Friday, April 16, 2010

Monday, April 12, 2010

I find myself here.

I find myself here, in Denver.

As I lay here typing away past the bewitching hour in the guest bedroom - it would be hard to tell I had ever left. If not for the issue of "El Grafica" at the corner of the bed, my River Plate and Atletico Nacional tops on the floor, my Spanish/English dictionary and the chessboard from Ecuador on the nightstand, and of course the millions of words and images in my mind.

We arrived safely back in Denver nearly a week ago. The first two days I was preoccupied with feeling out of sorts. Since then Kaitlin's home has stripped me of the pensive brooding which spawned so many entries and replaced it with fine food and drink, a comfy stable living quarter, and thoughts of moving on to California..

I almost feel ashamed to come back here and write about our last few days in Colombia when I am so quickly preoccupied by new events and decisions. I am seeing, yet again, just how easy it is to forget about the greater world out there. A crime. To think that I have been back here five days and how little I have "done" compared to that stretch of time during the trip - it is bizarre.

But there are new standards now and I can't forget that I have earned a little leniency. Our trip was incredible, profound, heroic, epic, as well as, mundane, frivolous, naive, and easy. But most importantly, it was living, and we did it well. And that is enough for me to feel comfortable "wrapping it up" because what more can I say beyond the body of work before this point..

Any postulation here after returning would be unfair. I am tainted again.

I will return here to post pictures as they come in. That aside, I am done with this blog. I hope it has provided some better-than-average or at least unorthodox insights into all that encompasses a five month journey through six nations. I have no lofty ending to suit my garish beginning. Just the body of work that I hope can stand on its own.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

In the Coffee Triangle

It's now April 3rd.

We arrived in Salento via a night bus from Medellin to Armenia and then a local commuter from Armenia into the misty hills of Salento.

It's hard to say what this place is like on an ordinary day. Our hostel owner says it is very tranquil, which it is possible to imagine in the early morning hours. However, the steady stream of families from the city on holiday for Semana Santa have clogged the modest, though freshly painted streets of Salento.

Despite the massive influx of tourists, it is a place where you feel you can sense its character. Kaitlin says it's something about mountain towns. Though I don't have enough experience to confirm or deny - I do know what the sound of old wooden floors makes me feel..and it is a possible connection between this place, Kaitlin's mountain towns, and the more than century old establishments that still survive in Camden, South Carolina. We have relished such spaces in the little time we have had. Allowing the musty smell to ferment conversations in our hostel with travellers from Cali and Manizales.

Those conversations morphing what we thought would be a lazy, uneventful end of the trip - into an exciting and emotional evening - and now an impromptu change of plans.

Our new friends from Manizales (a university town in the mountains closer to Medellin) Santiago and Irene have offered to be our transportation, from Salento to Manizales, from Manizales to Bogota, and from our hostel in Bogota to the airport.

I have been equally on the fence about changing our last few days in South America from a lazy three days to a whirlwind weekend. But after my overreaction in Viedma, I'm willing to calm my doubts for the potential of one last great experience.

So, in less than two hours we leave for Manizales. Tomorrow we'll spend the day (presumably) with Santiago and Irene - seeing what there is to see on Easter in Manizales. Monday Bogota. Tuesday early to the airport to begin the journey home.

With so much movement, I can't say when I will be able to post again. Hopefully before we leave the continent, but we shall see. To the whirlwind!

Atletico Nacional vs Atletico Huila

As my last experience with soccer on this continent (not to mention the stories floating in my head from Marko's experiences in Medellin), it is safe to say there was quite a bit of anticipation surrounding this match.

That being so, I went above and beyond to prepare for this excursion. Triangulating time and place between the varying accounts listed on the club's website, the league website, and soccernet.com

Beyond that, I confirmed with locals that all of the soccer matches in Medellin took place at the Estadio Atanasio Girardot - a 50,000+ facility shared by Atletico Nacional and Independiente Medellin - conveniently located on the "Estadio" Metro stop, adjacent to the facilities for the Juegos Suramericanos.

Having already been to the area for the Juegos during daylight, I was unconcerned about the game being at night. I knew the area was well lit, well policed, and being familiar with the layout - I could walk the grounds with confidence.

The evening of the game arrived and though I had invited a group of Sconnies (U of Wisconsin grads) - they decided to accept my invitation but to go to the game separately?? Alas, I had so many factors in my favor, I told Kaitlin not to worry - that I would be fine by myself - it wouldn't be necessary for me to drag her along. After a surprisingly delightful Mexican dinner, I was on my way down Calle 10 for the Poblado Metro station.

I made my way to the Estadio stop, no problem, as we had made the trip multiple times in the previous five days. Arriving at the stop I could see stadium lights in the distance, with about twenty-thirty minutes to kickoff - I was sitting pretty. Yet, as I confidently strode closer and closer to the grounds I grew concerned by the lack of activity in the area. As I passed the last Olympic facility obstructing my view, my pregame adrenaline collapsed into despair as I could see clearly that the stadium lights were as dead as the area around the grounds.

. . .

After standing there dumbfounded for a minute or two, I found a concession stand (I'm not sure why it was open) tended by some friendly Caribbean guys. Over the next five-ten minutes (using every morsel of my intermediate Spanish skills) I was able to ascertain that there was indeed a game tonight - it was indeed in Medellin - it was indeed at 8:30 - but in some other part of the Metro line - a place called "Envigado."

So, I thanked the men and ran for the Metro station. Leaping three steps at a time I purchased my ticket and made my way to the platform. No train, so I looked at the station map. Sure enough, "Envigado" only three stops IN THE OTHER DIRECTION from my home base of Poblado.

As I made my way from the middle of the Orange line back to the transfer at San Antonio - I weighed my options.

I would surely be late - possibly missing the entire first half.
I would be in an unfamiliar area, at night, alone, in Medellin.

But..

This was my last chance for professional futbol on this continent of passion.
I'd spent four weeks with Marko talking about his days in Medellin and the genius that is Giovanni Moreno (Atletico Nacional's highest rated player).
I was battle tested by my solo efforts in Buenos Aires - I knew what to expect, I wasn't brash, I would play it safe.

By the time I resolved to go, my connection was pulling up and I hopped on, pacing as the southern stations trickled by..

With the station name and the direction that the stadium would be "on my left" - I was anxious about what exactly would happen once I reached the stop. Perhaps out of desperation I convinced myself that two drunk girls (one wearing a Nacional top), a young boy (wearing an Andres Escobar Nacional jacket), and an older man (in his mid-50s) were a family on there way to the game, since they were conversing as if they were familiar.

So with two stops to go before the stadium I asked the man in Spanish if they were going to the game. Of course they were! And I'm coming too! I was excited by such a positive reaction and the prospect of a local guide to walk me through the process.

We chatted as much as possible (which wasn't much) until I went to get off at the Envigado stop. "No, no! Una mas!" Okay, so maybe there was a better way to get to the stadium..and though I could see the glow of the stadium lights in the sky - I stayed with this group one more stop, to the end of the line Itagüí.

At Itagüí we rushed down the platform to street-level. We were surrounded by bars filled with people in green and white watching the game. There were buses, perhaps shuttles to the stadium, but we passed them on foot without a second glance (all but me).

For the next block the girls asked me if I wanted a beer, but I declined with a laugh and tried to keep up with the little boy and older man as we ran across two freeways..

On the other side of the freeways we were in desolate stretch of abandoned urban sprawl. At this point, the boy who I had assumed was part of our group all along, bolted ahead of us out of sight - no one else seemed to notice.

So now the four of us walked quickly through the nothing, seemingly forever if not for the stadium lights gradually growing in intensity.

About four blocks from the stadium grounds, we started to pass some less than savory characters headed in the opposite direction. I tried to stay as close to our group as possible, laughing at their nonexistent jokes, trying (perhaps too hard) to look natural. The occasional police presence and the beginnings of a stadium grounds in the distance were the only factors keeping me steady.

Eventually we reached what looked to be a gate to the grounds. There were just as many police on horseback with automatic weapons as derelict loiterers scattered between myself and the ticket booth. My group continued past the booth to have a conversation with a man, they told me there were no tickets left, that we had to get them from this guy on the street.

Warning.

I didn't even respond. I just turned around and went for the ticket booth. While the man behind the glass arranged his papers, my group continued to talk with the man. By the time I was speaking to the ticket vendor the older man was at my side taking over. Did I want "Norte, Sur, o Occidente" - it didn't matter to me - I knew nothing about the grounds. So I got a ticket for the North stands for 12,000 (six dollars). I was feeling better about the fact that I had purchased a ticket (and that it was quite cheap), but was still outside the grounds with no clue how to enter. I walked along the fence with my older friend in tow as they told us that we would have to walk around, though there was an entrance right infront of us.

