November 29, 2016

Books Consumed in South America

Between the daily walking, sight-seeing, eating, hiking, what-not, *and* the attempt at investing an hour a day or so with independent Spanish study (where I would sometimes read short stories or the newspaper in Spanish), I didn't find much time to read on the South American portion of our Sabbatical.

In fact, 5+ months into this Sabbatical, I'm kind of shocked at how much *less* literature reading (and audiobook time) I've put in during this time off than I normally do in my non-sabbatical life.

A big portion of the reading I did in South America was Internet and travel guide research about logistics, lodging, food, vocabulary, geography, unexpected cultural norms that will govern your experiences, etc.  When you don't have a full plan and you don't know where you are going next, you have to figure it out before you get there (or after/during when it doesn't work out according to plan), and, this is quite a big investment of time.

However, I did read a few written books in the last few months:

Turn Right at Machu Picchu
Mark Adams
A parallel analysis of the modern day trek and the historical one that Hiram Bingham took before he introduced the west to Machu Picchu.  Informative and entertaining (and gloriously easy to read after The Brothers Karamazov).
Bolivia Tried to Kill Us
Tony Hastie
Very useful story of backpackers doing a much more hardcore trekking South America trip than ours.  I read it while in Peru and Ecuador.  Their misadventures in Bolivia were part of the reason we decided to skip Bolivia on this trip and save it for another time, when we can dedicate time to just managing that specifically difficult portion (which should also be very rewarding) of South America.
Consider Phlebas (Culture Novel: Book 1)
Ian M Banks
The Culture novels are Sci-Fi cannon and I’d never gotten around to reading them.  E claimed I would like them and he was right.  This first one was interesting, thought provoking, forward thinking and edgy (particularly for a male white scottish writer in the 80s).  Most importantly, it was easy pulpy English brain candy, which is exactly what I needed as a distraction and relaxation from day to day language study, existence, and cultural adventures in Spanish.
The Player of Games (Culture Novel book 2)
Ian M Banks
The oh-so-popular concept of a game-player as some sort of ultimate functionary (Ender's Game, Ready Player One, The Last Starfighter, etc.)  but in the context of the Culture where resources are unlimited and glanding chemicals for internal consumption and gender swapping multiple times over the course of a single life is the norm.
Use of Weapons (Culture Novel book 3)
Ian M Banks
Very dark.  Still easy to read and within the Culture world, but more difficultly full of human horridness.
Look to Windward (Culture Novel book 7)
Ian M Banks
Books 4-6 of the Culture novels are not available on Kindle, and I wasn’t interested in books that weighed anything while traveling.  Thankfully, the only thing that really seems to link the Culture novels together is the Universe.  There is really no character continuation, so skipping out on 3 books didn’t negatively affect my enjoyment.  This book is much more critical of the Culture than the others I’ve read, as it’s told from the perspective of a member of a race where the Culture’s “benign” interference went horribly wrong and resulted in civil war and death. There is quite a bit of ham-fisted discussion of the meaning of extreme sports and taking risks and whether engaging in risk when your mindstate is backed up and can be rebooted if you die is “cheating” or not.  Good enough that I started book 8. 

November 22, 2016

Running Update

So, I tried to keep up some semblance of a running schedule between the hiking while on the Canada and US road trip.  But for the South America trip I had to let running be a rarity.  If we were in a hotel with treadmills, I tried to use them, but more often than not, we were in AirBNBs or rural hotels without gyms.  When I did manage to get out for a run outdoors, I often had to cut runs short due to getting lost, South American street dogs, or just pure laziness and a desire to take walk breaks.

In short, for the first time since late 2004, I don't have an accurate daily Excel log of my running/walking/workouts for the last 2 months or more.  I've just been doing what feels natural and good.  I definitely got in some great mileage and altitude in the hiking in Peru, and after that, most of the daily sight-seeing walking and random hill climbing felt like I was maintaining a decent commitment to fitness.

