Monday, December 27, 2010

The end of South America

We've spent the last 4 days at El Calafate, visiting Glacier Perito Moreno. Our guidebook described this glacier as "suspenseful," "exceptional," "neck hairs rise a-tingling," "spectacular," "existential experience," and "orgasmic." (Okay, maybe I made one of those up.) As a result of all the high praise, we went 500km and 4 days out of our way to see this glacier. And yeah, it was a pretty sweet glacier, but at the end of the day it was still just a glacier. From now on I'm never trusting anyone who calls a glacier an existential experience.

Now we're at the EEEND OF THE WOOOOOORLD!! (Please insert a grandiose hand gesture worthy of the end of the world every time this phrase is read.)

The EEEND OF THE WOOOOORLD happens to be Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. We are here after one horrible 12-hour bus ride on which we endured 4 immigration stops, 2 police checks, a ferry ride, and one bathroom disaster. I won't go into details, but said disaster involved me innocently sitting down on the toilet to pee, just as the toilet inexplicably decided that it would be fun to gush water up at that exact moment, spraying pee and water and god knows what else all over me and the rest of the bathroom in quite an enthusiastic manner. I then had to explain to the bus attendant in Spanish that the toilet was "malfunctioning" (a drastic understatement, in my opinion), which caused him to walk to the bathroom, open the door, and just stand there, staring in horror. Understandable, really. And that is how I arrived at the EEEND OF THE WOOOOORLD smelling like urine and sadness.

The EEEND OF THE WOOOOORLD is also the end of our time in South America. It's been a fun ride, but I'm looking forward to getting to New Zealand. One can only spend so much time in a place where American 80's music is still so ubiquitous. If I hear "Lady in Red" one more time this week, I'm going to lose it.

So, since we're saying goodbye to our South American lives and heading into a whole different world, I thought it would be fun to do a comparison of North and South America. I've tried to stick to cultural aspects only, leaving out parts of life here that are a result of differences in wealth.

Things South America Has That I Wish North America Had:

1. Snack and Fruit Stands. Because walking all the way to a store just for some gum is annoying when you're as lazy as I am.

2. Stray dogs. They've been a common theme all throughout South America, and it's made me realize that we have no stray dogs in North America because they're put down. We like to think we're so humane in North America, but I think it's more cruel to kill them than to let them live their lives, however those lives may turn out. They have a good system down here: catch them and neuter them, then let them go on their merry doggy way. And it seems that, for the most part, the strays seem quite happy to run around, play with other strays, and hang out with people. We've had so many fun and touching experiences bonding with friendly mutts that it's a shame there aren't any back home. Life is just more interesting with random Dogosaurus encounters.

3. Pastry shops. In the U.S. we're basically limited to donut shops and, in Canada, the slightly more varied Tim Horton's. I think if a native Argentine were to visit Tim Horton's, they'd be appalled. Down here, on every corner there are pastry shops with real, homemade, absolutely scrumptious sweets. I don't understand why this sort of thing isn't more widespread in our society, the most obese in the world. I'm going to miss everything about them.

4. Llamas. No explanation necessary.

5. Passionfruit juice. Probably the most delicious juice I've ever tried.

6. Coca tea. I didn't believe in it at first, but I came to really love it, especially when we were at high altitudes. It's tasty, it decreases hunger and fatigue, it's good for altitude sickness, and it has no side effects. Why can't we get any in North America? Oh right, because drugs are bad, mmkay, and the only way to stop people doing them is to make them illegal. Right. Nailed it. And on that note...

7. Prescription medicines. Many medicines that are only available by visiting a doctor in North America are over-the-counter down here. This includes things like coldsore medicine. Who in their right mind would abuse coldsore medicine, or use it for anything other than its intended purpose? Why is it necessary to make it prescription? We have less freedom than Peruvians do, where medicines are concerned. This strikes me as really sad.

