Changes

It’s been two-and-a-half weeks since we returned to the U.S., and with all the family functions, meeting up with friends, and more long-distance buses, I’ve hardly had time to really process the fact that we’ve been back. Our plan of traveling up the west coast slowly has proven to be a good way to transition back to “real life”, but I’ve been so busy and tired that I haven’t really given our homecoming much thought.

Of course, there is the constant undercurrent of stress related to those mundane, little details like finding a job, finding a new apartment, and figuring out how to navigate the incredibly complicated world of cellphone plans… but for the most part, it sort of feels like we’re still on the road (because we are!).

When I do find the time for a little reflection, it’s difficult to answer the existential questions that started lurking in my mind as soon as we bought our return flights four months ago. Will I have changed? In a good or bad way? Will I be content to resume normal life, or will I be afflicted with the consuming wanderlust that seems to make chronic travelers unhappy with an everyday existence? Will I be one of those insufferable people who drone endlessly on about “Down in South America…”? Will the transition make me wish for an escape to the carefree times of the trip? Or will I settle down quite happily back in Seattle?

Early on in our journey, I remember saying to Craig, “I hope this doesn’t change me in ways I don’t want to be changed.” Why was I so worried? Well, I loved living in Seattle, I loved my job and coworkers, and I loved hanging out with my friends. I really didn’t want the trip to mess with my bubble of contentment. But since I loved Craig more than all of those things, away we went. And although the realities of coming back keep me awake some nights, I don’t regret my decision to go on this crazy adventure with Craig, and I don’t think I ever will despite any changes it might have wrought. Besides, I can’t really say that traveling for a year didn’t have its perks!

But will my fear come true? Will everyday existence pall in comparison to one year of constant travel?

I’m sure it will at times. It does for everybody, even without a year of South American memories to compare it to. But on the whole, it’s been good to be back. It’s been wonderful to see my brand-new niece, and get to know her older sister a bit better. Lovely to see so many family and friends, who have all genuinely supported us through the year. Their continued generosity and care only reinforce the belief that there’s really nothing that can compare to the people that love and care for you. It’s been good for me to heighten my appreciation for them.

As for work, I’m strangely very interested in returning as soon as I can. It might be something that I’ll regret later, but I’ve honestly thought a lot about work while I’ve been gone, and I’ve missed the beauty of nursing. There is a lot of ugly in it too, though, and it’s definitely possible that I’ve been remembering my work through rose-colored glasses. Still, I’ve been lazing around South America for one whole year and it’ll be good to feel productive again, I think.

And then there are the many other things I look forward to that only have to do with the prospect of not moving to a new place every few days, and not living out of a backpack. I imagine unpacking my clothes and feeling as if I’ve just been on a huge shopping spree with no cost. I’m remembering all my books, DVDs, and yarn. I can’t wait to be back in my ‘hood, and knowing my city so well that I can name which bus to take from point A to point B without looking it up in a guidebook or asking a tourist office. Calling up a friend to go have a drink in a local bar is no longer a pipe dream. And we’ll be speaking English! All the time! After feeling unmoored for a year, the thought of being settled and having a routine again is intoxicating.

There will be changes. I can’t promise myself an entirely smooth transition. The possibility of disappointment, disillusions, and reverse culture-shock is still very present. We haven’t even reached Seattle quite yet, and there might be a lot of unpleasant surprises waiting for us there. But I went through that entire year in South America with a (sometimes misguided) sense of fierce optimism, and I’m hoping it won’t desert me here. After all, there’s a lot to look forward to in the Wongenberg future!

Fooling around with Ainsley Pi, the winner of The Cutest Niece on the Planet award for 2015, with an honorable mention in the Cheeks category.

 

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South America, By the Numbers

0 – Times we ate guinea pig (cuy)

1 –  Times we ate llama (that we know of);
Motorcycle rides;
Train rides

Llamas: a one-stop shop for clothes, transportation and food

2 – Kayak rentals;
Bike rentals

4 – Funiculars taken

5 – Colds we’ve had (Craig 2, Sheena 3)

6 – Islands visited;
Hot springs visited;
Cable cars taken

Medellin, Colombia

7 – Weeks spent volunteering

8 – Countries visited;
Overnight bus rides taken

12 – Times we hitchhiked

14 – Boats taken (including ferries)

16 – Flights taken;
Border crossings

19 – UNESCO World Heritage Sites visited

Valparaiso, Chile – a UNESCO World Heritage Site

82 – Hostels stayed in

89 – Cities visited

109 – Beds slept in (including 1 hammock)

357 – Days outside of the U.S.A.

460 – Hours spent on a bus

13,668 – Miles traveled by bus in S. America (average speed of 29.7 mph)

727, 584 – Llamas spotted

Thoughts on Coming Home

In some ways, I can hardly believe we’re boarding a flight in a week to go back to the States; in other ways, I really just CANNOT wait! There are so many things I’m looking forward to (mostly food-related), that it feels difficult to wait even these last several days. But I also know that there are many things that I’ll miss about South America, despite how much I’ve complained during this trip.