So after the man told the girls to "Wait here" we began our walk around the grounds. At this point, I will admit that the events had been a gradual progression of feeling more and more like something bad was mere seconds away. I was sure that as I turned the corner with the older man that the ticket scalper would run up behind me and take what little cash I had on me at the very least.

But as we turned the corner and just after the man had finished joking about how the girls didn't have any money to get into the game, it was not a muggers feet that I heard behind me, but the girls, running to catch up with tickets in hand. I was completely confused about the relationship of everyone involved, but I could sense we were quite close to our entrance so I was trying to stay positive.

Of course, the last corner we turned brought us to the mouth of the entrance to the stadium. A block and a half of young men, drinking, smoking, and cooking, each equally (if not more so) unfriendly as the worst of my encounters in Buenos Aires - only compounded by the fact that it was night and I was the only gringo in sight.

But I relied on the now tried and true tactic of laughing at the nonexistent comments of my "companions" and keeping my eyes riveted to their faces or the security gate in front of me.

Finally through the first wave of security and inside the grounds - my anxiety switched from potential violence to the fact that I was incredibly late and that we would have to back-track the way we had come (only this time inside the wall) to make our way to the North stand.

Practically running through security and up the steps we finally arrived at the mouth of the entrance to the North stand..and all I could see was a wall of young men in green and white.

In retrospect, it was better to be in the North stand. Though I was the only gringo surrounded by a standing room only (including the walls around the steps) crowd of young, high and drunk, locals - at least these were not the completely mental fanactics of the South stand who were jumping incessantly and screaming lyrics to the beat of their drums and the melody of their horns.

I did my best to let my worries be eased by the flow of the game. For the next ten minutes I peered through the spaces between shoulders and necks and heads - perhaps overreacting when there were even a remote chance at goal.

With what I would find out was five minutes to go before half-time my older friend appeared four rows below - calling for me to come join him. I did so.

As I sat there and he questioned me about my visit to Medellin, which hostel I was staying at, in which part of town, I resolved that lying to this man was the lesser of two evils. At least with a seat I could blend in and attempt to enjoy the game - all I had to do was give this man false information.

The fifteen minutes before half time passed without major incident (aside from some mediocre chances from the away team*). At halftime I learned that the score was 1-1. I had missed two goals, the first scored by none other than Giovanni Moreno.

*The away team happened to be mostly "black." When they would take corners or miss a shot on goal - the Nacional fans would yell the usual insults: puto and maracon - vulgar as they were they were nothing I hadn't heard grown men yell infront of their sons in Buenos Aires - but I hadn't heard "Negra!" and "Negrita!" before. I tried not to assume anything, tried to sum it up to cultural differences..something lost in translation..

Though I would witness the winning goal for Nacional in the 85th minute (which would result in my first rush down the stands) and a few moments of brillance from Moreno - the evening took a different tone after my experience during halftime.

Towards the end of the half it began to drizzle a bit. Those better prepared dawned their ponchos. My older friend purchased one and was kind enough to share. It was a double blessing because while he wore his over his head, I was able to hide under the excess not only from the rain, but from his questions.

While pondering my exit strategy under the tarp, my thoughts were broken by commotion in the stands. A vendor was selling bags of water shouting, "Agua! Agua!" only to be mocked by groups throughout the crowd. I thought it at most immature and let it go. Then about five minutes later, there was more commotion, but this time people were standing up looking behind me away from the field. So I stood and turned.

Some men in the crowd had taken the vendor's (a black man) box of bagged water. They were ripping open the bags, squirting him with water, yelling "PUTO! NEGRA!" with more rage than they had directed at the players. As the vendor struggled to escape the crowd someone stole his hat and lifted it in the air to which everyone cheered and laughed. I attempted to mask my horror as I panned the faces around me for disapproval. At most there was disinterest. At worst they were joining in.

The rest of the match was a blur, despite the dramatic finish, I was in another world. The fans had overshadowed the match and I was stuck in my head contemplating how to rectify what I had seen and my instinct to remain culturally relative.

When the game winner was scored it was announced that there were five minutes left in the match. I knew I couldn't be caught in this crowd and that I couldn't accept any offers from the "friends" that had gotten me to the stadium.

So without waiting for a reply, I told them that I was going to the bathroom (a blatant lie with five minutes left to go in a close match) and bolted for the exit. Literally running out of the stadium I could see that the first entrance that was originally closed was now open and there were taxis!

Without a glance at the unsavories patrolling the area I walked down the street waving at every taxi. Eventually one stopped. I was inside a cab, giving my pathetic directions, happy to have this potentially disasterous dilemma in place of the previous. Happy to be dumb, but in friendly company I chatted with the man about the directions I had given him and despite some uncertainty and a lot of hand gestures - we made it back to Calle 10. I could breathe again..

I still haven't talked to Marko about the things I witnessed. Him having lived in Medellin for some time and having travelled for Nacional matches - I suspect he won't be totally surprised. I suspect I shouldn't be totally surprised myself. Medellin and the region as a whole (Antioquia) is commonly known as one of the "whitest" regions in Colombia (while most of the "blacks" are along the coast). Still, I'm struggling to come to any conclusions - maybe with something like racism it is impossible to rationalize - it can only be erased.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Medellin: Part 2

Somehow six days have slipped by in Medellin. Kaitlin and I now find ourselves seven hours away in the coffee hills of Salento.

The ups and downs in Medellin continued throughout, but the overall impression was good. We managed some splendid weather, as well as finding the good places to eat. It couldn't be helped to feel that if Marko had been there with us from day one - things could have been totally different.

Still we soldiered on and explored. One particular high point (literally) was our trip to the end of the Metro which meant walking up a flight of stairs to the entrance for the "Metro Cable" - a series of elevated gondola lifts that took us over the destitute hills of the Medellin's suburbs to the Olympic Village built for the Juegoes Suramericanos 2010. The ride is an absolute must (and included in your Metro fare) as it offers a thorough view of the valley in which the city is situated.

Aside from a visit to the aquarium, the rest of our time in Medellin was spent with some quality Colombian cuisine, as well as pastries with coffee, and surprise surprise - a spectacular Mexican restaurant.

All told, we left Medellin with the sense that it is a quality International city. With just as much to offer locals and tourists - the key is patience and a little local insight.

There is one experience left to be told, Atletico Nacional vs Atletico Huila, that it requires its own space.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Medellin: Part 1

Well, we are safely two days into Medellin.

Funny how there can be so much build-up, anticipation, anxiety about things like being caught in the middle of a terrorist attack, shark attack, alien invasion attack. And of course, nothing happens. Kaitlin has been calling me a "fatalist" quite frequently the last few days. I'm not sure if there has been a drastic increase in my "worrying" or if we are both just a bit more sensitive to these issues as we are so near to our "safe" return in the "safe" US of A.

The truth is though, I feel quite comfortable in Medellin. Most places in SA, even Chile (which is touted as one of the most "Western" countries in SA) I felt we were followed by more lingering stares than here.

Medellin is a busy city. There is so much going on in this city that has no bonafide "center" aside from the modern, clean, quiet, metro that runs North-South through the bottom of the valley. People just seem too preoccupied here to mess around with two frumpy gringo backpackers. Not to say that the people here are not friendly - quite the opposite. Every location, whether it be a bar, restaurant, sports facility, hostel, etc... people have done their best to be accomodating and thorough. ¡Que bueno!

Our two days, have been two full days. The "Tiger Paw Hostel" was fully booked, but they recommended us to Hostal Tamarindo - which I think is ultimately more our speed and the right place for us to be at this point in the trip. Clean, quiet, organized, and thorough with all the relevant information for getting where you want to go in the city.

From this base in Poblado we have gladly made the fifteen minute walk to the metro (though yesterday we discovered the bus that eliminates the walk) to seek out just a little of what Medellin has to offer:

A staggeringly thorough and active farmer's market (where we had a deliciously unhealthy concoction consisting of various fruits, yogurt, cheese, ice cream, and another mystery sauce.

Unidad Deportiva de Belen where I was able to join in on an eight-a-side soccer match in a quality synthetic turf complex with some nice and very talented Colombians who play a refreshingly thorough version of the game - PASSING AND DRIBBLING!

