Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Driving (again) in Agentina

December 28, 2010
Only a few more days of the year left and we are living it up “Pura Vida” style in Argentina. We met some lovely Germans on a bus between Mendoza and Salta and decided to tempt fate once more and embarked upon a five day car journey in northern Argentina. The trip ended well after a few wrong turns and lots of empanadas. We ended the trip tonight with a little too much wine and cheap beer and a ton of laughter. Over all Buffy and I ended up with three new friends- all German, all Biologists and all super fun. So the recap on the last five days- Salta, Parque Nacional Los Cardones, Pierda del Molina, Cafayate  Parque  Nacional Calilegua, and  Humahuaca. It was a whirlwind of amazing and dramatic landscapes and more than our fair share of mosquito bites. Last night we stayed in Humahuaca a sweet little village on the border of Bolivia where everyone speaks a strange sort of Spanish and chews Coca leaves. Tomorrow we will board a bus (yet another bus!) to Bolivia and enter upon the most adventurous part of our journey- or so we have heard and hope.

Monday, December 20, 2010

December 20, 2010

The View From Our Hostel In Bariloche
We arrived in Bariloche on the 16th and stayed there until yesterday (19th) enjoying a much needed rest and hanging with friends. Louise ended up staying in the same hostels as we did and so we were able to enjoy actually having a friend for a few days. Yesterday we woke up late and made Pancakes, Danish style, and enjoyed a plethora of food, American style. Then we walked for an hour with our bags down the windswept streets of Bariloche to the bus station. There we boarded another bus to start our fifth overnight journey to a novel destination.
The bus ride from Bariloche to Mendoza was surprisingly comfortable but nothing can be comfortable for 17 hours. And so we awoke this morning and disembarked from our bus stretching and yawning and a little smelly. Now I am sitting in our home for the next 48 hours, Hostel Suites Mendoza, watching “The Big Bang Theory” and “Friends” and enjoying the language- English.
This week is Christmas and so we are planning on ‘camping-out’ in a hostel in Salta, Argentina for four days- our longest stay since El Calafate. Salta is supposed to be pretty interesting for adventure seekers as you can kayak, raft, hike, camp and horse bike ride at will. However, due to the holidays and the deterioration of funds we will be reading, snoozing, drinking lots of coffee and enjoying a break from tourism.
From Salta we will tread slowly to La Paz hopefully arriving by New Years Eve. Argentina has been, for us, a large, safe and familiar country and so, car problems aside, it has been relatively easy to travel. Over the next four weeks we will spend the majority of our time in Bolivia- South America’s poorest and most indigenous country. The warnings and stories we have heard from fellow travelers have been daunting but both of us want to experience the wonders and perils of Bolivia for ourselves.
Bolivia and Ecuador (and possibly Peru) will likely be the last countries we travel to on this trip, so it’s a little strange to think about. The last few weeks of this trip have been surprising in many ways…. Way One: We discovered we will be out of money in mid February instead of early May as we had originally expected. Way Two: we are not saddened/disappointed by this. Way Three: Both of us are extremely tired of living in hostels (not actually all that surprising). And so I write this blog not only to update and share with you our story but also because the story is going to come to a close sooner rather than later.
We have started to plan our exodus out of South America, which means we have also started to plan the next eight weeks. This is a sorta strange departure from our current and past lack of planning, which may explain our early exit. We think we will be headed back to the states in mid to late February leaving us about 9 weeks to travel and spend all of our money, a fairly easy feat. We could stay in South America longer if we both got jobs. However we have decided against this hoping to return in the next few years not as travelers but as contributors to the local economy, in a bigger and more sustainable way then we are currently.

Danish Pancakes

Friday, December 17, 2010

Bienvenidos a Argentina!