8. Dancing zebras. Hilarious government mandates are tragically under-utilized in North America.

Things North America Has That I Wish South America Had:

1. Vegetables. People down here don't seem to view them as a necessary part of meals. They are rarely on any menu, even though they're obviously available in grocery stores. I am not usually a health nut, but down here I've been craving them constantly. I particularly miss sweetcorn. And, similarly...

2. A variety of foods in general. I never realized that variety of food was so important to me until we had to eat Peruvian food for 7 weeks and I nearly killed myself. It's been driving me insane that I can't have curry, or sushi, or pad thai, or burritos, or won ton soup any time I want. I think that people here are satisfied with the food of their own culture because they're used to it. It reminds me of my grandparents, who moved from Russia to the states when they were in their 50s. Even though they can have any type of food any time they want, they only eat Russian food that they cook at home because they simply don't want any other type of food. I can't relate to this at all.

3. Sane traffic. I like that people follow traffic rules back home. It allows me to not die much more easily.

4. Line chefs. The service was extremely slow everywhere we've been except Argentina because in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, there were no line chefs or pre-preparation. This was great because every meal was freshly made, but incredibly frustrating for someone as impatient as me. Every meal took at least half an hour to be made. "AGGGGH, WHY CAN'T THEY GO FASTER!!!" was probably the most common thing I said in those countries.

5. Set prices. I'm really, really bad at bargaining. I find it incredibly draining. I appreciate just being told a price and paying it. Done. No arguing, no conflict, no feeling ripped off. I'm not entirely sure why this practice is prevalent in any culture.

6. Street signs. I'm especially frustrated at Argentina for not having many street signs, even though it's such a modern country in so many ways. Even in Peru they managed to paint the names of the streets on the walls of buildings occasionally, even if it was just an afterthought. It's as if the names of the streets are purposely kept secret and passed down from generation to generation just to fuck with tourists.

I'm not sure what it says about me that most of these were about food, but there you go.

We're flying out to New Zealand on Friday. I'm excited!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Yesterday we went to see penguins.

We knew that these penguins lived on the beach, but we were shocked to see that they actually make their homes in the surrounding desert! They dig little nests in the ground with their feet. After waddling to the ocean and hunting for fish, they waddle back to their nests to feed their chicks. There is nothing more surreal than walking through a desert and seeing hundreds of penguins sticking out of holes in the dirt, or hiding under spiky bushes. Or, even better, standing right next to a guanaco (same family as llamas):

Nothing in the world is cuter than penguins. NOTHING. The comedian Jim Gaffigan once raved that bacon is so good, that when they want to make other foods better, they wrap it in bacon. Likewise, I think penguins are the bacon of the animal world. If you want to make anything better, get a penguin. Weddings, birthday parties, funerals - all could be made exponentially more fun by adding just a single penguin.  Even the way they poop is cute. They lean over a bit, pause, and suddenly a little green blob flies out and lands about 6 inches behind them. Pbbt! Done. Penguins don't fuck around.

We were also surprised to find out that penguins make braying sounds, just like donkeys. I had no idea - but then, penguins like to keep people guessing like that. You can never predict penguins. They are like ninjas.

I think it's pretty obvious that this has been the best part of our trip so far. Even the jungle doesn't compare, because there were no penguins. Get on that, JUNGLE.

You better look at these pictures, unless you want to be totally lame and not see any more penguins.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Argentina, Redeemed

Just when I was prepared to hate Argentina and everything it stands for, it turns around and becomes AWESOME. It's beautiful, there's tons to see, and the taxis actually have meters! It's such a relief to not have to engage in a battle of wits with the driver every time you have to take a cab somewhere. (I inevitably lose.) As great as it's been, though, we've been trying to get through it quite quickly because we're a bit tired of South America. I'm ready for some Kiwis. So the last 3 weeks have been a blur of activity - we've been to Iguazu Falls, Buenos Aires, and the delightfully palindromic Neuquen, home to the fossils of the world's largest dinosaurs (bigger than the T. rex!) and 100-million-year-old dinosaur footprints. As evolution nerds, there's no way we could pass that up.