It’s been very interesting to realize just how routine “going without” can become. No one I know would voluntarily wear the same pair of socks four days in a row, but since we have so few pairs and doing laundry is not a common occurrence due to inconvenience and cost, we have done so. It’s not pleasant, nor does it smell good, but it’s something that had to be done, and so we’ve learned to deal with it.

Having never done a trip longer than three weeks before this year-long adventure, there have been a lot of learning points for me. I’ve learned not to expect too much–what I would call buffalo wings, will probably come out of the kitchen as nothing like buffalo wings, so I’ve slowly become inured to the disappointment. I’ve learned how to pack my backpack so that it holds a lot more than it did when I first started out. I’ve learned what I can handle, or, more importantly, what I can’t handle, without going off the deep end. Travel has, of course, changed me, but I hope I haven’t become one of those tiresome people who talk about travel as if it’s the best thing in life, even better than water, probably (ugh, spare me!).

No, I can think of better ways to describe travel without putting it on some kind of pedestal high above every other possible ambition in life.

It’s a sacrifice, but so are careers, relationships, houses, children… anything worth having, really. You don’t view a horrible time as some kind of life lesson or beautiful experience that reminds you of the universe, you just forget about it and move on. And you will have horrible times, don’t doubt that. You will, in fact, hate travel sometimes, but be assured that these times are quite few, even if you’re a cynical, withered, old viper like myself. It can open your eyes, but don’t be surprised if you meet some exceedingly ignorant travelers along the way. Be open to experiences, but please don’t think you have to eat fried ants just because they’re there and “you have to do it”. There are limits. And lastly, it’s not for everybody, but don’t be afraid of it, because you’ll never regret it.

So here, willy-nilly, are several lists of things that have been floating through my head these past few weeks as the end has loomed up.

Things that I’ll miss about S. America vs. N. America:

  • The ability to buy just one tablet of any drug at the pharmacy (or, indeed, one stick of celery at the supermarket, etc.)
  • Central markets. I know we have Pike Place Market in Seattle, and other Farmer’s Markets (the closest equivalent to the mercado central down here), but it’s really just not the same!
  • Set lunches/dinners
  • Stray dogs, animals everywhere. The sheer number of llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, dogs, cats, pigs, cows, sheep, horses, and birds that we’ve seen is astonishing. There’s nothing quite like peeping over a fence and seeing a litter of piglets bouncing around and off each other in maddening cuteness. I will miss having a pet dog for the day, or having a hostel cat curl up in your lap for an hour or two.
  • Fruit/produce stands on the corners of streets. It’s like having your own little Farmer’s Market just down the road, for exceedingly cheap prices!
  • Ease and economy of travel. Since Craig and I have been trying to plan our travel up the West Coast from Los Angeles to Seattle, it has only come to us even more forcefully how incredibly difficult and costly it is to travel through the States. Imagine a bus that left every 30 minutes from LA to San Francisco, that cost only $6, and was fairly comfortable. You can’t!
  • Speaking Spanish all the time. Just when I was starting to get pretty good…
  • Meeting new people all the time.

Things I won’t miss about S. America or just traveling in general:

  • Having to bargain for every. little. thing! If you imagine bargaining as fun, just try doing it every day for everything (bus transportation included!). It gets dull.
  • Feeling ripped off – the flip side of not bargaining and why we feel the need to do it.
  • Not having my own bathroom (and having to wear flip flops when I shower).
  • Needing to acquaint myself with my surroundings every few days.
  • Researching and booking hostels–a never-ending task.
  • Only having six shirts, one pair of jeans, one pair of leggings, one pair of shorts, two dresses, one hoody, and two pairs of underwear. If I never see these clothes again it will be too soon.
  • Meeting new people all the time. This, also, can get pretty tiring!
  • Being away from family and friends.
  • Trying to sleep through the sounds of donkeys braying, roosters crowing, dogs barking, car alarms going off, thumping bass music from the club next door, etc.
  • Having to constantly avoid stepping on dog poo on the sidewalks.

Things I wish I’d brought and have subsequently had to buy (or not, as indicated by *):

  • Boxer shorts
  • Black leggings (I have bought no less than 4 pairs on this trip, having had to get rid of other pairs for various reasons)
  • Waterproof camera case, but I think Craig and I should get a proper waterproof camera someday
  • Extra pair street socks (so 4 total)
  • Hoody (Patagonia was SO cold!)
  • Trucker hat or cute sun hat
  • Insulated water bottle*
  • Usb drive w/ movies & music
  • Binoculars*
  • Sarong that can be cute scarf too (never entirely successful with this)
  • Bobby pins (just a few)
  • Shower cap
  • Cute flip flops (since my ballerina Crocs didn’t work out)

Things I’ve lost:

  • 1 pair street socks
  • Headlamp
  • Tent poles (UGH.)
  • Beanie
  • Headphones (but retrieved later by Mayra from Mi Pequeña Ayuda, for which I am forever grateful)
  • 1 sock liner – Is there anything sadder than a lone sock without its partner? Yes, probably, many things…