December 17, 2010
Today is Wednesday (well actually it's Friday but I wrote this on Wednesday) and the last forty eight hours have been a bit crazy. On Monday we saw Claire and Garnet off: they went to the Southern-most town in the world, while we turned back North towards summer.  Later that day, we walked up the hill to see the mechanic who was working on the car. He explained to us that the car part (fuel pump) had not arrived on Saturday. This explained why he had not been at the shop at the agreed time on Saturday- when we had expected we would get the car back. He further explained that he expected the part to arrive from Buenos Aires that evening (Monday) and that the car would be fixed and ready to go a few hours later. This, mind you, was all explained by a very nice interpreter, Gloria, on the phone while the mechanic talked into one phone and I talked into another Gloria explained what we each said. At one point I asked the mechanic how likely he thought it was the part would arrive that day and he shrugged and simply said; “this is Argentina, I don’t know”. Much to our surprise, when we returned that day around 6pm the car was fixed! We happily handed him a wad of Garnet’s money and drove off with our lovely running auto. This was all very lucky, timing wise, because as we were about to leave with the car, Gloria, our interpreter, explained; “and now the problem is that El Calafate is running out of gas and so you must go quickly to the petrol station and wait 1/2-1 hour to get gas or else you will be stuck here for a few days or more.” So Buffy and I raced to the pump and waited for a half hour to fill up. We went back to our hostel, made dinner and went to bed.
At the bottom of the world (El Calafate) the sun sets around 2200 or 2230 and rises at 0430 or 0500, this time of year, and it is never actually dark outside. Around 0200 the next morning, this eager and very tall girl barged into our hostel room, awakening us and asking if we were the girls driving to Bariloche, that morning, because she needed a ride. I calmly explained to her that we were those girls and we were leaving at 0800 and would be in the kitchen at 0700 and she could find us then and get a ride. She proceeded to tell us that it was very important she get a ride as she needed to see her boyfriend and she would have to hitch-hike and so on.  Finally, after a few minutes of this we convinced her to leave us alone and find us in the morning. In the morning, Karen (the tall girl of the night) found us and we drove to pick up our other passenger, Louise.  
So with a full tank we happily and excitedly left El Calafate. We were four girls: one Argentinean, Karen, of German decent who was a tour guide, traveler, quad-linguist and all-out life-enthusiast, and one Dane, Louise, also a multi-linguist, traveler and super chill girl. Of course there was also me and Buffy who between the two of us speak one language. We drove for an hour or so when Karen asked if we could stop and get hot water for her mate’ (a traditional Argentinean tea), and this is when we made our first mistake. We pulled into a gas station and got some snacks and hot water and drove off, without filling up our gas tank.  Normally, this would make sense, since we had only used a quarter tank.  However, unbeknownst to us, this was a big error.  We drove towards Rio Gallegos and then made a 90 degree turn, north, towards Comodora Rivadavia--what was supposed to be our stop for the night and the half-way point to Bariloche. About an hour out of Rio Gallegos we turned into a gas station, since at that point we had less than half a tank and we wanted to switch drivers. We pulled up to the pump and it said “no hay combustibles” (“there is no gas”) and so we walked into the station and asked where the next station was. There, a few travelers coming south who told us there was no gas “anywhere” north of there, and we should turn around and try to find fuel in Rio Gallegos. The station manager agreed and explained that someone was striking, shrugged and said “this is Argentina “and that no fuel had been delivered to the region for almost a week. He also said there was likely no fuel in Purto Bueno, the next town 140km further north. We discussed our options as a group and then decided to keep going north and hope a fuel truck had come by.