(Note: if 3 cities in 3 weeks doesn't exactly sound like a "blur of activity," please remember that getting anywhere in Argentina usually requires a 20-hour overnight bus ride, effectively ensuring that every move takes us 2 days. Looking forward to New Zealand, which is 10 times smaller.)

There's not much to say about Iguazu Falls except that they were stunningly beautiful.

(Pictures couldn't possibly do them any justice, but to see our attempts, click here.)

Buenos Aires was a ridiculously fun city. Everything people do there, they do to the absolute extreme, with a lust for life that is contagious and exciting. It's beautiful, sophisticated, and vibrant in a way that I haven't experienced before. People routinely eat dinner at 10pm, get drinks at 12, and party til 7am. I'm not entirely sure how these people hold down jobs. Then there are the endless amazing restaurants, pubs, and free music shows, as well as beautiful architecture, tons of museums, and chic cafes. The people are gorgeous and almost too well-dressed. Add to that an almost obsessive penchant for drinking yerba mate out of little gourds and dancing tango at every possible opportunity, and it adds up to a place that sucks you in and doesn't easily let go.

We spent the first 4 days in a cute, upscale suburb called Palermo Viejo, not doing much except shopping, strolling around and EATING. Being a vegetarian here simply doesn't work (unless you're okay with getting scurvy), so we temporarily abandoned that plan and ended up switching to the other extreme, as you do. We ate steak almost every night we were in the city, and can I just say, HOLY FUCK, steak here is good. If there was ever a place to fall off the veggie wagon, this was the place to do it. I like to think that all of our steaks came from the same cow, so not much harm done, right...? =/

The next 4 days we were in San Telmo, just outside the city center. This neighborhood was a lot grungier. Dumpster diving takes on a whole new meaning here -- we saw several homeless guys with trash-filled sacks literally the size of cars, precariously balanced on carts. On every block, we had to dodge several piles of dog poop, as well as dripping air conditioners. Graffiti and trash decorated the streets instead of trees. The seedy underbelly of the city could definitely be felt here.

However, San Telmo is home to the San Telmo Sunday Market, one of my favorite parts of the whole city. The market is devoted to local artists' crafts, so everything was wonderfully creative, handmade, and cheap. The atmosphere was dizzyingly energetic - it felt like half the city was milling about here. Amidst all this, we stumbled upon an unbearably cute elderly couple dancing tango, surrounded by crowds of people. The man donned an old suit and a sideways hat, and shuffled around so smoothly that he could've probably done it in his sleep. SO ADORABLE. A few minutes later I came upon a drumming band, rocking out in the middle of the market so hard that it made my heart explode a bit. I gave them 10 pesos for exploding my heart and rocked out with them for 4 or 5 songs, reluctant to leave. LOVED being here. So much life.

The other experience I will never forget was seeing a tango show at a small restaurant downtown. We chose to go to a casual, cheap show because we didn't want to have to make reservations (I'm lazy), and I'm so glad we did. We turned out to be the only tourists there, so it was a brief glimpse into true Argentine culture. Everyone sang along with the classic Argentine songs the singer performed (perhaps almost too passionately at times), and in the end, many people got up to dance amidst the dinner tables. You see so many things when you travel that are simply for the benefit of tourists, an exaggerated caricature of their culture, that when you see something real like this, it's beautiful and very touching.

(We didn't take nearly enough photos of Buenos Aires, but to see a few more pictures, click here.)

Neuquen seemed like a tiny, quaint little city after Buenos Aires. We did a day-trip from there to Villa El Chocon to see a museum housing the bones of the gigantic dinosaur (literally, it's called Gigantosaurus carolinii) and some dinosaur footprints by the nearby lake. Due to a scheduling mishap, we ended up with about 8 hours in which to see the museum and the footprints, so for a while there, it seemed like it was going to be a day filled with lots of thumb-twiddling. We took as long as we possibly could in the museum, reading every sign, in Spanish and in English, and then drank coffee as slowly as we could to stretch the time before starting our walk to the lake.