The Juegos Suramericano - the South American Olympics. The metro takes you literally to the door-step of the facilities that host the major indoor events. After waiting in line for a little under two hours we were able to view men's basketball Venezuela vs Brazil and Colombia vs Argentina.
Although the quality of play was a little below high school basketball in the States - the energy of the capacity crowd (particularly during Colombia vs Argentina) was quite electric and made what should have been a slaughter an entertaining match. Never-the-less, the superior size, speed, and depth of the Argentina squad allowed them to pull away at the end, but that didn't stop the home crowds chants of "Si, se puede!" and "Co-lom-bia! Co-lom-bia!" Great to see such and atmosphere for a sport other than soccer and it was free for all!

Palm Sunday processions with palm fronds, olive branches, replicas surrounded by young and old that can only make me think of my mother and how she would love South America.

And each night finishing with a ride through the valley surrounded by the twinkling yellow lights that make Medellin a beautiful glimmering bowl. ¡Que lindo!

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Today we should be off for another full day of activities..

Starting with my last camiseta search on the continent. Then we're off to the farmer's market to haul home sundry ingredients for a king's dinner, then hopefully we can catch women's rhythmic gymnastics, and finishing the day with a pint or two at the Tiger Paw microbrew!

Tuesday should be another packed day as we have heard that there is an exceptional aquarium here with a botanical garden next door.
Wednesday is my Atletico Nacional match..and I'm sure by that time Thursday will be packed full of activity as well.

It's busy, but good, we've found that the little down time we have had so far has allowed us to start thinking of home and how these five months are coming to an end. It's a mixed bag of emotions which has us a little nervy.
For so long we've been in this mindset that there is an unknown "next destination" and to now be looking forward to Denver-USA is good in that it is familiar and we are excited to be with Kaitlin's family again, but also a disruption in that it is familiar and we know what to expect - which breaks from our five month routine.

Alas, we are making the most of Medellin while we can. I am making up for my long drought in drip-coffee and last night I had a wonderful "mulata" beer from a local brewery. It's almost enough to make a smooth transition, but with Semana Santa and the Juegos Suramericanos and varios barrios there is still much of unique Medellin and Colombia to see..

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Idols, Ides, or Idiosyncrasies

It would be unfair to say that we have been "disappointed" with Cartagena. Far from it. However, I would feel more comfortable with a synonym for "disenchanted." Of course, this sense is a combination of factors - I don't mean to condemn Cartagena as a whole, but let me put down my jugo de zapote and back-up a little.

I should begin with our last day in Quito.

You would have to try very hard or have very little time to be unimpressed with Quito.

With less than twelve hours left in the city we managed to fill up yet another day and marvel at what a quality place Quito is (and Ecuador as a whole).

We started with an attempt to find various embassies scattered throughout the Mariscal (new town). This being largely a failure, we abandoned the search for a new search - coffee. Near Parque La Carolina we found a nice little international café with a good latte and a crazy-delicious donut-sandwich hybrid. From there we made our way through the park to the Jardín Botánico de Quito which boasted tons of orchids, carnivorous plants, and bonsai trees (not to mention tons of roses, cacti, and trees)! I don't ususally enjoy botanical gardens (WHERE ARE ALL THE ANIMALS!), but the collection was so diverse that each plant seemed to take on a character of its own allowing my imagination to thoroughly enjoy itself.

From the garden we headed up-town on one of Quito's clean and efficient buses (costing a quarter) to an outdoor market it in a plaza that I have forgotten - hurray! With most family members now covered in the souvenir department and Kaitlin making marginal progress in the haggling department - we could move on to other things.

Another bus ride took us into the old city center and after hoofing it a few blocks on foot through the Plaza Theatro we were on the steps of Quito's Mercado Central. Walking inside, I immediately had the sensation that I was in a 1920s-30s hospital. High-ceilings, lots of natural light, stalls randomly dispersed through the space, people shuffling in and out around corners and down the aisles, colors, and noises. As if it could be any better, we were joined by only one other pair of gringos which made us think that this meal had potential to be quite special/authentic.

And in good-ole Quito fashion, it did not disappoint. My dish consisted of rice, hard-boiled egg, a massive half of avocado, and stew topped rice with big chunks of potato and miscellaneous beef bits. DELICIOUS. Top it all off with a healthy pitcher of blackberry juice - all for under $6 - good times.

Content we were off to the nearby Monasterio de Santa Catalina de Siena. For three dollars our tour included a healthy showcase of tons of morbid-gory religious art and artifacts, topped off by a spiral staircase leading to a rather perilous view of the city from the monastery roof.

After the tour, we were closing in on four hours before it was time to leave for the airport, so we decided to head back to the hostel for some pre-flight rest and relaxation.

Around 8pm it was time to head to the airport. Twenty minutes later we're in the main lobby of Quito's Mariscal Sucre International Airport about to embark on an all-night-flight-othon that would take us from Quito to Cali, Colombia - Cali to Bogota - Bogota to Cartagena. No flight lasting more than an hour, but the entire ordeal lasting from 8pm in Quito to 10am in Cartagena. Built-up by myself as our most perilous journey of the trip - I was pleasantly surprised-amazed-in awe when we landed in Cartagena, safe with all of our luggage. Incredible.

Each airport was so small and easy and clean, it was hard to believe how smoothly everything was going. Compared to most airports in the US and especially to Buenos Aires - these guys really had their act together.

Cartagena

I will start off by saying, "We are not Anthony Bourdaine."

In Buenos Aires, the combination of cabin fever, Marko's enthusiasm for Colombia, and this episode of "No Reservations" put us on a crash course with reality.



The truth is, Cartagena is VERY touristy. This morning, I went to get a shot of espresso from one of the men in the Plaza del Reloj and had to wait to cross the street as a train of more than ten horse drawn carriages full of beige and white clad seniors turned left - for each tourist a camera waving in the air that could feed a family here for over a month. I don't mean to digress into the economics, politics, ethics of the situation - suffice it to say..I know enough after five months down here that "touristy" places aren't necessarily where you want to be.

Though we haven't encountered anything like the persistence we saw in Peru, street vendors are eager and it's impossible not to feel that local eyes are always watching. Tourists come and go - these people stay behind and have to make a living chasing down Nikon toting gringos.

It's also very hot here, which would be okay, if there were a proper beach nearby. The old city (where our hotel is located) is surrounded by walls (originally built by the Spanish to protect the vital port from pirate attacks). Once the aesthetic wears off - it can be a bit claustrophobic and oppressively hot and confusing just trying to get to and from the grocery store.

Lastly, possibly our last meal in the market in Quito has afflicted Kaitlin with a stomach illness that has rendered her more or less bedridden. Thus, it is likely our plans to snorkel are scuttled and with one day remaining in the city - I'm not sure there is much opportunity left for our impressions to change.

No doubt there is much to see, do, and eat here in Cartagena. But without a local guide or a private vehicle - even under the best conditions it would be difficult for us to have had the time of our lives.

Alas, all is not negative! How could it be when we are so fortunate to continue our travels to yet another beautiful country!

Easily the highpoint of our time in Cartagena has been our ability to reunite with Rob and Blanche - the Australian couple we met in Puerto Natales and hiked Torres del Paine with. It was again, the refreshing couples dynamic that has been so nice after months of one on one interaction. We sat for hours in different parts of the city, eating, drinking - discussing our travels, pending reintegration into our respective societies, and if that were even fully possible considering all that we had experienced and where our priorities now lie.

As with Antti and Laura in Finland, it has been a reaffirming and inspirational gift to know that there are other couples/people out there with similar priorities, "fighting the good fight" all over the world.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that with these near-chance encounters across the continent, there is the bitter-sweet farewell. With only an afternoon together, Rob and Blanche were now off to Santiago where they would stay for three days before flying back to Melbourne.

Just the two of us, again.

Today has been a rather lackluster day, which is quite alright by me. Kaitlin has been hydrating and resting. I have been reading articles, making brief excursions into the city for breakfast, coffee, or lunch, but mostly attempting to plan our exit from Cartagena.

With the anti-climax of the flights from Quito to Cartagena past, our bus journey from Cartagena to Medellin is our last great logistical hurtle. Consensus is that with rebel groups and paramilitaries beaten back into the jungle/hinterlands, the route is safe to travel. Still, there are no guarantees in Colombia and when it comes to my personal safety and especially the safety of others, that isn't good enough.

Suffice it to say, with Kaitlin unable to assist with speaking to locals, I am a little uneasy about our journey on Saturday. Everyone has said that there are no problems, that there will be plenty of buses, that it's okay to go through the night. Still, I'm waiting for advice from a (strangely enough) Clemson native who runs a hostel in Medellin before I sit back and relax.