We arrived in Purto Bueno around 1300 and there was no fuel, but the manager told us that hopefully the truck would be there at 2100 that night. At this point, Karen, who had been doing all of our translation, decided she would try and hitch-hike to Puerto San Julian where it was said fuel could be found. She only had a few days to see her boyfriend and get back to El Calafate and so she was really in a hurry. The rest of us, meanwhile, sat and pondered our fate.  We had less than an eighth of a tank and we needed a fourth to get us to San Julian, where we could hopefully fill up the tank. Around 1430, Louise and I decided to walk 3 km into the town and see if we could buy some fuel off of a local. Buffy stayed with the car just in case the fuel trucks arrived. Very quickly we ran into a woman who gave us a ride to the city’s other gas station where two young men said there was no fuel and would be none as far as they knew. We kept walking and every time we ran into someone Louise would kindly state in Spanish; “Hello, how are you, we have a problem-we have no gas and need to get to San Julian.” The townsfolk would reply, “Oh that is very bad, I am sorry for you” or “welcome to Argentina” and shrug. We did this a few times before we walked into a motorcycle shop and there a very nice gentleman gave us 2.5 liters of fuel (all we needed was five to get to San Julian). He refused to accept money for the gas and wished us luck, so we kept walking.
Louise kept asking her above line of everyone we passed with no luck, until we walked into an auto sales store where a man helped us. Louise asked him if he could help us and at first he told us “Oh that is very bad luck” and “this is Argentina” and then he said a bunch of stuff we didn’t understand and rubbed Louise’s belly and so we started to walk out.  He stopped us and told us to wait a minute and then he took our container and siphoned (with his mouth) fuel out of two motorcycles into it. We thanked him profusely and then started to walk out but he told us he would give us a ride and we accepted. We rode the roughly 1 km back to the gas station while he explained what he did in town and how long he had lived there and that he liked Louise very much. Louise went into the station to get Buffy and the keys and I stayed outside with the gas drinker. Then, he told me that he liked my friend very much and that he had gas and could drive her around town and take her to dinner. I explained to him that he could not do these things but he just laughed. He was about to siphon the gas into our car for us but stopped and said we should wait a moment so Louise could see, because she would like it and he would be cool. Now, I can’t speak Spanish very well, but after living in New Mexico for 22 years I understand loads, and I kid you-not when I tell you he said: “we must wait for the cute girl because she will like this and I will be cool.” So we waited till Louise retuned and he siphoned the gas into the tank and he explained to us that we should drive slowly or we might not make it to San Julian.  He wished us luck and gave each of us a very big kiss on the cheek (common Argentinean tradition). We got into the car laughing because he was really a nice guy and helped us out a lot but we couldn’t figure out what the belly rub was for.
And off we went to San Julian…..
Once we arrived in San Julian (around 1800) we got into the gas line which numbered 47 vehicles in front of us (Not that I immediately knew how long the line was, but I had plenty of time to count later that night!). So we got into line behind a camper truck with a French family in it, who explained to us that they had been waiting in San Julian for three days and had heard the gas was going to be there at 2000 that night. At 2030, the line wrapped around the entire block and doubled back onto itself, but still there was no gas. At 2130, the gas attendants said the gas would be there soon, and at 2300 we took out our sleeping bags and started to get ready for bed. By that time, people had started to leave the queue, so Louise went and asked why and was told that people were going home and would be back the next day to try again. At 2400 we went to sleep (or, at least tried to sleep) in the car- in line. Around 0300 we all awoke to honking horns.  Gas, finally!?  No, false alarm.  We pulled up a mere three car spaces as a few more cars had given up, turned off the car and went back to bed. At 0600, I woke up and walked down to the station and asked at what time the gas would arrive; the attendant replied, shrugging, “at 0800 or 0900”. I went back to the car and ate some left-overs from the night and around 0630 horns started honking and a gas truck pulled in.
Around 0730 we were fueled and on the road, but Argentina still had no gas and so we drove slowly and efficiently. We filled up in every town we passed that had fuel, knowing that we could run out at any point and that would be the end of the line for us. We finished our day, driving about eight hours, in Sarmiento, a wind-swept town of dinosaur bones and petrified forests, passing on the way Argentina’s oil reserves.