(Dinosaur footprints are quite hard to photograph because they blend in so well. They were about 2 feet across, astonishingly big.)

As we walked, a dog suddenly appeared, sprinting towards us, happy as a clam and jumping all over us with uncontrollable glee. He was so immediately and unnervingly friendly, that at first we got a bit scared because we thought maybe he had rabies. We pushed him off of us and kept walking as fast as possible, hoping he wouldn't bite our faces off. But as we walked, it became obvious that he wasn't rabid, he was just an unnaturally social and happy dog. He ran in front of us, and then behind us, and then around us, and then into the surrounding fields and back, his energy and curiosity entirely inexhaustible. We couldn't figure out if he was stray or not - his coat was clean and his teeth looked healthy. We ended up naming him Dogosaurus.

Dogosaurus walked with us all the way to the lake, came with us to see the dinosaur footprints, hung out on the beach with us, and then walked back with us. As the day drew nearer to its end, we desperately hoped he would find his way home so we wouldn't have to abandon him as our bus drove away. But he didn't -- he waited for us for an hour outside of a restaurant, and then followed us back into town and waited at the bus stop with us. Just as we were preparing to say our tearful goodbyes and feel like monsters for abandoning the cutest dog of all time, Dogosaurus disappeared! I guess he knew that tearful goodbyes were coming and wanted to avoid the awkwardness. That's how I usually avoid those types of situations too.

So it turned out to be a marvelous day -- not boring for a single second of those 8 hours -- thanks to Dogosaurus, our little gift from the universe.

(More dinosaur pictures are here.)

Today we spent the day in Trelew and Gaiman, two small Welsh (?!) towns on the coast of Argentina. I think this is maybe the only area in the world where you can see signs both in Welsh and in Spanish. We had tea and all-you-can-eat pastries at a Welsh teahouse, which was, and I'm not overstating here, the BEST THING EVER. I don't understand how America has adopted so many traditions and foods from so many cultures, and yet this one has gone unnoticed. Bubble tea - yes. All-you-can-eat pastries and tea - no. What a sad world we live in.

A Welsh and Spanish Jehovah's Witness Church:

All-you-can-eat pastries and tea. LOVE.

(Trelew pictures here and Gaiman pictures here.)

Tomorrow we're seeing PENGUINS, and, if I haven't died of cuteness overload by that point, then after that we're going to see one of the world's only expanding glaciers outside of Antarctica. As it expands, the pressure in the ice builds to such extremes that icebergs the size of houses fall off its edges. Fuck yeah. I'm really glad we gave this place a chance.

The one thing that has continued to be a huge challenge is the way Argentines talk. When I took Spanish in school, I learned the Spanish they speak in northern South America. So until now, I was getting pretty cocky, thinking I was about halfway to being fluent. Then along comes Argentina and I'm back to feeling like a complete beginner. There are several changes that, when combined, makes it sound like they're not even speaking Spanish.

- "Y" sounds have changed to "zh" and "s" sounds have changed to "th."
- Their word order is usually all flipped around.
- They use entirely different words for many things, including the words for "you are," which is a pretty important phrase. It's as if someone took the phrase "you are" in English and changed it to "fleb gleb."
- They speak extremely fast, and slur their words together.

Putting all of these changes together, it's the equivalent of going to California and someone asking "Where are you from?" and then going to New York, where they instead slur to you: "From zhere fleb gleb pathing?" Perhaps you will understand when I say, with all due respect, that to me they sound like my friend Kelly after she just had her wisdom teeth pulled, which makes every interaction extremely difficult, albeit somewhat amusing, even after being here 3 weeks.

However, they have waterfalls, Buenos Aires, dinosaurs, Welsh tea houses, penguins, glaciers, and Tierra del Fuego, and that's not even a tiny fraction of what there is to see here. So I guess I don't mind it here too much. :)