Of course, like nearly every scenario where I have played the paranoid-cynic, I'm expecting, I'm hoping, to be proven wrong. But, sadly for Colombia, I think it will take the lift-off from Aeropuerto El Dorado in Bogota on April 6th for me to breathe that final sigh of relief and tell people, "Yeah, Colombia is not what it was. I traveled there for two weeks and had no problems at all."

In the meantime, I'll try to muffle my paranoia as much as possible. I'll slough off the breaking news bulletins that the US has been inundated with since my childhood. I'll minimize. I'll drink lots of fruit juice and coffee. I'll eat lots of beans and egg and avocado. I'll watch lots of soccer. And read. And talk to Kaitlin. And maybe that will be enough to wake-up on April 7th in Miami International Airport bound for Denver and a completely different journey.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Equinox on the Equator in Ecuador

I think I've really been caught off-guard by how much I have enjoyed Quito (and Ecuador as a whole). It's been so easy to enjoy and though we're off to Colombia (arguably a very similar country) - I'm identifying with this place, seeing myself on the streets, waking up to these bizarre sunrises day after day.

After four months of traveling, Kaitlin and I were both feeling a bit worn down. Our motto for Quito was to stay in the historic part of the city with less bars, less hostels, less chaos. I think it has really paid off in that we are so close to all of the historical sites that are the backbone of Quito's substance.

There are views of Quito everywhere. A block or two up the hill from our hostel and we're on the balcony of a greek café eating banana nut pancakes with café while the murmur of a Friday in Quito trickles up our way.

The next day we're in the top of the steeples of the Basilica del Voto Nacional. My feet sweating profusely as Kaitlin is practically running up the ladders. Another angle of the city with it's orderly traffic (never thought I would say that while on this continent!) and humble pedestrians.


We've spent an evening strolling Calle de la Ronda - a place for people seeking a little more culture with their nightlife. The Andean folk music pulsing out of every other establishment, much like the Mapuche tunes a few thousand kilometers down the range, but with its own Ecuadorian twist - adding fiddles and a more staccato vocal style. It made us dance, drink with ease, and attack our quimbolitos, empanadas, and corn tortillas. Warm red wine with sugar and hot cider that reeked of its potency, but tasted like middle winter relief.

I had my first straight razor shave by a beautiful old man in the Plaza del Teatro.

We braved the high noon sun, on the equinox, on the equator, for possibly the worst professional football match I have seen yet. El Nacional (13 titles and home club of Christian Benítez and Antonio Valencia) and Independiente del Valle/José Terán. As we hid inside of our shirts we watched a less than enthused crowd mumble as their team went up a goal and (but for the no more than twenty locos jumping and singing [although they were all Boca Juniors songs]) sit on their hands until the teams were reduced to 10v10, the game was tied, and the final minutes lurking. With true class, the El Nacional fans turned on their squad - hissing and booing every failed attempt at goal for the last ten minutes of the match. And to top it all off, the lethargic dispersed group, saved their one moment of unity for the end of the game when they all rushed to the point nearest the player's tunnel in order to shower their boys with expletives. What a club!

Everything else has been a mixture of markets, restaurants, wandering, and quality people back at the hostel.

Though we leave today, there is another full day in Quito. Plenty to do, too much to do, before we make our way to the airport around 8pm. But we'll try, botanical gardens filled with orchids, convents where nuns sell lotions through revolving doors, and more markets, more food, as much as we can stuff our stomachs, packs, and hearts with before we leave this hemisphere.

Tomorrow we'll be in Cartagena, back in the northern hemisphere, swapping also the Pacific for the Caribbean. But we know that Quito, and Ecuador as a whole, is a place we must return to.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Guayaquil - Ayampe - Manta - Quito

Although there are countless exceptions - it's safe to say that Peru (overall) did not thoroughly enchant us.. I was really thankful for our time with Antti and Laura, but Máncora was more or less a complete bust and the horror stories that were floating in about the border were making me all the more anxious to leave, but also anxious about getting to Guayaquil.

Essentially, the border at Tumbes has a pretty poor reputation, considered "the worst in SA" by some..which is saying a lot considering all of the shady, unstable places you can go on this continent.
Of course, these were all just ramblings on the internet - gringos strolling into places where they should be better prepared. Assuming that their passport will magically get them anywhere and everywhere they want - no hassle.
Then we heard from Antti and Laura that they had been conned out of $75 during their crossing three days prior.

Shit.

So we tramped it up and down the hill from our hostel to the travel agency (posed as our bus company) and changed our border crossing to "direct" from Máncora to Guayaquil (meaning it would only stop for border procedure) - rather than the commuter we were originally signed up for (which would involve us changing buses somewhere in Tumbes).

Long story short, though we had to wait around for the bus in the middle of the night..border procedures went off without a hitch (though there were men outside of the migrations office asking us for our passports [HA!]) - after checking into Ecuador it was deep sleep and leaving Peru behind.

Ecuador

Ecuador began in the early morning hours as green. Nothing but green. Stark contrast to the endless dunes, rock, and chaparral-like "vegetation" we had experienced along the Peruvian coast. No, Ecuador has been banana trees and jungle junk from start to finish.

We arrived around 10am in Guayaquil at what is easily the most impressive bus terminal I have witnessed. Nicer than most malls and as nice as any airport in the US, it was such a welcome change from the usual chaos that is stepping off the bus with your pack.

From the terminal we called our couchsurfing host, Geovanny. About thirty minutes later we were packed into his two door Rav4 and heading out into the suburbs of Guayaquil.

After a shower and some lunch we let Geovanny take the reigns and show us his city. We started at Parque Bolivar, also known as, The Iguana Park. Literally, iguanas everywhere. We spent a good while with these creatures dangling banana peels hoping they wouldn't take a little bit of our fingers as they scrambled over one another for a morsel. It's hard to say when to leave a place like that (especially since there was a very interesting church in the square), but Kaitlin being urinated on by an iguana in the tree above was as good a sign as any!

So from the Iguana Park we made our way to the Malecon 2000. The Malecon is a boardwalk with an impressive garden, IMAX, restaurants, monuments, and tons of other attractions. From the Malecon, Geovanny led us into a compound (maybe a school?) where there were Galapagos turtles foraging in a square - again, more photos. From that square it was not far to a refurbished part of town with over 400 steps leading up a hill to the lighthouse at the top. Reminded me a lot of a place in San Fran, just toss in about a hundred places to grab a beer, all of them blaring cumbia. Muy bien.

From the top of the hill there was a great view of more or less all of Guayaquil. Ecuador's largest city seems to have it right. Not too big, fairly modern, definitely felt secure, modest but with lots to boast. Only a few hours in and Ecuador was feeling pretty good.

From the hill we made our way back to Geovanny's car. Then it was time for something I didn't even realize how much I missed...

"Feminine" iced coffee drinks.

Geovanny took us to Juan Valdez Cafe (Starbucks) where I had a Nevado con Amaretto, actual liqueur. I'd like to say I sipped it in pleasure, but I slurped and gulped and licked the inside of the cup. While I was still hyperventilating, Kaitlin and Geovanny discussed dinner and it was decided that we would meet up with some of Geovanny's mountain biking friends at a Colombian place.

Our party turned out to be over fifteen people, a mix of locals and US ex-pats in country teaching English. One guy was from Atlanta (UGA) and was pretty happy to see me and talk about Aiken and hoop and holler in a genuine southern accent that you could tell he had been repressing for some months..

With quite a full day (and full bellies) under our belts it was time for a good nights sleep and another day in Guayaquil.

The next day Geovanny was off to a mountain biking trip with his friends. Leaving Kaitlin and I to our own devices we did some laundry, got caught up on internet necessities, and eventually made our way via bus to the city center.

We bumbled around a bit - picking up an Emelec jersey for myself and having ice cream and having another go at the Malecon and government buildings. Well into the afternoon we met up with Geovanny and made our way to a grocery store to pick up supplies for what was supposed to be "Meditteranean Night."

Dinner was good, but not quite as Mediterranean as I had hoped. However, we did well considering the difficulty in finding certain spices and such down here.

The next day Geovanny was nice enough to put us in a cab before work and have us on our way back to the terminal. From there we would catch a four hour bus west, to the coast!

Ayampe

The bus ride to Ayampe was a mixture of drifting in and out of sleep, sweating, and refusing the hordes of people swarming our bus at every turn attempting to sell anything.

Eventually, we arrived in Jipijapa (Hipi-Hapa) which I for once enjoyed the redundant yelling of the destination by the driver's assistant. From there we changed buses to our local commuter bus which made it's way to the water and eventually dropped us off in the middle-of-nowhere, aka Ayampe.