This is Argentina

Our Tank

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Burning of Garnet’s Jacket: An addendum to “Perils of driving…”

Claire and Garnet read our last post about breaking down in Argentina, and they reminded us (well Claire did) that we left out one very amusing nuance of the trip: The burning of Garnet’s jacket.  Recall that the semitruck tugged us to the police checkpoint and dropped us off there.  The police checkpoint had a little three-room office for the police to do their paperwork, recover from the cold weather, eat meals, and use the restroom.  It was freezing cold out that night up on the hill, so the police let us wait in the office with them while we tried to figure out what to do.  It’s important to understand this scene from the perspective of the police to get the full humorous impact of the burning of Garnet’s jacket: four gringos, none of whom speaks Spanish, can’t start their car, and so had to get towed to the checkpoint.  The police were convinced that there was nothing wrong with the car and we had just run out of gas or were doing something else wrong. We know this not because we could understand what they were saying, but rather because they later attempted to start it for us about a dozen times and then drove Jynene and myself to the petrol station down the hill. We brought back two containers of gas and emptied them into our car with a long stick and a cut-up coke bottle. To their surprise, but not ours, the car still would not start. Furthermore, Garnet had been on and off the phone with the car rental company and insurance agency, so we hadn’t called a tow truck to take us into town yet, which would have been the most logical course of action for us to take from the perspective of the police. We know this fact as well because one of the police kept handing Jynene the number for the tow truck. In short, we looked like absolute bunglers. 
In the office there was a heater…..
This heater came about three feet off the ground against one wall of the office.  Jynene stood right in front of the heater because she was cold and wanted to warm up.  Claire went and stood next to her because she was also cold.  Garnet went next to them, but instead of standing in front of the heater, he sat on it.  The entire room started to smell like burned rubber and there were many comments about the stinky-ness of the room from the English speakers but we made no connection to us. The police officer started pointing and gesturing to the three near the heater, until finally Jynene figured out that Garnet was causing the smell because his jacket was melting onto the heater.  He stood up and had a gaping hole in the shell of the jacket with burned goose feathers falling off of him.  A huge clump of the rubber and feathers had stuck to the heater, so the room still smelled horribly until the police officer scraped it off with a knife laughing all the while.  Garnet immediately forgot about the hole in his jacket, and for the rest of the evening, walked around frantically trying to coordinate with the rental company, insurance agency, and tow truck pacing back and forth with a cloud of feathers trailing him.  He looked like he was pooping feathers. Claire meanwhile followed him and either tucked back his jacket or cleaned up the feathers he was dropping everywhere.  Jynene and I are cracking up right now with the memory of the scene.  Thanks, Garnet, for lightening up our evening with your absent-minded professorial ways.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The perils of driving on unpaved roads….Who knew?