Things Craig has lost (he wins):

  • Two trucker hats
  • Earplugs

Things I can live without but would rather not have to:

  • Hair conditioner
  • Face wash
  • My clothes (a quarter of what I’ve carried around is hiking clothes, which I don’t even wear much)
  • Washing said clothes after a single use (this would have gotten veeeerry expensive… and tiresome)
  • Having more than two pairs of underwear (I need to stop harping on this, don’t I?)
  • Knitting stuff (and I could only live without it for about four months)
  • A good kitchen
  • A private room – Nothing like being jolted awake by the person in the bunk below you thrashing around… although we’ve thankfully escaped that constant menace of backpackers having sex in the dorms! The term “Get a room!” really has special meaning here…
  • Hooks. Possibly the easiest thing to add to any hostel room, but sadly lacking in most. Luckily, there are usually chairs, curtain rods, paintings that you can put on the floor, etc…
  • A bathroom that doesn’t have the holy trifecta: toilet seat, toilet paper, or soap. Inevitably, there’s always something missing.

Things I can’t live without (especially while traveling):

  • P-style!! I can never say enough good things about this.
  • Shower flip flops (I have this thing about my feet…), and no, they don’t JUST have to be for the shower
  • Knitting stuff, at least not after four months… and probably only in colder climates, if I think about it more…
  • Small travel towel. A big towel is not needed at all; I can only think of one instance where a hostel did not have towels available at all (and because they weren’t dry yet), and only two or three hostels that actually charged for towels
  • Kindle, which Craig can attest to since he’s always trying to steal mine
  • About ten million stuff sacks. You can never, NEVER have enough stuff sacks
  • Baby wipes (they saved my butt–literally!–when I had that blowout during the Uyuni jeep tour)

I’d better just stop this last list before I get carried away. There are, in fact, many many things I can’t do without, but since they include such mundane items as nail clippers, I’ll spare you the gory details. Needless to say, it’s dead boring.

Holidays in Bolivia

Off and on during this trip, I’d think about Christmas and get a little apprehensive. It’s not that I’ve never missed Christmas at home with the family; as a nurse, you have to get used to working on holidays and there have also been times when I just didn’t have the money for the flight home. But it’s still a time for friends and family, and we would be without both in the middle of Bolivia, so it just gave me a little trepidation. Would my homesickness flare up to new heights?

So it was with not a little relief when we made arrangements to stay with the cousin of the husband of the cousin of Craig’s dad (a very close family relation, obviously). We were introduced through email and kept them up to date on our progress towards Santa Cruz, the largest city in Bolivia and where Karen and her family lived. We finally nailed down a date for arrival–the 23rd of December, and probably leaving around the 27th (I’m a big believer in the Benjamin Franklin quote, “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days,” and I don’t like to overstay my welcome).

Left to right, Pily, Faby, me, Craig, Karen, and Toñi. With the exception of Karen, those were all nicknames (apodos).

Of course, these would naturally be quite busy days for Karen’s family, right smack in the middle of Christmas, but part of the reason for staying with a family, and why Karen was doubly insistent on us staying for the holiday, was to alleviate any homesickness we might feel. In any case, we were hugely grateful. Little did we know, however, how busy the Castillos would keep us to prevent said homesickness!

Karen and Pily lived in a really comfortable, modern house in a gated community, had a part time maid/cook, a backyard grill, and we had our own room (Faby, the youngest daughter, gave it up for us). In short, it was REALLY nice! Craig and I kept saying, “Wow,” as we took a tour around the cozy house. We had a couple of hours to settle in before we were whisked off to start our Castillo adventures.

Day 1: After arriving quite late in the day, a barbecue restaurant dinner with some of the family. Meat! Then off for some well-earned beauty sleep.

Day 2 (Christmas Eve, or La Buena Noche): Craig and I enjoy a walk and some fast internet in the main plaza, after taking a 15 minute can ride to get there. Santa Cruz only has a little less than 2 million inhabitants, but the city really sprawls. There’s a nice view of the city from the top of the cathedral.

View of Santa Cruz from the cathedral on the Plaza 24 de Septiembre.

That night, after Pily and Karen got off work, we headed to Karen’s mother’s house yet again. After a round of cheek kissing to greet everybody, and before Craig and I got really settled, all of a sudden it was, “Okay, goodbye!” and off we went cheek-kissing around the room again to say farewell before we went to Pily’s father’s house. There, we again made our way around the room kissing cheeks (more on the air kiss here), before sitting down to a hasty dinner of picana, a delicious stew that is a Buena Noche tradition in Pily’s family. As soon as we had cleared our plates and drank our fill of cider (commonly drunk during the holidays in both Bolivia and Argentina), it was off-we-go again with more goodbye kisses.

Picana–delicious!! I need to get this recipe.