Ayampe came as a recommendation from a friend in SC, Karly, who had spent some time at Finca Punta Ayampe. We asked the way and were pointed down a dirt road. The heat was getting to me a bit with the pack weighing more than ever..and the ocean so close - torture.
But we did indeed arrive and from there it was heaven.

We were welcomed by an incredibly friendly and relaxed staff that made us feel instantly comfortable. The next three days we did little exploring (aside from a trip up the road to Puerto Lopez for some money and grub) - most of our time was spent happily in hammocks or on the deserted beach. The deserted, warm, incredible beach. It's the kind of place that even if we had pictures, it wouldn't do it justice. So much of the experience was in the way that we were served breakfast (more than just smiles) or in the breezes that kept reminding us of our fortune.

Guayaquil had been fun, but this was a different level of satisfaction. And somehow we only had three days...

With our flights out of Quito purchased and our curiosity of that great city and still our need to head north to Manta - we could only wish we had cut out a few days somewhere earlier in the trip. Ayampe had more for us..

But we left, yesterday morning we hopped on a commuter, through Puerto Lopez, to Jipijapa, from there switched to probably the worst/loudest bus we have experienced so far, but only had about an hour to go before arriving in Manta.

In Manta we purchased our overnight bus to Quito (making sure to procure the nicest coach in town [only $8 per person]) and then we killed some time in the area doing covert gift shopping.

The bus ride last night was less than amazing. However, knowing that we have only three bus rides left before we return (and only one really long ride: Cartagena to Medellin) we bore it.

Quito

I have been in Quito for about four hours now (arriving around 6am). Though I have seen little of the city so far, I am excited to do some exploring. Our immaculately clean and comfy hostel (Hostel Revolution) is situated more or less in the center of the historic district. The weather is cooler here (due to the altitude) which should make for some comfortable strolls around the museums and churches.

My last adventure should be a football match on Sunday, but before it is set in stone I need to find a companion (preferably a local) to keep me out of trouble. We fly out for Cartagena on the 22nd (Monday?) - so until then it is museums, churches, and markets!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Let's go there, to see better

Around 5pm on the 3rd of March we arrived in the insanity that is Lima. Any anxiety I had previously had in an urban setting was immediately dwarfed by the spastic hive that is Lima. People everywhere. Cars everywhere. Everything making noise.

Through Kaitlin's grace we made contact with our couchsurfing host - Camillo - met him outside his work - received the key and instructions as to how to find his flat - took a succession of buses:

·Without a subway, the place is totally dependent upon automobiles and there aren't enough combis (mini-buses) or collectivos to quench the demand of the more than seven million residents of Lima. With so much traffic, so much exhaust, and only a marginal attempt at order by the traffic police - what should have been a twenty minute ride in a subte or city bus, became over an hour standing and shifting as we waited our turn to move a block or two·

- and scurried into his flat in his dodgey side of town (which can be any side of town at night in an unfamiliar city when you have a backpack strapped on).

We entered and ran into some Brazilians that said there were some Germans staying, and a french guy, and some quiet people. Immediately I thought of Antti and Laura and sure enough - ten minutes later they were walking through the door. Everything was okay again...

The next day we took a combi to Miraflores. Walked, ate, and made our way to the more "artsy" district Barranco. Our quest was a cafe con leche for Laura and sure enough we found what was presented as cafe con leche. Antti, Kaitlin, and I enjoyed our juices and Laura sipped her milky concoction.

From there we made our way to the Plaza de Armas which is where the Franciscan Monestery held tours of their catacombs. Something like 25,000 people buried under the space. Quite creepy. I much prefered the part of the tour that explained the paintings and the multiple layers of friezes from times long past.

By the time our tour had ended, night had fallen on the Plaza de Armas and though up until this point I had been less than enchanted with the rather lackluster gridlocked capital - the plaza was magical. It felt immediately like I was thousands of miles from anywhere I have ever been - unlike any space I had seen in Argentina, Uruguay, or Chile.

But we had to go.. we planned to leave early the next morning - to head north to Trujillo for sun, surf, and ruins.

The eight hour bus ride north was easily forgettable. Standards for buses in Peru are perhaps on par for SA (and certainly better than the horror stories Antti and Laura told about Bolivia) - but I was much happier being spoiled by Argentine and Chilean buses - is it too much to ask for air conditioning, or a window that will open?

As always, we arrived, and immediately looked for a cab from Trujillo - 12km north to Huanchaco.

Huanchaco

Instant highlight for me. The moment I saw the surf - I knew this would be a great part of the trip for me. After scoping out the area: a few test runs bodysurfing and seeing the range of surf shops in town - it was time to grab a board.

It had been at least two years since the last time I had surfed - and still I had no experience beyond the pee-wee waves of Lake Myrtle. Suffice it to say, the rust showed in my salty stomach as I gulped a few mouthfulls of seawater before I even came close to standing.

But eventually the timing and the technic came back and though I wasn't shredding like the big boys - I rode a few all the way home.

Easily another highlight for me was the evening Antti and I stepped into a pick-up game on a concrete court just off the beach. It was a familiar scene, the two gringos asking to play and a few snickers ripple through the group. Then the game starts and it's not long before genuine surprise is dabbled over the locals - and at the end everyone shakes your hand and tells you when they're are playing tomorrow.

Last, but certainly not least, was our excursion to the Chimu ruins of Chan Chan, Huaca Arco Iris (Rainbow Temple), Huaca Dragón (Dragon Temple), and the Moche Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon) and Huaca del Sol (Temple of the Sun).

The sheer size of Chan Chan is impressive enough (the largest adobe structure in the world). You can see the ruins of Chan Chan scattered for kilometers between Trujillo and Huanchaco. The wall carvings are quite interesting, but my favorite aspect was the ritual pool that is still intact - after wandering through a labrynth of mud suddenly we found ourselves in a space with clear water, swaying green reeds, and waterfowls skimming to and fro.

Still, easily my favorite ruin was the Temple of the Moon. Because the Moche completely covered their old temples every hundred years, archeologist have been able to remove layers at the Temple of the Moon and reveal wall paintings that are strikingly intact:


With so much packed into only three days, it was no surprise that our time in Huanchaco flew by. With the Antti and Laura needing to make their way to Quito (from which they will fly home soon) - we resolved to leave. Kaitlin and I to what was explained as the best surf north of Trujillo - Mancora.. and Antti and Laura continuing on to Guayquil/Quito.

Máncora

Around six in the morning our bus arrived in Máncora. Hugs were exchanged and then our friends were gone for a third time...

Our four days in Máncora have been okay. Our hostel is more like a B&B which has left us feeling awkward at times (it's strange to have someone changing your sheets and emptying your trash bin after months of party hostels, flats, etc..). The location (on a hill above the town) has been ideal for relaxed book reading, but also made trips to the water a bit of an ordeal.

Throw in the fact that I have been suffering the ill-effects of three straight days in the sun..and our Antti and Laura withdrawls - it has been a melancholy ending to Peru.

That being said, we are excited to move on to Ecuador. We have arranged couchsurfing in Guayquil (finally someone came through!) and will move on to more beach in Ayampe - where the water is only getting warmer.

Last thought: Kaitlin and I had the startling realization today that we have just over three weeks left down here. Taking into account that we will be blazing through Ecuador (spending no more than three days in one place) - next thing we know we'll be in Cartagena on the tale end of this journey. In a moment it is shocking, but I know that it feels right. Up to this point, we have done well. Yes, we could have stayed some places longer and left some places earlier, but overall - everything feels right and good.

More from Ecuador..

Out, again

Our last week in Buenos Aires was a melancholy one.

With our three day bus journey from BA to Lima set - there was little left to do but drink beers in Las Heras during the day and cook meals for three in the evenings while we waited for the 28th.

The 28th did eventually come and though Marko and I were amazed that the American pub "Shoeless Joe's" would have a thirty peso cover on a weeknight - without the Super Bowl - we managed our own preparation for an Old Firm to forget, for Marko.

The match was on around nine that morning and fizzy with hops we watched a rather droll encounter that had a few moments, but unfortunately for Marko - the "best" was saved for last when American midfielder Maurice Edu squibbed in the game winner in stoppage time. Those industrious Americans, always stirring up trouble..

After a nap, a bite to eat, and three or five checks to make sure everything was packed - it was time to make our way out of Buenos Aires. You say, "Suerte!" and "Safe travels!" a lot when you're on the road for this long, but rarely do you get the opportunity to mean it. And though no one believes in "Goodbyes" it's the silent truth between us all that friends a continent apart are few and far between.