I also fit in a couple of treadmill speed workouts that hinted at some definite improvements despite the time off.

It even seemed, from the fit of our clothes, that both E and I were losing weight during the first half of the trip. 

The last 3 weeks, however, was the road trip full of car-sitting and limiting our strenuous sight-seeing to ensure my mom was comfortable.  Oh, and we ate all of the delicious food.

Net-net, I got back to the inlaws in the US after 9 weeks away and after tons of travel and food indulgence, the scale was exactly even with what it was when we left for South America.  My legs do seem to have a bit more muscle than they did before we left (which makes sense from all the climbing), but I also managed to tweak my right knee and hamstring a bit from the hiking and stairs on our travels, *plus* I arrived back in the US with a fairly nasty head cold.

Suffice it to say that for the last two days, I've been heading out for some basic mileage with absolutely no attention to pace in an effort to ease my way back into some sort of regular running habit for the end of the year.  It's been nice not to have any running goals/obligations, but today, after reading some friends' running blogs and stringing together 3 pleasant easy miles in the Atlanta hills without stopping, I started to get that itch... I just may want to try to find a race in our upcoming travels.

We'll see.

November 21, 2016


They call Valparaiso the San Francisco of South America.
Chile was the last country of our South American travel.  It's also the strongest and most industrialized economy in South America.  A guy we met in Mendoza joked, "Oh, you'll love it, it's like the 51st state."  This was a very tongue in cheek coded insult/truth as Argentina and Chile have quite a bit of a rivalry, and Chile was the site of British colonies, and is certainly much more consumer and customer-service oriented than any other country we visited this trip (with the exception of perhaps parts of Panama).

Chilean flag in Santiago's Plaza de Armas.
Also, my mom was coming to join us for the Chilean portion of the trip, and it was definitely easier to have her join us there than it would have been in many of the more adventurous and less developed locations we visited.

Texas State Flag -- not that different, but Chile's came first!
With mom came lots of shopping (something I hadn't done at all in South America), and more of a general English-speaking existence, plus restaurant tours to seek out some of our favorite dishes from the trip (we made sure she enjoyed an Argentinian steakhouse, a Peruvian restaurant, lunch of take-out empanadas, and Chilean specialties).  Doing all of these things felt like the trip was slowly coming to a close even before we left the continent.

Peruvian ceviche, Chilean portion (gigantic!)

Of course, even though it was less foreign, there were still some very authentic South American experiences in Chile.

Machas a la parmesana (clams baked with parmesan, surprisingly delicious.
For example, the strike in Valparaiso that meant we were greeted with gigantic piles of stinky trash that hadn't been collected in a month.  Thankfully, the strike ended while we were there and the trash was collected and the funiculars opened up so we could take one up to our AirBNB rather than hiking up the hill (or cheating by taking the elevator in the mall set into the hill).  The last stereotypical experience, was when we went to go find our AirBNB host to deposit our luggage with him as we'd discussed and arranged the day before.  It turned out, he'd left and was nowhere to be found without explanation, so we had to lock the keys into the apartment and figure out a new plan that involved taking our luggage with us for our last visit to the city before hopping on the bus back to Santiago and the plane.

La Vega Mercado Central, Santiago
We took two tours with Tours 4 Tips in Santiago, and the political background on Allende and Pinochet added some much needed perspective to the current US political situation (with some not-too-tongue-in-cheek rebukes regarding the US's involvement in Chile's political history).  For me, this solidified my understanding that a system that respects the internal peaceful transition of power, even if you personally, as a citizen, don't approve of the new power, is *not* something to take for granted.

View of Valparaiso from our AirBNB Balcony

It was absolutely wonderful to enjoy this time with both E and my mom, not the least because my mom's interaction with the street art was so fun to watch.  She's a painter, with a formal training in art, but this was the first time in her life when she'd truly experienced graffiti as art, and watching her understanding and appreciation of it grow was so fun. 
Gorgeous Valparaiso street work by Chilean artist INTI.

