you would want.

Dining success.

There are empanadas everywhere. Not like the soggy ones we got in Santiago (and I threw away), but perfectly crispy crusts and delicious interiors with fresh ingredients like Roquefort cheese, nuts, spinach, potato, sweet flavorful onions. I could live off of empanadas. Oh, and they’re like $1.50/each. How about that?

Wine was also fantastic. We had the fortune of trying a new varietal called Tannat, of which I’ve never heard of before. The first bottle we got was really tart, almost like wild berries. It was unlike anything I’d had before. I guess it is unique to this region and Uruguay. I hope to find some bottles of it in the states. If you ever happen to come across a bottle, give it a go.

 There are bakeries on seemingly every block. Each one displays its array of pastries in a case. It is difficult to not do a tour of the city just eating pastries. And then, if that isn’t enough, you have cafés on nearly every block as well… maybe 3 per block. Maybe 6. There is even McCafe. Yes, McDonalds’ has entered the café market in Buenos Aires – and they do a hell of a job with the decor, presentation, and quality. There was nothing fast-food feeling about this joint. I’d almost call it prestigious. Impressive, really, for a company like McDonalds.

Then there is Yerba Mate. It would seem that no matter how much we walked and how hard we tried, we could not buy a cup or drink in any mate in a cafe. It would seem that it is something to be prepared only at home, in your own personal gourd and bombilla. Even when we went to buy the yerba leafs, the lady in front of us picking out her package of mate seemed to be very secretive about it. I had heard that many people are very addicted to it – more-so than coffee drinkers in the rest of the world. Perhaps they are embarrassed about their addiction. The mate aisle then sort of felt like the condom aisle in a grocery store or pharmacy. Shame. Embarrassment. Everybody has their preferred brand but nobody wants anybody else to see them picking it or getting it. Then again, I’m basing this entire theory on how a single woman chose her mate so please take this with 99% inaccuracy.

Many street venders sell the gourds and bombillas from which you get to ‘enjoy’ this bitter tea-like beverage. Everybody has their own designs and such. Like these:

You have to be careful when asking dreaded hippie porteños (similar to background guy of above image) where you can buy some Yerba from, though . It turns out that “Yerba” is pronounced the same as “hierba”… well, in most of the world except Argentina where the Y earns this JJJJerba sound. “Hierba” means herb, which, in some cases, can mean exactly what “herb” can mean in English. In any case, when you ask the guy selling Bombillas where to buy yerba, and he says “oh, I know just the guy. We all buy from him” and walks you over to a Jamaican dude with a dolly stacked with coolers tied shut with a rope, and then smiles and shows the internationally recognized hand signal for smoking a joint,  and you suddenly realize that you’re not about to finally find this impossible-to-purchase mate, but instead some other form of mind altering drug. “OOHOHHHOHh  no entendí!!! Yerba MATE! You get that at the SUPERMARKET.”

Ok. Accidental illegal purchase or potentially interesting tea steeping avoided.

Sites and Stuff

Our hotel was in an area of town known as Recoleta. Its primary attraction is a very large above-ground cemetery. I’ll let the pictures do the talking here.

Then you walk around, see a bunch of plazas. There is that big wide avenue with the Washington Monument. Then more Plazas.  Then some odd things.

Some more things that feel like Washington DC. Sort of. Like the Casa Rosada (Rose House), which is basically like the White House, but, if you’re intelligent enough to have guessed, is not white, but rose-colored. A cab driver told us that they put a net across the roof to try to keep the politicians from getting out, but they still escape anyways.

Argentine humor.

The garbage still gets out, too. And it stays out, right along-side the building for everybody to see as they walk by. This would never fly in the US. The White House is one of the most immaculate properties on the planet. I don’t understand why Argentinos would expect anything less of the Casa Rosada.

Though I’m not typically  fan of artisinal crafts and street vendors, Buenos Aires had some truly amazing works displayed at markets and sidewalks. I stopped more times than I’d ever have expected to marvel the craftsmanship of some of these skilled people. Hand-carved coins for necklace pennants, incredibly small sculptures, the aforementioned mate gourds, metal sculptures, wine holders, etc, etc, etc.

Oddly, being right next to a huge ocean/bay, we hadn’t see ocean for 2 days. Time to remedy that – a cab ride to La Boca! “La Boca” translates to “The Mouth” which is basically like saying its a port, or mouth of a river. However, on Sunday, “La Boca” translates to “this is touristic hell and overrun with hoards of daytrippers”. It felt incredibly cheesy and I had to leave. At least we saw a couple dancing tango.