We then raced back to the house for a intimate family dinner of picana again (Cruceños love to eat, we learned), while the clock struck midnight and all around us we could hear small fireworks being set off. It sounded like the Fourth of July. The family then opened their gifts (it’s traditional here to open them at midnight on Christmas Eve), and Craig and I even got gifts! For me, a really beautiful necklace made with a bolivianita gem, also known as ametrine, and for Craig, a nice shirt to augment his meager wardrobe. Needless to say, Karen and Pily are the epitome of perfect hosts.

Our beautifully set table for our Buena Noche picana.

Day 3 (Christmas Day): The only day that Karen and Pily didn’t have to go to work, we set out for Karen’s mother’s house again to spend the day with her large, extended family. Aunts, uncles, cousins, kids all running around and, of course, eating! I don’t think Craig and I ever felt pangs of hunger during our stay there. It was a really fun time, and reminded me of my own family gatherings: a lot of shouting, inappropriate jokes, and a language other than English. Several hours in, Craig and I were starting to feel pretty brain-tired from all the Spanish. Even though everybody took care to speak slowly and explained difficult-to-understand phrases, it can still be pretty overwhelming. But it’s definitely great practice, and although I still have a long ways to go, I feel pretty good about my ability to at least get my point across.

Christmas with the Feeney side of the family.

Day 4: We weren’t sure what to really do with ourselves on this day, so when Pily invited us to his work, out in the countryside, we were happy to accept. He owns a small factory for manufacturing fertilizer, and showed us around the place, as well as the surrounding areas that had cows in feedlots, a fairly new concept of agriculture in Bolivia. It was interesting to see the conditions of the campo, as well as the workers that Pily employed. They all had huge wads of coca leaves stuffed into their cheeks, and worked totally barefoot in the manure, also refusing to use the facial masks that Pily provided. They lived where they worked during the week, and then went home for weekends. Pily told us that they got paid $2,000 Bs. per month, about $300 USD (the minimum wage in Bolivia is $1,000 Bs/month).

Cows in the feedlot. This breed of cow (I think the Nelore) can support tropical temperatures and is also used widely in Brazil. Pily told us the large skin flaps under their chins (a dewlap) characterizes the genetic purity of the breed.

Craig and I always welcome insights to different ways of life during our travels, so we really enjoyed our visit to the campo, something that most travelers probably don’t get to see. I’ve heard of one backpacker describing a similar experience as “more authentic”, and perhaps it was because English was his second language, but I found it a poor choice of words. The way Karen and Pily lived compared to those in the campo is no less or more “authentic”. To say that, just because Santa Cruz is more modernized and westernized, seems strange. Everybody is still a South American, after all–why should one group claim to be more “authentic” than another?

There is, however, a very marked rivalry between the cambas, largely of white or mestizo origins who live in the wealthy Eastern lowlands of Bolivia, and the collas or quyas, largely of indigenous descent of the Western altiplano or yungas region. Bolivia has the highest percentage of pure, indigenous population in South America, about 60%, and Evo Morales, its president, is the first democratically elected president of indigenous origin in Bolivia (and one of a very few in Latin America on the whole). His presidency has been marked by large unrest in the Eastern regions, who feel that his democratic socialist policies undermine their middle-class way of life (which it probably does), and that Morales does not represent them at all in his politics (because he probably doesn’t).

So Bolivia is a strange country that is split almost in half in terms of ideology. Although Karen and Pily often joked about the collas and the way they spoke or their way of life, you could tell there was an small undercurrent of hostility. Still, Pily said that it was undeniable that Morales had made some very beneficial economic changes to Bolivia (such as nationalizing the extraction of natural resources, and kicking out international corporations who had a history of exploiting the country). It’s a small country, but there are some deep divides, and it was certainly educational to learn about it first-hand from Bolivians themselves.

That night, it was Karen and Pily’s 22nd wedding anniversary. We went out for a very nice dinner and Karen showed off her many gold bracelets, one for each year they had been together, that Pily had gifted her on each anniversary. She says that it’s not a tradition that all Cruceños practice, but Pily is especially romantic (he often serenaded her with guitar and singing in their early days). It was a nice way to spend our last night in Santa Cruz, with an intimate family dinner. By then, we were already feeling a lot like family (the gringo portion of the family)!

Karen and her wedding anniversary bracelets (not all the same).

Day 5: Our last day was marked by the usual business that seems to permeate the Castillo way of life, with two birthday parties (although one was canceled, giving Craig and I some much needed rest). Craig learnt that his car back in Seattle had been broken into (argh), so things were a little fraught before we finally made our way to the airport for our flight to Cochabamba. The farewell was bittersweet–we had really been made to feel at home in Santa Cruz, and would miss everybody quite a lot. It was the perfect way to spend Christmas abroad and Craig and I are super grateful for the hospitality and welcome that we were given. I’ll never forget it, and I hope we’ll be able to meet again someday!

Eating Argentina

Argentines LOVE their dulce de leche!

When we first arrived in Buenos Aires, punch-drunk after a 24-hour flight (with layovers) from Bógota, we went straight out for dinner following our hostel check-in. The concierge/owner had recommended a place nearby called Bar Cao and said it was typical Porteño food (the people of Bs. As. are called Porteños).