But we soldiered on. Took our cab to Retiro. Waited with angst for our bus as families and television cameras greeted refugees from crumbled Santiago. Almost exactly on time our CATA International semi-cama arrived, our bags stowed, our panoramic seats seated, and off into the evening retracing our way to Mendoza.

The days on the bus were rather forgettable aside from some fallen pedestrian paths on the outskirts of Santiago (Los Andes) to La Serena and the Atacama - what everyone says looks like the surface of the moon, but to me looked more like the surface of a brownie pan... to finally Arica and the Peruvian border to Tacna. We were less than twenty-four hours from Lima and coasting.

In fact, too much coast.

The last day of the bus journey was a nightmare. The endless Peruvian desert-coast while intriguing at first (with sand dunes reclaiming the highway by the sea in some spots) became an oscillating torture of boredom and fear that the constant switchbacks and anxious bus drivers (though our's was very modest) would result in some sort of gruesome incident.

Surely, we were never that close to danger, but the imagination runs wild when the kilometers are passing one by one with no hint of Lima in sight.

However, we did eventually reach Lima, at least six hours late, around five in the evening of the 3rd of March. From the window it was clear that Lima was a different beast all together from Buenos Aires and with our first mission to find our couchsurfing host in a city of nearly eight million - we were out on our own again.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Now, my Buenos Aires..

Now, the present, after three weeks in Buenos Aires - we have our path home. We have been able to settle here, to sleep easy, to waste a day if we wish, and to plan the rest of our trip.

We have explored tango. Sweated through the steps. Chased the city for lessons and let Catedral squeeze us. I have experienced Copa Libertadores football, the clasico of the south between Banfield and Lanus, and bathed with thousands of Argentines as the rain sunk our match in General Mitre and sent us home floating in a city bus.

I have forgotten my backpack, in the closet, no longer musty - more like moth balls. I have been looking at this flat as if it were my own. Looking at the Peruvian fruit stall below as if I might one day be their friend or considered a "regular."

I know the subte and the plazas and where to get what and when. Holed up in this barrio, I venture out at night for a Quilmes or Brahma with Marko and Kaitlin - only getting angry at the neighbors and their cat that never stops moaning or the trash collection that rumbles through the concrete canyon - even the same man on the same squeeky bike the same time every night. No more Nueve de Julio, no more protests from Plaza de Mayo to Congreso.

For Mass at Parroquia Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. For helado at Munchies. For the nights indoors when we just sit and laugh at the Argentine commentary for the winter olympics - marveling at the strange snowy sports.

But we will leave - for Lima, then Trujillo, then Guayquil, then somewhere along the Ecuadorian coast, then Otovalo, then Cartagena, and Medellin, and Solento - until we leave this continent from Bogota.

It is a mixed sense.. I am excited to travel again and to see Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. We plan to meet up with our Finnish friends Antti and Laura in Lima. We plan to drink coffee and sit in hammocks by the beach all day.
But we're leaving a comfortable place. We're leaving a good friend, that has taken care of us in innumerable ways. We're closing the door not only on Buenos Aires, but eventually South America.

Though there is so much left for us to do yet.. so many other things to look forward to. It can't be helped, I am looking towards California and all the struggles that will entail.

And since that is not the topic here..and that there is so much left to make of the present, I won't bother pontificating. But it still acts as an intensifier. It still factors in when I decided, "Should I take this train by myself to an unknown part of the city?" - Yes, because it will be a long time before I get back here and how can I expect to succeed in my new city, if I can't take a chance here.

So, to more chances! Thorough and committed. Throw in a little help and luck.. and I think I'll be just fine.

Mendoza

We pulled into the bus station in Mendoza around 5:30am. By six we were at the hostel, but since check-out was not until ten, we had to crash on the couch until the morning. However, this was no problem at all, it was so warm and dry that we were immediately asleep with the oscillating fan keeping us alive.

I woke up between nine and ten as I tend to do and was amazed at the hostel we had ended up with. Having had some pretty poor reviews online, it was clear that the standards were a little different in Mendoza. With a pool, grape vine covered patio:



an exceptional free breakfast of various pastries - fruit - coffee - yogurt - cereal - etc.. as well as multiple computers with internet..AND tons of comfortable places to lounge. It was so good to be back in Argentina.

We decided that we might take it easy the first day (after the night bus) and try to do the bike tour the next day. That was until we met Fabricio..

Fabricio is a young Brazilian from Porto Alegre who introduced himself to us by convincing us that we should do the bike tour through wine country that day with him and his girlfriend Helena. So there it was, charmed by Fabricio we were then finding out which bus would take us to wine country in Maipu (the next town over after a forty-five minute bus journey).

After getting off the bus we were immediately greeted by three young boys on bikes, from Mr. Hugo's - the company we were looking for. We followed them a few blocks to the shop, paid about thirty pesos per bike (around $10 US total), and were on our way down Urquiza towards our first bodega on Perito Moreno: Vina el Cerno







There we took a rather uninformative tour of the vineyard that practices more "traditional" methods, but I'm still not too sure what that means.. However, there was a wonderful bottle of white at the end of the tour that was a fraction of what it would cost in stores and quite refreshing on what was an incredibly hot day.

From there we had only a short journey back up the road to get to Tempus Alba. Quite the opposite of El Cerno, this bodega was sterile modernistic wine factory. With only so many hours in the day, we opted to skip the tour and head straight for the patio for a drink and something to munch on.





Conversation somehow turned to Chinese food and MSGs - which proved to be a hot topic for the guy sitting alone, sweating over his merlot - John from Rhode Island. John started telling us about the history of MSGs from a book he had read and next thing we knew he had become the fifth wheel in our trip through wine country.

With most of the bodegas closing soon, we decided to bike all the way to the end, see the Laur olive press, and maybe catch another bodega on the way back.





We didn't really pay attention to the tour. As interesting as it must have been, by this point we were a collective one-track mind. Jokes and wine and olives..no room for information.





Eventually we made it back to Mr. Hugo's where chilled red was waiting for us. Around dusk it was time to get back to Mendoza. In the course of conversation, under the fog of perhaps a bit too much wine, my camera was left on the 152 - never to be seen again.

It's hard to be bummed about anything for too long when you're traveling for months. Despite losing some possessions or having a rough day here and there - you always have to keep in mind that you are doing something extraordinary and to ruin it by being negative is far worse than losing an old camera or external harddrive..or even half a day in the bathroom.

So the next day, we walked around the city of Mendoza - taking in some of the wonderful plazas and parks throughout the city. We ended with a bottle of wine before the all-you-can-eat barbeque at the hostel.



The next day we got on our bus to Buenos Aires with full bellies, new friends, and a peace-of-mind we had been missing. We were on our way to our home away from home..

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Osorno and Valparaiso

Osorno

There are a lot of places to visit in Chile between Isle Chiloé and Santiago. Puerto Montt, Pucon, and Concepcion to name a few.. but Osorno - who knows? Possibly the first time I told Kaitlin I wanted to go to South America, I put my finger on Osorno. Before arriving, I knew just as much about the place as I did in that moment back in Columbia, South Carolina.

Osorno is not the place for everyone. It was the place for us in that moment, the perfect place. We arrived in the mid-afternoon and after dropping our bags at our hospedaje, decided to walk around a bit.

Bolstered by street food every where, we continued wandering until we found a suspension bridge over a thick copper-tinted river. We crossed and headed up a dusty hill. I wanted to head back to the town center, but Kaitlin lobbied to continue down what looked to me to be just another dirt path in the woods.

After a minute down this path it was clear there was some sort of park in the area. Couples cuddling, families out together, all walking in the same direction. We followed them forward and soon heard music in the distance. Not five minutes later we found ourselves in the heart of a massive folk festival. Mapuche folk music blasting from a stage, all sorts of grilled meat on sticks and in buns, beverages I had never imagined and still can't quite describe, and loads of artisan wares..including some truly unique wood carvings.

We circled the fair before settling at a table with a good view of the stage - ordered a pitcher of beer and were informed that the concert would start any moment. I made a point to do so then, and I will do so again now..

Traveling with Kaitlin has not always been easy. Surely and pair will at times feel hindered by the other, it is human nature. But those times when you relent, when you let someone else follow their intuition and it bares fruit - that is an incredible thing.

We wore smiles for the remainder of the evening as we finished our pitcher entertained by the Mapuche band and a curious toddler that kept flirting with us.