November 17, 2016

Mendoza to Santiago by Bus

Buying bus tickets to Santiago online was a very stereotypical South American experience.

A couple of weeks ago, when we realized flights from Cordoba to Santiago would be very expensive on the weekend (when we needed to fly to meet up with my mom), we changed our plans and did a road trip that ended in Mendoza, assuming we'd save money and enjoy some scenery with a bus from Mendoza to Santiago.

Part of the reason we decided to do this is that the Rome2Rio results indicated it would not be a very painful bus, by South American standards.

3 - 5 hours?  We can do this, no problem...
So, we headed out for the road trip, figuring that with 2 nights in Mendoza, we should be able to find bus tickets once we got there.

The afternoon of our arrival in Mendoza, after checking in to the Hyatt and receiving AMAZING treatment, we fired up our laptops and started our Internet research to solidify the next phase of our travels.

First, E asked Google Maps how long the bus ride was.  Google predicted 7 hours.  WHAT?  Then, I looked up *actual* tickets (instead of Rome2Rio falsified links), while E scoured the Internet for blog posts.  Turns out, the driving time is typically 5 hours, and time at the border is usually 2 hours.  Of course it is.  Oh well, we still had to get to Santiago and we had nothing but the Andes between us and it, so we were fairly committed to this plan, even if it was going to be much longer than anticipated. 
Border Crossing at Los Libertadores, high in the Andes

After confirming with the concierge which companies were reputable, we picked the bus tickets we wanted to do on (we splurged the extra $6 each for cama) and I tried to buy them. 

For my first attempt, I filled in all of the information and selected seats, but, at the very last moment, despite having an AMEX logo and verifying my AMEX number as valid, informed me that it couldn't accept AMEX and, of course, it deleted all of our trip information (including full name, passport, birthday, etc.). 

After the next attempt, I appeared to have successfully booked the tickets for the date and time we wanted, with the seats we wanted on the 2nd story of the bus so we could enjoy the views of the Andes without other cars blocking us.

View of the Andes over the grapes of Mendoza.

However, 2 hours later, when I went to confirm the booking I saw 2 emails, the first explaining that "something had gone wrong" and my booking hadn't gone through, and the second confirming our tickets for the time we'd selected, but one day too early. 

I tried to deal with their "support" via email, whatsapp, and phone.  After an hour or so of lots of effort but no results, I finally decided to try to book tickets again, and just dispute the original charge with my credit card.  This time, there were no available seats on the second story, which was a bummer, but we accepted it and booked anyways. 

The new tickets came through, and they were for the correct date and time, however, they had decided that we both had Canadian passports (I can assure you that Estados Unidos and Canada were not next to one another on the drop-down list).  The nice thing about having been in South America for so long, though, is that we knew the Canada/US mixup was not going to be a problem.  Or, if it was a problem, it would be solved, it would just take some time.

One the road -- headed up.

About an hour before our departure I got an email from saying they’d refunded the first tickets less a 20% charge.  I then got a second email saying the same thing.  I’d already printed the tickets, so I decided to ignore the concern in the back of my head that the second cancellation was for that day’s tickets and we headed to the station.

The departures screen showed several departures to Santiago, but none on our company (Nevada – highly recommended), nor at our departure time.  So, we walked to the Nevada counter, which was across from a big Nevada bus and a sign indicating that it was leaving for Santiago when we expected to go.

We bought some sandwiches, water, crackers, and candy (no one keeps single pesos in circulation in Argentina, and often the small bills and coins are hard to come by, so if you are due 8 pesos in change, many stores simply ask you which flavor of candies you’d like your pesos in).  Then we joined the bulge of chaos when they opened the bus for boarding.

It was dry season, but even so, melting snow made small rivers.

The conductor checked our tickets, asked our nationalities, and as expected didn’t flinch at the difference between the booked nationality of Canadian and actual nationality.  In fact, he decided with a shrug that he didn’t need to see our passports at all (he seemed to convey the idea that it was our problem if we got stuck at the border, not his).