We ordered from their Picadas menu, which was similar to a charcuterie menu: pieces of meat, pâté, goat cheese, pickles, etc. with some bread. We washed it all down with a draft dark beer for Craig and a draft cider for me. Perhaps it was the cider, or the deliciousness of the food, which resembled nothing we had found so far in South America (i.e. nothing fried, no starter soup, cheese that tasted like cheese, excellent alcoholic beverages), but I avowed there and then that Argentina had the best food by far.

Not a great photo of picadas, since I was probably tipsy already on food and cider. Goat cheese, escabeche (marinated chicken in vinegar with onion–one of our favorites), cherry tomatoes, pate with gherkins, artichokes, and cheesy bread with anchovy.

I haven’t been wrong in this assumption, especially in Bs. As. where the food has been much more international and less indigenous (which makes sense as Argentina’s indigenous population is minimal; more on that in a later post). And don’t forget, of course, the grass-fed, free-range cows that supply the best steaks I’ve ever eaten in my life.

Grilled steak and provolone cheese at La Cabrera, a restaurant in Palermo. They have a daily happy hour from 7-8pm where everything is half-off! Yummmm. Best steak I’ve ever had.

In fact, Argentine cuisine is heavy on the meat and dairy, light on most everything else. And because of their Italian influence, the food heavily favors pizzas and pastas (sounds good as long as you don’t mind your pizza slathered with more mozzarella than you can possibly eat and not sustain coronary artery disease as a result… an Italian girl that we met just shook her head in disgust when we mentioned the pizza).

The pastries facturas are also quite tasty. For our two week sojourn in Bs. As., our hostel provided fresh media lunas for breakfast: delicious, chewy croissants brushed with a sugary, sticky coating. They look like regular croissants but don’t have that flaky texture–just pure, buttery softness, not unlike eating King’s Hawaiian Sweet Bread. Since then, the media lunas have varied in quality; some dry and hard, others flaky and too salty; but the golden pinnacle of media lunas is out there and you just have to find it.

Craig holding a mangled factura called, confusingly enough, a tortilla. They were hard, dry, flaky, and fairly disgusting. We hated it when we had to put up with them at continental breakfasts.

Now let’s talk about alfajors. We encountered these when we first arrived in South America, in both Chile and Argentina (the latter are much better–don’t bother with those strangely shaped Chilean ones). The traditional alfajor consists of two cookies slapped around a dulce de leche filling, perhaps rolled in some coconut or dipped in chocolate. I’m not a fan of dulce de leche, which is too sweet and tastes very caramel-y, so luckily there are about a million variations of the alfajor: fruit, chocolate, or cream filling; covered in glaze, meringue, white chocolate, etc.; hard or soft cookies (even Oreo-brand makes an alfajor!). The possibilities are endless, but the best alfajor I’ve ever had remains the fruit-filled, glazed ones we found in Villa General Belgrano. I’ll have to try and whip up a substitute for it when we get home–there are some foods you just can’t live without once you’ve tried them.

The Oreo alfajor–probably my favorite. I’m such an American.

Droooooooooooool.

As we moved north, the indigenous population increased. The food in the Salta and Jujuy region have been more influenced by ancient tribal cuisine as opposed to Italian, and although I think in my deprived state I prefer the European stuff, I can’t deny that indigenous food has its merits. The empanadas here (as well as being baked versus fried, a big bonus) are filled with a variety of things; chicken with provolone, spinach, llama, samosa-like filling with a lemon tang (called Arabia, which necessitated a long discussion of whether this was racist or not). They are unfailingly good, as long as you eat them piping hot from the oven–Craig got some food poisoning from one that wasn’t reheated. They’re also often just called salteñas and some say that the salteña empanada is the best in all of Argentina.

A very Salta, indigenous dish, Locro. A type of stew with corn, yucca, beans, and meat.

Another food item called a tortilla–a giant omelette. Yum!

One last influence from the Italians that was extremely delicious, but also strained my wallet a bit, was the ice cream (I think in some places it was gelato, and there was a lot of sorbet, but mostly it was helado). It was difficult to go anywhere without a Grido, the Argentine equivalent of a Baskin Robbins. You could find one even in tiny towns such as Tilcara, where the population barely crested 5,000, you could always count on finding a Grido. But the pinnacle of ice cream had to be the Freddo, where two tiny scoops would run you about 44 peso, at least in expensive Bs. As, or about $6 USD by official exchange rates. We tried it once, and although it was probably the best ice cream in Argentina, I’m not sure if it’s really worth the price. Ice cream is always good, after all, and the curve is not really that skewed when it comes to quality.

All in all, Argentina was a great reprieve from the fried foods of Colombia, and the indigenous menús of Perú and Ecuador. If I were to choose a country whose cuisine I could see myself eating for the rest of my life, I’d probably choose Argentina. But I’d miss Asian food, which is still sadly lacking wherever we go. And hold half the mozzarella please!