Two days ago, Jynene, Claire, Garnet and I drove the 260 kilometers from San Julian to El Calafate.  San Julian is a bay village with a beautiful wildlife refuge.  We got to walk among penguin nests and we saw sea lions, dolphins, and other wildlife.  El Calafate is a tourist town famous for the amazing glaciers you can explore in the local national park.  In between these two wonderful experiences, we had an unfortunate problem with our car.  That is the subject of this post.
There are two options for driving from San Julian to El Calafate: first, you can take a 520 kilometer drive along paved roads.  Alternatively, you can take a 260 kilometer drive along a supposedly well-maintained dirt road.  In the interest of time, we decided to take the dirt road.  Also in the interest of time, we drove between 80 and 110 kilometers per hour along this road.  There were almost no other vehicles on the road, the road was very wide, the sun was up, and overall, the speed seemed perfectly safe.  On both sides of the road were endless plains where sheep, guanacos (wild lamas), and Rheas (ostritch-like flightless birds) graze.  We saw a flock of Rheas composed of one or two adults and about 15 babies…it was very very cute.  She sheep had recently had babies, so there were lots of little lambs everywhere, also.  Overall, it was a beautiful drive.  And then disaster struck (well, not disaster, but unfortunate-ness at least): we drove over a few BIG rocks about a quarter the size of the tires on our little Fiat Sienna.  The car engine stopped (not sure if we stalled or if the impact killed it), and would not start back up again.  When we turned the key to start the car, it engine turned over but didn’t catch. 
Uh oh…..  Jynene got out of the car and noticed that one tire was completely blown out, but other than that, we couldn’t find any damage.  Actually, this little car is so close to the ground, we couldn’t even look under the carriage….a feature we should probably have considered before driving so fast that rocks kicked up from under the tires bouncing off the bottom of the car.  It was about 5:30pm or so, and was starting to get very cold and windy outside.  We all got back into the car to discuss what to do.  The last vehicle we had passed had been a semitrailer going in our direction about 45 minutes prior to our breaking down, however this vehicle was travelling so slow that it would take a few hours to reach us. We reckoned the semi would reach us before nightfall because the sun does not set until 1030-1100 pm at this time of year in Patagonia. Also, there was a possibility that a vehicle coming in the opposite direction would be able to help us, since we were only 50 kilomters from El Calafate.  If a vehicle capable of towing us didn’t come, we would try and hitch hike.  If we couldn’t do that, we’d just stay in the car until morning and walk towards town: we knew the dirt road met up with a major highway at some point, and we would be able to get help there.  We took stock of our water and food situation: we had a liter of water that would easily hold us over night if need be.  We had a bar of chocolate and a jar of peanut butter for food…not exactly hearty, but plenty for one night. 
Jynene suggested we change the tire immediately so that we would be ready to go if a vehicle capable of towing us came along.  This presented a great opportunity: Garnet had never changed a tire before!  Jynene and Claire taught him how, and he did very well.  It was freezing cold out, so we got back into the car and watched about 45 minutes of Evita (essential watching for a trip to Argentina) on Claire’s IPad Touch.  Finally, about an hour and a half or two after we had broken down, a semitruck drove up behind us (this was the semi that was going about 30kph that we passed a few hours prior).  He stopped, and in very broken Spanish, we asked him for a tow into town.  He tethered the front of our car to the back of his truck.  We all stayed in the car, Jynene in the driver’s seat, for the ride.  The truck driver went very slowly on the dirt road, but the last thirty kilometers of the ride was on pavement, and he averaged about 60 kilometers per hour on the pavement.  Going downhill tethered about 15 feet from the back of a truck is terrifying!  Jynene had to steer and hit the break, which had no power assistance, and make sure we didn’t smash into the back of the truck.  It started raining/snowing outside, was freezing inside the car, and foggy on the windshield.  Finally, we got to the police checkpoint at the top of a hill overlooking El Calafate, and the truck drove off and we asked the police for help.  It took us about two more hours, but we finally got a tow truck to come pick us up and bring us down to town.  Our lack of Spanish skills made the situation more difficult and, in a way, more amusing.  But that night, with the car broken down outside a mechanic’s shop, we had a very tasty dinner and some hot chocolate to ward of the stress of the day.  We learned that people who drive painfully slow on dirt roads aren’t being overly-cautious curmudgeons….they are being smart because at some point they probably destroyed their cars by driving too fast like we did.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Patagonia with Claire and Garnet