Our luggage was loaded quickly, we tipped the steward, grabbed our luggage tags, and boarded the bus.

We tried to find our seats, but were confused and pleased to learn that they weren’t the lower level seats we’d been forced to book online, and instead, they were the upper level seats we’d tried to book on the 2nd attempt.  Score.

Almost to the top.

We departed on time and enjoyed 2.5 hours of gorgeous views all the way to the border.

At the border, the bus stopped and we were given an opportunity to use the restrooms, buy some food, etc.  Half an hour later, we were back in the bus and still waiting to pull forward into the *real* line (not the parking lot where the buses waited until it was their turn to get in line).  Finally, an hour and a half after arrival, we were back in line and inching forward. 

At some point, our bus was cleared for immigration and we were told to leave our hand luggage on the bus and go clear through Chilean PDI.  We waited in our own line and a window was dedicated to (slowly) clearing everyone on our bus.  I noted that all of the Argentinians on our bus had taken *all* of their hand luggage off the bus, and I wondered if I’d made a big mistake by leaving my backpack and only taking my wallet & camera bag.  But, as E & I agreed, there was nothing we could do about our daypacks now…

Switchbacks down the steep Chilean side of the Andes.
After clearing immigration, we were told to reboard the bus, grab our hand luggage, and wait in line, between two long metal tables, this time holding our hand luggage.  The drug/food dog came through and happily sniffed everyone and everything a few times, but otherwise, this period was essentially an hour of nothing much happening except the bus conductor, his assistant, and the customs folks counting our group out loud every 2 minutes or so.  Oh, and random folks would occasionally get called back to go do some additional immigration processing, but it appeared to be only folks who were traveling on ID cards and not passports, so we weren’t too concerned.

At some point during this wait our checked luggage was brought through the customs area and sent through the x-ray machine, to be loaded back into the belly of the bus.

Finally, 2h15 after we arrived at the boarder, and after being counted at least 100 times, everyone agreed that our entire bus had cleared immigration and was inline in customs with their hand luggage.  Now, we were all told to send our hand luggage through the X-ray machine, one-by-one, and then to board the bus.  Because, you know: streamlining? Pipelining? Parallelism?  These are not things that South America does well.  I can’t even imagine how much delay could be saved by simply requiring that everyone take their hand luggage with them through immigration, then customs X-ray, and then reboard the bus on the assigned seat all in one motion.  But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned here it’s that they really don’t care about saving time.

So, we were on the road after 2.5 hours and we headed down the famed switchbacks to lose altitude down the Andes into Santiago.

More switchbacks.  Surprisingly smooth ride and great road condition.
Unfortunately, our scheduled arrival was for 5 PM on a Friday.  Due to the additional delay at the boarder, we hit the outskirts of town at 6, which means we sat in traffic for an hour to get to the station.  So, 9 hours after we left Mendoza, we were dropped off in front of (not within at a gate) the train station. 

We walked around trying to find a bank to get some Chilean pesos, but the first suggestion from Google was super wrong, so we headed into the nearest casino with our packs and asked where we could get some cash (casinos always know!).  Thankfully, Chile is a sane country about money and they do intelligent things like putting ATMs that work and have cash in the metro station, so we were able to get some cash, buy a metro card, and make our way to the AirBNB by 8 PM.

Our second day in Mendoza I got a response from busbud via whatsapp apologizing for the delay and asking if there was anything they could do.  (You know, 2 days after the first reservation that needed to be canceled. And 1 day after the second reservation I could have used some help making on credit due to the cancelation.)

And that’s our the story of how we crossed the Andes by bus.

November 12, 2016


E doesn't express many strong opinions about our sabbatical year.  I know his preferences fairly well, and I do my best to propose itineraries that I think we both will enjoy.  I do most of the pre-travel research, propose some options, and we agree on what to do.  Occasionally, E pops up with a request (like going to South Dakota to see the Minuteman missile site) and we almost always modify our plans to do what he asks, because I tend to want to see everything, and he is much more selective.