Argentina’s idea of a salad–tomatoes with a single leaf of lettuce.

Matambre – meat wrapped around carrots, greens, and boiled eggs, and then itself boiled in milk and served cold.

Chuleta, any kind of grilled steak, and salade russe, which at times only means carrots, potatoes, and peas with a squirt of mayonnaise.

$1 for a carafe of wine (half a liter), served with ice. Perfect for a hot day.

 

The unappetizing sandwiches de miga, with bread cut from huge blocks into thin sheets. Not filling, and not super tasty either.

Yep, horse in a can.

A milanesa, a flat slab of meat breaded and fried, in sandwich form. This order was more enormous than usual, and had some extra goodies, like a fried egg and ham.

Choripan, sausage (chorizo) in bread (pan), with some chimichurri, a delicious garlic sauce that can be hot, and some light beer (what else in South America?) to help wash it all down.

Argentina is known for its wine, which can be had in large quantities for extremely low prices.

Last, but not least (at least in Craig’s mind), Fernet is King. A bitter, herbal liqueur, said to help digestion, it came in all sorts of forms, some of the cheaper brands scorned by Porteños. I can’t say I like its taste, but it does have an agreeable smell.

The Tupiza to Uyuni Jeep Tour

If you’re in Bolivia, you’re supposed to go to Uyuni to see the world’s largest salt flat. If you go to Uyuni, you’re supposed to do a 3 or 4-day tour in an SUV that not only goes across the flats but also through the region’s beautiful, high-altitude scenery. It’s just the way it is, and nearly every tourist succumbs to the pressure of spending a wad of cash on these jeep tours, yours truly included.

Jhon and his “jeep”, a Nissan Patrol.

Craig did the tour from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile seven years ago, so we were looking to do it a little differently this time around. We decided to go from Tupiza (just a couple of hours across the border from Argentina), which would take 4 days/3 nights instead of the 3 days/2 nights that most other tours consisted of. It cost a bit more (1,300 Bs, about $185 USD, plus 211 Bs, or $30 USD, in added fees), but we’re nearing the end of our trip here and the rest of Bolivia should be relatively cheap, so… why not?! Everybody else was doing it.

Day 1 – Getting to know you

We shared our jeep with the driver, Jhon (not a misspelling), the cook, Hilda, and a couple from Munich, Maria and Felix. We’d heard of some horror stories of terrible camaraderie on tours, which we were hoping to avoid. Being stuck in a small, confined space for hours at a time with people you don’t like hardly sounds fun, right? Luckily, Maria and Felix, as well as Jhon and Hilda, turned out to be great people, which was a huge blessing later on in the trip, as you will see.

Throughout the day, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the tour (booked through La Torre in Tupiza). Jhon spoke only Spanish (English-speaking guides cost extra, so we translated for the Germans), but was very informative and helpful. Hilda gave us delicious food, which we’ve heard is not always the case on these tours. Accommodation was basic (no showers, shared dorm rooms), but clean and comfortable.

The only downside to that first day was going from 2,975 m (9,760 ft) to 4,855 m (15,928 ft), our highest point of the day. Craig became decommissioned for a few hours as he struggled to regain his equanimity, despite chewing industriously on the local remedy around here, coca leaves. In fact, everybody was feeling a little out-of-sorts that night, since we were sleeping at 4,150 m (13,615 ft), and I liberally dispersed my supply of acetazolamide around to good effect. In case you’re not aware, the safe thing to do is to ascend at less than 400 m per day–we were doing more than triple that. Altitude sickness is like being really drunk (dizzy, not in control of your body, stupid) and hungover (nauseous, fatigued, headache-y) at the same time. It’s no fun and is surprising how deeply it can affect you. I’m constantly taken aback by how awful you can feel just from being a few thousand more feet in the air.

The Sillar, which is all eroded landscape. We think it’ll look like Bryce Canyon in a few millenia.

Bolivia means llamas! Lots and lots of llamas. Jhon said that families in the altiplano owned about 1,000 llamas each.

Laguna Morejón, our first high-altitude lake, with Volcan Uturuncu behind it. At 15,928 ft (higher than Mt. Rainier!), Craig was really feeling the altitude at this point, and didn’t even get out of the jeep.

Accommodation our first night, plus our jeep, all loaded up.

Day 2 – Onwards and upwards
We all felt immensely better the next day (thank goodness for modern medicine), and enjoyed our second day a lot. We saw many animals, including vicuñas, llamas (both from the camelid family, with long necks and an ability to survive desert conditions), chinchillas (which look like rabbits with long tails), flamingos, and an Andean fox (who came right up to the jeep and stared at us; Jhon said it had obviously been given food by previous jeeps, a VERY BAD practice which we, of course, did not continue, but we nonetheless enjoyed getting some close-up pictures of it). Seeing wildlife has got to be one of my favorite things about traveling. Even though I’ve probably seen about ten thousand llamas so far (not really “wildlife”, I suppose), it just doesn’t get old. Vicuñas, especially, are super cute and I just want to cuddle their funny bodies, which have fat, round trunks, but long, skinny necks and limbs.
Lodging that night was again quite basic, and VERY cold. Still, I wrapped up in the wool blankets and fell asleep quickly, not knowing that the longest night of my life was still ahead of me.