The next day we revisited the country festival, ate more, drank more, and then left to explore other parts of the city. We walked from one side of Osorno to the other- stopping at the Catholic cemetery, the German bakery, Club Provincial Osorno's stadium (which I walked right into unmolested), and all through the suburbs in between.

Valparaiso

Another instance where I have thought and thought about how to explain what happened to us... Over our three and a half days in Valparaiso we ran the gauntlet of possible experiences in South America, the high and the low.

Our overnight bus from Osorno arrived in Santiago around ten in the morning with another hour and a half left to go before our final destination in Valparaiso. We dropped our bags in the Yo-Yo Hostel on Ecuador, it was immediately apparent that we were back in the "party hostel" scene, but after a few weeks of hospedajes - it was a welcome change to be around people our age again.

The night bus strategy* left us no choice but to go out and explore after checking in and dropping our bags.

*"sleeping" on a bus combines the need to move location and lodging, essentially a free nights lodging - which for two people traveling for an extended period of time in Chile can keep a few hundred dollars in the coffer*

Our bravado swept us out the door, without consulting the receptionist or a map - as was our usual custom, down the hill aimlessly. We squeezed through narrow streets with steady traffic - a mixture of work-a-day pedestrians and tourists. With the Pacific as our only compass we eventually found ourselves in Sotomayor Square with naval uniforms striding in and out of offices and bermuda shorted tourists snapping away at the hills with their gaudy Nikons. We sat on the steps of the wharf as too many families were loaded onto too small skiffs.

From there we decided we'd head up a hill and try to find a local place to grab a bite to eat. In the absence of any prior directions..or even a map.. we continued west along Serrano until turning south up what appeared to us to be the first "decent" hill - Ave. San Francisco.

After a block or so, it was becoming evident this hill was different than others. Less business, less pedestrians, but we had a mission at the moment. Another block more and we found a nice little dive for pizza. It was a cute little family place where the grandparents did the cooking and the grandchild moaned in fits after being scolded for locking the cat in a cabinet.

We chewed happily while we discussed our next move. Ultimately, we decided to continue up the hill to see if it would eventually connect with our hill. We were bolstered and pleasantly surprised to find the bill was LESS than we expected - quite the anomaly from our experience, and so we chugged up a few blocks with smiles.

It had been some time since we'd seen much in the way of business or foot traffic. I was feeling a big unnerved as locals peered at us from their balconies. Another block and we could see an intersecting road with buses, so we continued on.

At that intersection it seemed unlikely the road would connect with our hill and as the overall dodgey nature of the area set in - we finally decided to make our way back down the hill. Not two blocks later, two gentlemen started talking to us from a half-block away, "Hey! You Chileno?! No? German? English? French?" We walked faster and ignored them as they crossed our path and continued down somewhere unknown.

In Castro we had been called "GRINGOS!" by a group of young adults from across the street, but their tone was juvenile, these men were aggressive.

So we began to briskly retrace our steps. But the sporadic maze and our hightened state led us down a wrong turn. We came back out only to see that there were two men following us - two men I had seen when we first left the restaurant. We continued down the path we had taken, opting (wrongly) to take the desolate alley from the walk up, rather than the busier street only two blocks over. Less than halfway down that alley we heard running behind us. Before we could turn to see what it was, the two men (though they couldn't have been older than us) were infront of us - one holding a small knife.

Between the shouts of "Money! Money!", the knife infront of me, and the hands fumbling through my pockets - I didn't really feel that scared..only when I looked over at the other guy searching Kaitlin did I realize it was real, but by that time they were running up the hill with twenty mil (about $40 US).

We had maintained the habit of carrying little cash and no important documents, but we had failed in the biggest areas. I have hesitated to write about this incident, because I think it is what many people expect and it only perpetuates the perception by mentioning it. But the truth is, aside from the systemic problems in the area itself, it is gallant tourists who are to blame for incidents such as these. The same crime takes place in the richest nation in the world, because people think that their passport or their money or their past experience will exempt them from considering their surroundings.

We walked back to the hostel in silence. Kaitlin napped. I zoned out watching television and drinking water, just trying to forget how stupid we had been.

That evening we met an English couple while making dinner and ended up staying up with them for quite a while talking about soccer, music, and on and on..

The next morning I woke up early in a feverish state. In a daze I became violently ill, able to leave bed only for the bathroom. After about two hours, there was nothing left in me and I slipped in and out of sleep. I eventually awoke, but was still too weak to leave the bed. While Kaitlin nursed me with water, ginger ale, and crackers - I deduced that the water must have been the culprit. Though I have had the tap water everywhere we have been thus far, I hadn't gulped it down like I did the day before. Clearly, I overloaded.

Later that day I was able to make it out of bed and up our hill to see the brighter side of Valparaiso...

We stopped for a vista of the port city and then sat for a while having a cafe, but that was about all I could handle. The next day, with my legs stronger, we could explore a bit..

Valparaiso is alive. With graffiti everywhere there are countless characters sprawled over every wall in any color and style. Neruda's city seems to have embraced these murals as guardians and have designated public spaces for artists to develop their craft.

One such place is Ex-Carcel, an old prison that has been reclaimed as a public space for people to practice whatever art they wish. Kaitlin and I spent a few hours exploring the space, marveling at the contrast of prison cells with faded pin-ups still pasted to the ceiling and fifteen foot murals depicting scenes of struggle, freedom, joy, etc...

The next day we rode one of Valpariso's famous ascensors, rode it back down the hill, and continued on with the things we normally enjoy. Walking around the local markets, smelling and tasting.

On the streets of the outside market in the Old Town we found street vendors eating what looked to be a delicious concoction of corn meal and meat. We stopped to ask a woman who was helping attend a fish stall, what exactly it was..

While explaining to Kaitlin she scooped a forkful and lifted it to Kaitlin's mouth. Have some. I was next. It was a mixture of cornmeal and various meats, still mysterious, but delicious. We thanked her as she directed us to her family friend that was selling them.

While we scooped our own mouthfuls in the nearby plaza... I couldn't help but marvel at that woman. Her eagerness to share. So content. Oblivious to our accent or gringo attire. Beautiful woman - I won't forget you.

We passed the rest of the day with a trip up to Pablo Neruda's house on the hill. The tour was certainly interesting, but I think we both left with more questions than answers about the man who is so important to Valparaiso, Chile, and South America as a whole. Ultimately, the author lives in his words, not in the stuff he keeps and how people interpret those possessions.

Our last stop in Valparaiso was a beautiful orange bed and breakfast on a hill overlooking the entire city. With a local porter and a pisco sour we waxed philosophical as we tend to do every so often.. patting ourselves on the back a bit, but also preparing for more difficult decisions ahead.

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But what lay ahead at this time, we hoped, was a return to calm. Easier times. We had weathered the worst of Valparaiso and were now a night bus away from familiar and tranquil Argentina..

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Mystical Island of Chiloe, debunked

After landing in Quellon, Kaitlin and I faced the decision that had become quite familiar by this point. Since we had more or less thrown the guidebook out the window and taken the vast range of input from fellow travelers with a grain of salt - we had to make an immediate judgement of a place - whether we stay or go.

In Aysen, we arrived at the hospedaje and immediately signed on for four days. In Quellon, we wandered up and down the two main roads.. poked our heads in a few restaurants, checked out a few artisan stalls, and decided - maybe it would be best to push on another hour north to the capital of the island: Castro

It is a strange thing to make such decisions, but we did, and in the grand scheme of things - I think it has paid off. We arrived in Castro sometime around midafternoon. Shopped around the hostels and hospedajes until we found a cozy family run place at a fair price.

Castro

I can't quite recall the cronology of the next three or four days in Castro..

I know though that Castro made quite an impression on me. The market, though filled mostly with tourist junk, was certainly a highlight. The amount of quality wool on display was staggering and had Kaitlin and I considering rearranging our entire wardrobe to incorporate every possible item - made in wool. Ultimately, it was a stall selling simple woven cotten garments that caught our eye and our wallet. Little color, but the designs were so extraordinary - we chipped in for a shall for Kaitlin and a top for me.

Despite this find - I think the highlight for us both was this place:



Offering ceviche of all sorts (salmon, clam, mussel, congrio) with the simplest freshest ingredients - we were in heaven.





We made it a daily (sometimes twice daily) ritual to pick up a few pieces of bread from the convenience store then savor their dish (sopping up everything last bit with the bread) while people milled around the market.

Parque Nacional Chiloé

In the middle of our time in Castro, we popped over for a few days to Parque Nacional Chiloé. The park is divided into two sections: Chepu in the north near Ancud and Anay near Castro

After braving the rural bus station (if you are anything less than completely attentive - you'll never catch your bus...) we caught a ride from Castro west to Chonchi, the main entrance to the park.