Baked Empanadas for dinner?  Don't mind if we do!

When we were planning the South American leg of our trip, E had two things he absolutely wanted to do -- See the Panama canal, and go back to Argentina.  I was a little surprised that he wanted to go back to Argentina so badly -- I tend to want to see and do new things, and if left to my own devices, I'm not sure Argentina would have ended up on the plan.

E was so right.

The Rosario Riverfront
I had completely forgotten how wonderful Argentina is.  We'd loved our first visit to Argentina so very much.  And we got to know it so much better this trip.  It is firmly on the countries-I-will-always-want-to-return-to list, now, up there with France and Italy.

We spent 4 days in Rosario, a town I'd never heard of, but the third largest city, along the Parana river, with a wonderfully relaxed vibe, but with a functional collection of kiosks, grocery stores, restaurants, and services (read: easier to get stuff done than many of the places we've been).  We visited the national flag monument, went for runs along the river, ate wonderful food, did some stress-free laundry in the AirBNB, and I established a good habit of daily Spanish study.

Rosario skate park.
After Rosario, we flew to Cordoba.  At the Rosario airport we had to abandon our wine and half our food at the airport cafe because they called last call 50 minutes before the boarding time on our boarding passes.  Apparently, our flight had decided to take off 25 minutes early -- our early arrival in Cordoba was shocking after several weeks of South American delays, but we quickly readjusted back into what we've come to expect when our luggage didn't make it off the plane and we had to file a complaint with the airline to get them to send someone to grab it before the plane continued on to Bariloche.

Cordoba is the 2nd largest city in Argentina, but it doesn't have a nice river like Buenos Aires or Rosario, and E and I found it to be kind of uninspiring.  But, of course, the food and wine was still delicious and inexpensive. From Cordoba, we did an 8 day road trip through rural and completely undeveloped portions of Northern Argentina.

You know how we did a road trip through parts of rural Canada and the US?  During those drives there were hours of nothing but land.  Turns out, Argentina has the same thing going on.  Argentina is the 8th largest country in the world geographically, but only has around 41 Million people, most of whom are centered in a few large cities.  Nothing like a road trip to help you truly understand a country's reality.

Typical Parilla Meal -- Shared Salad and Asado de Tira.
For example, one of the realities of driving in Argentina is that you have to have your lights on at all times.  I got a lecture at one of the many police stops for forgetting to turn them on.  Police stops are another reality -- E wondered if it's a full employment act, because every day we'd pass through several police stops, sometimes no one was there, sometimes the cop was sitting in the shade and no one stopped, sometime they stood in the middle of the road, but waved you through, and sometimes they stopped you and asked to see all the documentation for the vehicle and your diver's license.

Speaking of stops -- wow are the cultural norms around this one difficult.  Sometimes, you just ignore the stop signs.  Sometimes, if there is no traffic, you run the red lights, and you will get beeped at if you do not.  Sometimes, a stop sign means slow down and look, but no need to stop unless there's someone there.  And sometimes they are real.  The police watched people engaging in all of these observances of the signs/signals and never once did I see any reaction, even though there are actually signs on the roadside telling you to respect the directions on the signs.

Typical keys of many hotels and AirBNBs in South America.

Our first night was in the resort town of Las Termas de Rio Hondo.  It was low season.  Almost everything in the resort town was closed and it was deserted, so, other than eating well, we spent most of our time at our cabana property, soaking in the hot springs filled pools for a day before heading out again.

Hot springs fed pools and restaurant at Marina House Cabanas in Rio Hondo.

From there, we drove to Salta.  We based ourselves from the Sheraton in Salta (Starwood points for the win!) and it was very nice to enjoy some US-influenced service for a few days (but even there, South America shone through with an oddly popular barely luke-warm jacuzzi).  One day we did the gorgeous 3-hour drive out to the Salinas Grandes and took a guided tour (a local native woman hopped in our car and directed us as we drove around the flats), the drive back was just as gorgeous, if long.