Laguna Kollpa and lots of flamingos. The white in the background is borax, which is harvested and shipped to Chile.

The Desierto de Dali, so named because of its melting clocks.

Vicuñas!

Andean fox!

Laguna Verde, which I remember being more green in person. The green is from certain minerals, including arsenic, that are continually mixed up by the wind. In fact, NASA tested the Mars Rover on Volcan Licancabur in the background due to its Martian-like qualities: low air pressure, high winds, extreme temperatures, rocky terrain.

Hot springs!

Geysers!

The part where most of the smoke was coming out made such a loud, hissing sound; as if a jet was taking off. It was fascinating to see all the bubbling pools of liquid or mud.

Laguna Colorado, made red by algae. Lots of flamingos here, too, but you can’t make them out from this vantage point.

Day 3 – The lost day
I woke up at about 1:00am with stomach cramps and stumbled to the bathroom. I’ve had food poisoning before, of course, but I’d never experienced anything like this. They call it traveler’s diarrhea, and despite ten months of traveling, I hadn’t had even a twinge. But I hadn’t reckoned with Bolivia. In the movies, travelers in India accidentally drink the water and then, several hours later, turn green, sweat buckets, and spend hours locked in the bathroom. Now I know those movies aren’t an exaggeration; if anything, they don’t even begin to depict the full misery. By the time Felix and Maria woke up, at about 6:30am, I was a hunched-over, shell of a person. I’d gone to the bathroom countless times, and felt emptied out from both ends, like a wet rag wrung completely dry. I’ve always been the one with the iron stomach, so my ordeal was especially foreign and vicious.
Craig was the epitome of perfect, sympathetic boyfriend and took very good care of me. He hardly slept all night as well, he was so concerned for my welfare. Jhon told us we only had two options: 1) continue with the tour as planned or 2) he could take us to Uyuni that night, after going through the usual third-day activites (it wouldn’t be fair to the Germans otherwise), and we would miss the salt flats part of the tour the next day, which is admittedly the highlight. It was obvious this second choice was not ideal, for anybody. I said, “Let’s see how I feel.”
This is where the sympathy and kindness of our fellow travelers really came to light. You could tell Jhon was worried about being able to make the drive to Uyuni and somehow get gas late at night, but he never pressured us either way. He stopped at a health clinic for me to get some drugs. The Germans were compassionate and told us they would go along with whatever we decided. Jhon even remarked that not all travelers would be as kind as they were; not taking too much time at viewpoints, insisting that I sit up front in the more comfortable seat (along with Craig), buying me a Coke since I was refusing to drink the rehydration salt formula, which tasted terrible. We really were fortunate in our fellow travelers, and I’m so thankful.

The first hour didn’t go so well–Jhon had to bring the jeep to a screeching halt for me to be sick out the door–but the rest of the day was comparatively better. I spent most of it in a fog in the jeep, sleeping or trying to calm my roiling stomach. Craig and the others agreed that the third day wasn’t the best day in terms of scenery, so at least whatever gut bacteria I’d contracted was considerate enough to flare up on the least exciting day.
We stayed at a “salt hotel” that night, which was made of bricks of salt, and had salt liberally sprinkled on the floors. They even had (unimpressive) chandeliers made out of salt. I could have cared less about all that, though, because they had HOT SHOWERS, and I nearly cried in relief. Having diarrhea all night just does that to you.

The Stone Tree, made of petrified lava foam.

Our dusty jeep. I’m in there somewhere, trying not to die.

Laguna Hedionda, where flamingos are more adapted to human presence and don’t fly off if you get close.

Day 4  – The Salt Flats!
We woke up at 4:30am the next day, in order to get out onto the salt flats for the sunrise. I felt like I’d been reborn; it was amazing what antibiotics, Tylenol, and Benadryl can do. For the first time in over 24 hours I felt hungry, and I cautiously ate some crackers as we sped across the flat expanse of the Salar.
The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, at about 12,500 km² (4,826 squared miles), and is at 3,650 m above sea level (11,975 ft). We were hoping that, by arriving in Bolivia in December, we’d catch part of the rainy season, when parts of the Salar are covered by a thin sheet of water, creating a beautiful mirror-effect. Alas, we didn’t get to see this, but it was still impressive and beautiful.
Of course, what everybody really wants to do on the Salar is take hilarious perspective pictures. It’s so white and flat that it gives the camera nothing to focus on but the subjects, despite differences in distance from the camera. It’s hard to explain, but not hard to show, so enjoy the last photos from our epic jeep tour!

View from Isla Incahuasi, a volcanic outcropping from the dried sea bed that became the Salar.

Sunrise kiss.

La salida del sol.

I’ve always wanted a pocket Craig.

Hahaha, classic!