In general, it was a very interesting park. Quite nice, but horribly disorganized. It started as a frustration, but became a joke after running into so many people looking for the trailheads. Still, the persisent drizzle that would completely envelope the area for twelve hours of every day broke our resolve to stay until heading to the farm..

We made our way back to Castro, for more ceviche and warmth, in order to be in our best spirits upon arrival in Ancud/the farm.

Ancud - Caulin Lodge - Escape

I had written quite a bit about this experience. Climbed back into my mind at the time to revisit and document how these people took advantage of a program that is intended to be an exchange..and I have now deleted it.

I can't even remember all the names.. and I can't be bothered to think so much about the events that left us feeling so discouraged. I feel no malice towards them - I feel little at all towards them. I have encountered enough single-minded people in my life to know that you can try to work with them, you can try to get to know them, and find out what, if anything, is beneath the protective/superficial layer - but not at the expense of your own sanity/integrity.

On the evening of the fifth day, we had a "discussion" with Ines and by mutual consent it was determined that it would be best if we left in the morning..

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We had planned to stay a month - to learn farming practices, speak spanish, and plan the remainder of our trip. We had done none of these things and were reeling..

I risk redundancy, but it can't be stated enough how strange and beautiful and simple the world can be. After such a disappointment and disruption, what is the outcome? An open door in Buenos Aires: You're welcome whenever..

With the comfort of a fail-proof destination we could continue north and enjoy ourselves knowing that we were ultimately heading for a safe, familiar place where we really could unpack our bags and breathe deep.

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The next morning we caught the first bus from Caulin to Ancud - purchased a ticket for Osorno and were on our way north before noon.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My Dream: Chile - Coyhaique, Aysen, and the ferry to Chiloe

How is it that the country that first captured my imagination - the origin of my desire to make this journey - has largely gone neglected?

I remarked to Kaitlin, and I'm sure in this blog as well, that after completing the circuit in Torres del Paine I felt "fulfilled" and that everything else this trip had to offer would be "bonus." I think this mentality is partly to blame for my absence the past month - though I still don't think I was wrong to feel this way.

More so, this mentality breed a more severe consequence - naivety. Having not only survived, but thrived, in one of the largest urban centers in the world..and then repeating the feat in the most severe trekking experience of my life - I started to let my head inflate and carry me north - ignoring my analytical impulses both internally and externally.

But after a few pitfalls, I am back down to earth and giving my experiences their deserved consideration.

Coyhaique

After a twenty-four hour bus journey that took us first south to Punta Arenas and then north into Argentina, again through the Patagonia almost 1,000km, crossing the Andes back into Chile, through the idlyic country-side, down into the valley - we arrived in Coyhaique - "Koy-Yiy-K."

We romanticized about making our way to nearby rustic hot springs - only to learn that one had been closed due to landslides and the other situated on private land only open for cruiseships...

So we drank cafe cortado at Cafe Konken, talking to the owner about Coyhaique and fly-fishing. So we visited the wool market and picked up various items to keep our limbs warm. So we planned our travel north to Chiloe (a thirty-six hour ferry from Puerto Chacabuco to Quellon on Isle Chiloe). So we decided to to camp in Parque Nacional Coyhaique to pass the time until heading to Puerto Aysen (and then Chacabuco).

Parque Nacional Coyhaique was a modest park. Situated mainly for day-trippers from the town with persistent views of the valley:





We spent about three days in the park, lounging in the dry - windless - paradise. Every now and then venturing out of the tent to take a walk and speak spanish.







Approaching the summit we strolled through what seemed to be an illustrated forest of contorted trees and old man's beard..





Eventually making it to the snowy top with little to see in addition to the ever present Coyhaique valley - still, good exercise and a decent vista.



After making the peak, we decided to make our way an hour west to Puerto Aysen. So we thumbed a commuter who barreled through the winding valley highway - passing minibuses on blind curves as he told us about the massive roadside shrine to all the people who died making the commute during the icy winter. GREAT! If not for the lush green mountains riddled with massive waterfalls - I would have been terrified the entire time..


A rather poor example, but still..

Puerto Aysen

There are two ways to spell Aysen: A-y-s-e-n and A-i-s-e-n

I still have no idea which is correct..if there is a correct spelling. It was spelled both ways on signs in the town and I have gone with aYsen, solely because it was the first way I saw it spelled. Seemingly insignificant bit of information, but I think quite significant after interacting with the people.

There is a regional rivalry, though "perception" is probably a better word, since people from Aysen don't seem to participate in the fray. Suffice it to say, people from Coyhaique see Puerto Aysen as a bit of a wasteland. The "people over there" are lazy, incompetent in business, etc...

It is true that shops keep even shorter/stranger hours than any place we have been in South America.. there was a sign in the window of a pescaderia: "No fish this week." ..and so on..

..but from our experience the cause of this effect is hardly deplorable - in fact, the opposite.

Hospedaje San-ly

We settled in Aysen at one of only a handful of hospedajes: San-ly

I have debated with myself how to describe this four day experience since we left and a month later - I'm still not quite sure how to put it properly.

The truth is, it was hard to leave them. Nearly all four days in Aysen where covered in rain, but as we stayed in doors with Marlin, her husband Francisco, and her grandson (also Francisco) - we were warm and dry through their hospitality.

We were constantly fed, without a single word about money - taken to their farm in the country side for mate with herbs from their garden - shared an evening of music and guitar lessons.. Given the space to relax, but the attention of genuine interest.













By Aysen standards (and most other standards), Francisco and Marlin are quite well to do. Yet, they have only one vehicle (a little Suzuki mini-truck) for the farm. They could both have their own, but they only need one. They have hundreds of hectares of farmland, but a very modest house with only the basic amenities.

They were a functioning..no, thriving example of the principles Kaitlin and I hold - without trying to make a political statement, just being "normal" good people.

Of course, we did venture out of hospedaje San-ly:

For one month in every twelve, the people of Aysen organize concerts and other sorts of entertainment/music in celebration of their founding. We happened to be in Aysen during this month and were able to take in a regional group playing folk music.







Another day, we spent a few hours wandering along the highway trying to find the trailhead for a trek that would take us seven kilometers into the hills to a petrified forest. After being completely soaked through by the persistent drizzle we finally found the trailhead. Though it was immediately evident that we would not be able to continue. The combination of nearly constant rain in the region, plus horse traffic on the trail made it a sloppy mucky mess that would have been absolute torture there and back.

So we turned back towards town, but since we weren't quite ready to call it a day - we stopped by the Sanctuario that we had been told of earlier.

Sanctuario San Sebastian:









Quite an eerie thing to come up to a place with candles burning, but no one present. Made even more unnerving by the personalized sentiments/prayers/monuments left by relatives of the deceased. White wax hanging over soggy table clothes. All quite but for the pitter-patter of the drizzle making it's way through the canopy and the sporadic honking of commuters paying their respects. A bewildering space.

The Ferry to Chiloe

I have only just realized that in the chaos of the last month - somehow the pictures from the ferry have not survived. Hard for me to accept, since I had been so adamant about finding a way to make a portion of this trip aquatic.

But what can be done?

Puerto Chacabuco is an even smaller settlement than Aysen, existing solely as a port for goods and the occasional cruiseship that fills up the regions only bonafide hotel. A fifteen minute minibus took us straight from the main road in Aysen to our boat.

I can say about the ferry that it was more or less what I expected it to be. Thirty-six hours on a boat weaving through hundreds of kilometers of archipelagos. Rain, clouds, glaciers, fog, water, constant chugging of the engine, trapped children entertaining themselves at the expense of my sanity...and so on. We pulled into several forgotten fishing villages where people hop in a boat to visit their neighbors where there are no roads..

In one of these small ports we entered there was commotion outside. So everyone went outside to see what was going on. And there coming across the side of the ferry were four orcas. I have no education in marine animal behavior, but it seemed to me these whales were indifferent to our presence, just as the locals in their boats gave hardly a glance in their direction. Just a jolly group out for a stroll in the bay, breaching here and there, allowing the humans to struggle with their zooms and curse the fact that we were moving in opposite directions. I just smiled.

That was my dream. The frozen forgotten island kingdoms. Where weather reigns and humans are rarely more than visitors.

But we did eventually approach Isle Chiloe..and other feelings over took me. More so the fact of clear skies and a decidedly warmer breeze. What I took as a good omen for our trip north through the mystical island and ultimately - our month farming with locals.

But that is something totally separate..