Protest in Salta against labor discrimination towards native peoples.
From Salta to Cafayate we enjoyed another beautiful drive on the Salta wine route and stopped at a roadside restaurant for a delicious stereotypical Argentinian lunch of cheese, fiambres (preserved meats), olives, bread, and salad.

Hike up/Tram down: View of Salta from the top of Cerro San Bernadino.
Cafayate was wacky.  It's the heart of the Salta wine region, but also a bit of a backpacker destination.  The combination was a bit odd with resort lodging up to $300/night and $10 hostels bringing in two very distinct groups.  Also, we heard quite a bit of French (both from backpackers and wine tourists), which was nice.

Upon arrival, we stopped in at the tourist office and asked for a hotel that met our 3 requirements: private parking for the rental car, wifi, and less than $50/day.  We were perfectly successful, but we added a 4th preference for future options, if possible -- air conditioning.  The hotel charged us 600 Argentinian Pesos, but the tourist office had quoted 560.  I tried to argue with the hotel clerk, but it didn't work, so we just sucked it up and paid the extra $2.66 US.  When I went back to the tourist office to complain (all while E is thoroughly amused at my cheapness), they shrugged, said their quotes are more like estimates, but as a way to make it up to us, they told us how to walk 1 Km to the locals' parilla, where we had a delicious dinner of for 260 pesos instead of paying 600 on the tourist square.

On average, while Argentina is more expensive than Colombia, the food prices are only *slightly* higher, and the quality of the food is just out of this world.  First, there's baked empanadas, which are simply genius.  They have absolutely the best beef, and a culture of perfection when it comes to preparing it.  In the big cities, they also have non-Argentinianized Italian, Spanish, and Basque food due to the immigrant population, and all of it is delicious.  While on this road trip, at least once every other day, and sometimes every day, we hit up a parilla and enjoyed a salad, provoletta, and some amazing beef, plus wine and sparkling water for less than $35 US total (and in the case of the locals' parilla, less than $20).

Heading towards the salt flats (giant white bit).
In the north of Argentina, they take siesta *very* seriously.  Entire towns shut down from 2ish to 7/8ish.  This means that occasionally we had to get very creative with our mid-day meals -- if we didn't encounter a city by 2 on our drive, we may not be able to eat anything other than ice cream for lunch when we finally encountered one.  For some reason, ice cream doesn't respect siesta, and all of South America *loves* ice cream.  Seriously.  I've seen more people eating ice cream in public in the last 9 weeks than I've seen in the previous 5 years.  

The next stop was the sleepy town of Belen.  We encountered a few dust storms during the trip, and the most severe one was while we were in Belen.  Your sight started to decline a few feet in front of your eyes, and I suspect this (figuratively and literally) colored our perception of the town, which we didn't love.  But the hotel was *very* nice and had air conditioning, and our dinner in its restaurant was predictably delicious.  I finally got to enjoy Locro, a local native specialty I'd been wanting to try, and E enjoyed one of his favorite meals, mushroom risotto.

In the salt flats.
From Belen, we went to the even smaller town of Saint Augustin del Valle Fertil.  We rolled up to a lovely hotel that I'd read about and booked a room on the spot.  It was quaint and comfortable and had a nice small lake surrounded by cacti that I ran to in the morning before we left.

Finally, we arrived in Mendoza and I returned the car.  We enjoyed a relaxing light dinner in prep for a walking tour with wine tasting the next day and one last final Argentinian parilla dinner extravaganza (we splurged on a $30 bottle of wine and it was AMAZING!).  The walking tour was particularly interesting as we were able to ask questions about all of the things we'd noticed in Argentina and get a local's explanation. 

One of many gorgeous views from our road trip.
And then, we did a very stereotypically Argentinian thing (we learned form our guide that most Mendozans do this several times a year) and took the bus to Santiago de Chile.