December 7, 2010
Yesterday we drove from Gaiman to Puerto San Julian in the Patagonia region of Argentina. Claire and Garnet arrived on December 3rd after they were delayed in Buenos Aires. The delay was sorta funny we received a message from the Hostel staff on the 2nd (the day they were supposed to arrive) that they missed their flight. Shortly after this message arrived I got an e-mail from Claire stating their flight had been changed to a different airport in Buenos Aires (without informing them) and they were going to try again the next day. But the next day at 1pm when they were supposed to arrive they had not arrived. Finally around 5pm they showed up and proceeded to tell us how the location of their flight changed twice. On the first day it moved to one airport and so they missed the flight, on the second day they went to the airport it left from the previous day but the airport was vacant and so they rushed to the first airport but their flight was overbooked by thirty people. So, they waited until another flight was available and finally boarded a plane headed to Bariloche. We ended up having a pretty fun first night together. It was Garnet’s first time in a hostel and Buffy and I had already made a few friends. The next morning we woke up and Buffy and Garnet made breakfast.
On the 4th we went kayaking with Garnet’s scientist friends from the Atomic Institute in Bariloche. The kayaking was pretty amazing, Garnet’s friends knew a local guide and we kayaked around a secluded point and we enjoyed crackers and tea in a little cove on the lake. Buffy and I shared the work on our kayak and were pretty sore for the next day or so. That evening we headed out of Bariloche and drove to Esquel.
Esquel is a small town near a large nature preserve and so we woke early in hopes of touring the area via boat. However, the boat tours did not run that day and so we ended up having a very relaxed day sitting by the lake and driving through the park. We ate supper in Trevelin, a little Welsh community, and then drove across the country, heading east, to Gaiman (oddly another Welsh town) and spent the night. We woke up in our little Welsh town and had another disappointing breakfast of pastries.
 As a side note: breakfast sucks everywhere we go. At the hostels we stay in we are often served toast, jam and Nescafe and at hotels we get about the same. If you ask where you can get breakfast, desayuno, you are directed to the pastry shop. Pastry shops are lovely, in South America, they have very cheap and tasty carbohydrates but they are not filling and so we crave our large American breakfasts.
Back to the travel story…
So we all have been travelling in this tiny Fiat across Argentina. We began the 6th on the West side boarder of the country and spent that night in a little coast town on the East side of the country. In all, we travelled about 12 hours today or as Buffy would say, “700 clicks”. The excursion of the day was Punto Tombo where we saw thousands of Magellan Penguins and their chicks. Surprisingly, Punto Tombo is a desert. I think that all of us had imagined we would see penguins on an ice cap or something similar to that, instead we walked through the desert and saw them in burrows. Yes burrows, the sort that you would imagine a rabbit living in. It was quite funny to see these amazing flightless birds waddling out of holes in the ground. Amidst, the Penguin burrows we viewed other exciting fauna such as the Alpaca, small rats, and loads of Sea Gulls. It was pretty weird to see penguins and Alpaca’s in the same area, walking amongst each other’s homes.
The trip has been fun so far, we have spent a lot of time together in the car driving. Today we took a little excursion out to an island east of town and saw dolphins and more penguins as well as corents and other lovely birds. Tomorrow we should arrive in El Calafate and the end of our driving. The plan is to spend a few days there and then Claire and Garnet will travel, via plane, to the southernmost city in the world, aside from those in Antarctica. Buffy and I meanwhile will take the car back to Bariloche, retracing the 1000 miles through thePatagonian desert of Argentina.
munchkin penguin

Garnet and the Penguin

Penguin in a hole

Friday, December 3, 2010

Overshooting Summer

December 3, 2010
The view in Bariloche, Argentina is amazing. Sitting in our hostel we are able to see the waves of a beautiful lake and the snow-capped peaks of the Andes Mountain Range, that is, we can see them beyond the roofs of our neighbors and one very large, ugly building regrettably placed right in front of the hostel. The Andes’ peaks jut out into the sky blocking some of the wind that pounds this area. We arrived in Bariloche after a fourteen hour bus ride from Pucon, Chile.
While in Pucon we joked that in our quest for chasing summer, we had somehow missed our mark: we’ve overshot summer and re-entered winter. In reality the season is spring and the temperatures are warm for the area, but we’re so far south that it’s chilly even at this time of year. We donned our “foul weather gear” last used for sailing, and resigned ourselves to the cold for the two weeks we will spend in Patagonia.  
Bariloche, Argentina
Pucon, Chile
The ride from Pucon to Bariloche was very interesting; it took us on miles of dirt roads and literally over the mountain range, swiftly curving around the lakes that sit near the top of these beautiful peaks. And now we are in Argentina awaiting the arrival of our friend Claire.
Once Claire arrives we will travel one thousand miles to one of the most southern cities in the world, El Calafate. The fauna and flora that exist in the region between these two cities include: Magellan Penguins (named for the first European that saw them), dolphins, whales, sea lions, seals and dozens of birds that have adapted and evolved to tolerate and excel in extremely cold and dry conditions.
Yesterday we hiked a local park outside the city with beautiful views of the mountains.  We saw woodpeckers, ducks, “cancerous” fungus on trees, and walked under a canopy of indigenous bamboo.  No monkeys, for those of you who keep asking!  Hopefully in the coming weeks we’ll get to climb a glacier or two…we’ll keep you posted.