I’m always on Craig’s mind.

Craig should also get a pocket Sheena.

 

With Felix and Maria.

Last Days in Argentina

We ended our six-week sojourn in Argentina with a few days in very small towns near the border with Bolivia. It was sad to leave our road-trip buddies, Johnny and Ellen, who could have been horrible company for four days in a small car, but ended up being totally awesome people. Whew! We heard of some road trip horror stories, so I’m glad we dodged a bullet there.

Craig wasn’t very enthusiastic about our fourth road-trip day, but I LOVED the cactus forest we passed through. You can’t really make it out in our pictures, but in the distance, there was a huge expanse of densely packed cacti. Yeah!!

Our next stop after resting for a day in Salta was Humahuaca, a very small town at 2,940 m (9,645 ft). Luckily, this time we had fewer problems with the altitude and Craig experienced only some mild headaches, while I was left with just a bit of fun constipation. Considering how sick we’ve felt at times on this trip due to altitude, I feel like we were let off pretty easy. Another bullet dodged.

Meadows surrounding the lookout for Sierras del Hornocal.

 

Humahuaca had a very Andean feel; they had llama empanadas and a much more indigenous population. Such a different experience than further south near Buenos Aires, where almost everybody looks European, but it still feels familiar for us since we’ve been through Andean Peru and Ecuador. Women in skirts and sweaters, men with ponchos and huge gaucho (cowboy) hats, snippets of Quechua… I can’t say I exactly missed this Andean feel (and I’d better get used to it now we’re in Bolivia), but it’s kind of nice to feel like you’re in familiar territory.

The highlight of of our time in Humahuaca was a trip out to the Sierras del Hornocal, a breathtaking rock formation about a 45 minutes’ drive from town. It can easily be done with a rental car, but since we didn’t have one at our disposal, we hired a truck to take us there. When it came, we were told we’d have to sit in the truck bed, since the cab would be full.

Me and my new hat. Oh and that spectacular rock formation in the background.

 

“Well, we get to pay less, right?” we asked indignantly. I have no problem with riding in the back of trucks anymore; nobody wears seat belts anyway and you just kind of hope everything will work out fine and you won’t end up squished on the side of a dirt road, but paying a lower price just makes sense. After sorting out the money issue (we saved about $4 USD by sitting in the back, woohoo!), we headed out. I can’t really describe the Hornocal–it was insanely beautiful–so just enjoy these pictures that Craig took. I wish we had left town about two hours before sunset so we could have gotten better light, but it was still worth all the trouble.

Sierras del Hornocal.

We then decided to head to the little town of Iruya, a rough three-hour drive over a 4,000 m (13,000 ft) pass called Abra del Cóndor, which had no condors, but was quite beautiful. Our guidebook describes it as “one of Argentina’s most amazing drives”, but… it was all right (maybe I’m jaded). Still, Iruya was a really cute town, despite none of its restaurants (none!!) opening for dinner until after 8pm. One of the joys of traveling that I won’t miss.

Abra del Cóndor. No condors.

One day, we took a hike to San Isidro, an even smaller town 8km away. We heard it’s the only indigenous community in Northern Argentina that allows visitors (information not verified), but to be honest, Iruya didn’t feel all that much different. Craig and I also don’t feel like the trek itself is worth it after a certain point. Once you’ve followed the river bed to the end of the canyon in which Iruya is situated, and then turn left for about another kilometer or two, the views become uninspiring and mundane after that. So I’d just say turn around there, or explore the other side of the canyon; San Isidro is a long, dusty haul and even if I hadn’t slipped on a rock and fallen into the river, I probably still wouldn’t recommend hiking the whole way out there!

Iruya. We stayed at Hostel Asunta, which was great and extremely cheap.

On the entire 16km hike, we had company in the form of Rolf, the stray dog (I named him). About 10 minutes into the trek, he found a dead, dried out carcass of something or other and proceeded to rub himself into it. So our dog-for-the-day then smelled awful for the rest of the trek, which was a considerably long time. Next time you entice a stray dog to follow you for seven hours, make sure he stays away from dead things.

Just a boy and his (smelly) dog, taking a lunchtime rest.

Hiking to San Isidro.

By the time we made it back to Iruya, Rolf looked pretty beat. We were impressed with his stamina; and with all the running around he did, I’m sure he traveled at least twice as much distance as we did. We rewarded his loyalty with some of our packed sandwiches, and he seemed happy enough.

Rolf waiting patiently with us while my boots dry out after a dunking in the river.

The border crossing into Bolivia was relatively uneventful, and I’m happy to say we crossed over with only about 37 Argentine peso ($3.70 USD), since the exchange rate is really terrible here. Nobody wants Argentine pesos, not even Argentines, and especially not any of its bordering countries.

So here we are… about to embark on a grand Bolivian adventure–the last country of our trip. Only six weeks left until we take a flight back to the U.S., where I will gorge myself on fake cheese and Ruffles. But there’s a lot to do in the meantime (including spending Christmas with a Bolivian family), so we’d better get to it!