Alex mocking tourists at La Boca. “LOOK AT ALL THE PRETTY COLORS THEY PUT ON THIS SLUM”

Oh, there are lots of statues of famous guys on horses. Really, drop the horse. You look like Don Quixote. I wonder if one day we will build statues of guys in their cars. Like, Obama in a Mercedes on a 70 foot marble pedestal or something.

I think that pretty much wraps it up.

Off to Uruguay, for now. By Buquebus ferry!  We will enter and leave Argentina 4 times. 8 Stamps in the passport, total. Immigration is going to be pretty suspicious of us by the time we’re done.

Sabbatical [Day 6] Bankrupt Airline

Go directly to Buenos Aires. Do not pass Montevideo. Lose $500

Alex and I couldn’t seem to find the check-in station for Pluna Airlines at the Santiago airport. Finally, we decided we should ask at the information booth. We were told “I’m sorry, Pluna doesn’t exist anymore”.

What? Our airline doesn’t exist? No puede ser! I asked again – she again said something to the same effect. The airline went bankrupt two weeks ago, and there are no longer flights to be taken. They were supposed to be calling passengers to arrange alternate travel arrangements, but we were certainly never given any notice. No e-mail, no phone call, nothing. So much for basic customer service.

So here we are, at the airport with a phone number of a now-defunct, employee-less airline. I bought travel insurance, but Alex didn’t. We have different credit card travel insurance coverage. So, now what? I don’t want to spend another day in Santiago trying to figure stuff out or wandering around a smoggy city. We went to a random (TAM) airline and asked how much it was to go to Montevideo or Buenos Aires. They directed us to LAN, where a very friendly lady explained the Pluna situation in a bit more detail, and offered us a round-trip flight to Buenos Aires for about $400/person. Considering the circumstances, we weren’t in a huge position to complain about that price or availability, and made the reservation which we had until 12am to decide whether or not we actually wanted to pay for.

Off to a cafe with wifi. Cortado y té caliente, por favor. What does one do without internet in a situation like this?
Alex called the Buenos Aires hotel to re-book it to today via Skype. I called the Montevideo hotel to cancel it for today via T-mobile’s wifi calling. For this change, we may still be charged a night penalty. I called the credit card company to see about cancelling the charges to Pluna airlines, which they seemed to suggest would be no problem. We’ll see whether or not my travel insurance or credit card covers the price difference for the plane, or cancelled hotel reservation costs or anything.

So, travel disaster was mostly averted. We’re out some extra cash (thanks, Argentine reciprocity fee!) Our Montevideo/Buenos Aires itinerary seems to be reversed. We don’t yet know how we’ll be getting to Rio de Janeiro since that, too, was supposed to be on Pluna airlines. Here’s hoping we find something fairly inexpensive last-minute.

This was all a very eye-opening experience. Several years ago, I was baffled when I heard that Mexicana Airlines failed, and suddenly completely stopped service. No flights were in operation, employees went jobless, and brand new airplanes sat unused, essentially seized by the government. In the US, our airlines seem to go bankrupt every 15 years or so. You could probably set your calendar year by it. However, when our airlines fail, we provide a safety net called Chapter 11 Bankruptcy which allows the company to continue to operate under a highly regulated and monitored mode. This way, people don’t lose their jobs, passengers don’t lose their transportation, and the repercussions aren’t felt throughout the hotels, airports, taxi services, and entire tourism industry.

As costly, awful, frustrating and annoying as it is when companies go bankrupt, I’m now convinced that letting large companies like that fail is absolutely the worse way to go for both the social being and economic welfare of a state. Perhaps that little piece of law is part of what makes the US such a strong nation. Way to go, lawmakers & economists!

So long, Santiago. And so long, Pluna. You inconsiderate and incompetent cabrones.

Sabbatical [Day 5] Skiing with Brazillians

Last night, wandering around for probably about an hour trying to find a place to eat (Santiago is in dire need of Yelp), Alex and I stumbled across a Ski trip place. We had planned on going on a ski trip – which, it turns out, would be my first time ever really skiing. On a whim, we wandered in to check the pricing. It turned out to be cheaper than the one we had originally planned to go to, and more importantly they noted that we would have to have already picked out our rental gear before the vans took off in the morning, which basically gave us time to make an immediate decision on the matter.

Done.

Ski trip it is. Picked our boots, picked our coats, snowpants, goggles. Then we went in the back room and were assisted by a guy who looked oddly like Jack Black in selecting some skis and poles. He slowly worked at adjusting the skis for our boots, and haphazardly converted pounds to kilograms (which I think he did incorrectly, with some decent falls my skis never detached). Our names were written on the skis in permanent markers, and we were told to be there in the morning.

We were. Along with an entire van full of Brazilians. I’m convinced that this particular outfit must have been featured in the Lonely Planet – Portuguese Edition or something. Their logo even had the Brazilian flag, and the guy helping us was from Rio. Alex and I immediately take notice of our immersion language experience, and are only more excited for the Brazil portion of the trip.

Off we went, late as scheduled. Within 30 seconds of the bus/van taking off, we were already in trouble. One of the store employees was pounding on the windows of the bus, telling the driver to stop. The Brazilians made a big fuss about it and laughed. It turned out that we were running into a road sign. And perhaps even the bus behind us.

A crunch and a smash later, we were un-parallel-parked later, and on our way. Thirty minutes into the trip, we began ascending the Andes. Forty minutes into the trip, we began our winding roads and hair-pin turns up to the summit of El Colorado Ski Resort.

Nearly every hairpin turn was taken at roughly 30mph. There was minimal braking. There was suggestive yielding to oncoming traffic. There were very small rail guards. It seemed that every 45 seconds we were either facing running directly into a cliff, or directly off of a cliff.

Each turn, the Brazilians showed us how to express fear in Brazilian Portuguese. I believe it went something like “OOOeeeeEUeoEeee!!!!” Hopefully, this knowledge will not come in handy in Brazil.

We made it.

I was amazed at the frenzy at the base of the slopes. Nearly all of the skiers seemed to be Brazilian. What? Why? Where are the Chileans? No Americans? Any English Speakers? Nope. Then, 75% of the skiers seemed to be about 75% of my age – and height, for that matter. This should prove to be humiliating.

It was – for a bit.

Alex tried showing me some basic moves. He kept talking about Pizzas and making a pizza and doing pizza turns and though I knew where he was going with it, I think it turned my mind to food and I was falling more than I was moving along any particular vector in euclidean geometry. Then he went up to actually ski, and I got my professional instructor for an hour to teach me how things are done. It turns out that he was from Japan. Masuke… Maruke…  Marusake… I can’t remember his name right now. But, his English was slightly better than his Spanish, so that is how he told me basic directions. Laughing at my errors, however, was shared in a universal language.

Within the hour, I learned how to sort of slow down (as much as my lanky hip flexors would allow), turn a bit, and look slightly pro while doing it. He assured me that with a few more days training, I would be ready for Olympic tryouts. Encouragement goes a long way when skiing is one of your biggest fears.

So the lessons ended, I made it down the big bunny slope hill without dying or piercing my instructor, who encouraged me to press my ski poles into his chest while he skiid backwards and slowed me from flying down the Andes at 800kph.

Then, Alex had the fortune of skiing with me. More like spectating, I guess. And he photographed me – while skiing backwards. Then videotaped me, while skiing backwards. At some point, he caught me skiing ever-so-overly-fast, directly into a “slow down” sign, thus knocking it over. Oh, the irony.

So we had some breaks. Alex went off to do real skiing while I did my best to not die. I succeeded, and I even started to get the hang of it by the end. My hip flexors and back said “thats enough”, as did my watch.

Brazilian’s watches run precisely 10 minutes slow. We sat on that bus, waiting for everybody to get back on at the designated 5pm. Nobody… nobody, nobody….. then, 5:10pm and suddenly 20 Brazilians pile onto the bus at once. It turns out, I don’t even think they were a big group of people who knew each other – its just how it is.

We went down the scary hills and switchbacks, which at this point was actually quite slow from all of the ski-evacuation traffic. Again, we did not fly down or into a cliff, despite the driver’s numerous attempts.

The day was a success, ended by a rather disgusting Chilean sandwich. I wonder if this is how many Chilean’s days go. They have fairly terrible food here in Santiago. Lots of  hotdogs, hamburgers, and other nasty things. Figuring it seemed to be the national cuisine of Chile, we went for one of these things after the trip. I got a vegetarian equivalent of “El Completo” which normally carries a hot dog – but in my case they just removed that integral ingredient. Mushrooms, onions, peppers, about 2 cups of guacamole, 1 cup of mayo, all slathered into a hot dog bun. It was the messiest, most mediocre and fulfilling thing I could have eaten at that moment. I was hungry. Tomorrow, I expect to have cholera.

Chilean Merlot, some craft beers, some chores of doing laundry, and a long skype chat with Alex’s girlfriend, Lindsey, ended our last night here in Chile. Tomorrow, we are off to Montevideo.

So long, oeste de America del Sur!