Fun times ahead

We’re leaving today to cross the border into Bolivia, which is both exciting and a bit nerve-wracking at the same time. Bolivia is one of the least-developed countries in South America, and although it’s quite safe, things might not be as comfortable as Argentina. With that on my mind, I’ve been mentally comparing what Argentina has been like and what Bolivia might be like.

What I’ll miss about Argentina:
-Good cheese
-Good showers
-Eating salad, or any raw fruit/vegetable without worrying about traveler’s diarrhea
-Not having to bargain
-Grass-fed, free range beef
-Getting candy instead of change since nobody has $1 peso coins

What I won’t miss about Argentina:
-Disgustingly old peso bills that even most Argentines disdain, saying they wouldn’t even use them for toilet paper (and neither would I!)
-Long bus rides
-Having to exchange money on the blue dollar market (so stressful and time-consuming)
-The accent (they use a “sh” sound instead of “y” sounds; e.g. sho soy, esha es for yo soy, ella es
-Incredibly long siesta hours (I like everything to be open all the time)
-Late hours (wandering around at 7pm, starving, when no restaurant opens for another hour or more)
-Hard, dry pastries called tortillas, and white bread only for breakfast

What I’m not looking forward to in Bolivia (i.e. The Andes):
-Endless panpipe music (every song sounds exactly the same!!!)
-Being constantly at elevation (not a fan of headaches, shortness of breath, freezing cold nights, and constipation, surprisingly)
-Electric showers (I shiver in anticipation, and not in a good way)
-No toilet seats (yep, SEATS), soap, toilet paper, or a combination of all three, in bathrooms
-Wool blankets that make you feel like you’re suffocating under several of those lead vests they use in dentists’ offices
-Brushing teeth without tap water (so annoying after awhile)

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How to celebrate a six-year anniversary abroad

The best way to mark six years together, of which 9.5 months, or 13% of that time, have been spent in near constant company while traveling through South America, is something that must be carefully orchestrated and planned.

So first, the boyfriend must completely forget about said anniversary and book a hostel on his own without consulting you in Villa General Belgrano, a German-heritage town two hours south of Córdoba, Argentina.

Then when you board the minibus to VGB, you should make sure that it’s full of mosquitos. Especially if you’re allergic to them. I mean, what better way to spend two hours than to cower in fear under two jackets and develop and tend a nice little mosquito graveyard splattered on the window next to you? At least you’ll never be bored!

When you arrive in VGB and you realize the hostel is a 1km walk from the bus station, just keep remembering how awesome it is to be mosquito-free as you trudge over. Make sure you arrive at a time when the hostel is full of children. About a hundred kids, to be more specific, on a school field trip. More children can be fine, but not less. They should also be of that tween age where they have no redeeming cute qualities and are mostly just loud and annoying.

The hostel itself should be fairly disappointing. Since it was booked without deference to the momentous occasion that you’re still in a relationship, despite life upheavals of monumental proportions, it can just be a regular ol’ subpar hostel, except with the added detriment of being 1km away from town and full of aforementioned school kids. The boyfriend should feel fairly guilty at this point, and offer to switch hostels for the second night in VGB (which is your actual anniversary date anyway). This is a nice gesture and you should take him up on it.

That way, when you go out to the town (and it starts raining on you), you’ll be pretty happy with wherever you end up booking. Those first several agonizing hours are just to prime you for a truly great anniversary. Don’t worry, the only way to go from here is up!

Villa General Belgrano in the background.

So after you book a nice little boutique hostel that’s only moderately over your budget, and finally find a restaurant that’s open during siesta, you can just sit back and relax. The rest of your stay will be very memorable. This is because VGB is really a very picturesque town, reminiscent of Leavenworth, WA, except authentic in its German beginnings. The restaurants will have delicious food, such as goulash or bratwurst with amazing sauerkraut. They’ll also have artesenal beer that will make the boyfriend happy.

And it will be here that you’ll find the best alfajors you’ve ever had so far in Argentina. The cookie part will be melt-in-your-mouth soft, the filling will be delicious homemade jam, and the whole thing will be covered in a glaze. You’ll want to buy all the types of alfajors with different jam fillings they have, but alas, you’re on a budget and you can’t carry ten thousand cookies around with you anyway. Sadly.

To cap the extremely-better-than-the-day-before day, the boutique hotel’s owners will give you a small bottle of champagne to celebrate your anniversary, just to make things really magical with the first mimosa of the trip. Mm-mmm!

So don’t be too hard on the boyfriend at the start of your anniversary excursion. It’s not his fault that things began so poorly–and look how well they turned out! After all, if it’s going to be the first anniversary that you two will spend outside of Seattle and not at the restaurant where your first date was set, why not make it really interesting?

If we even did it…

Iguazu Falls is the fifth-widest waterfall in the world. It’s reported that when Eleanor Roosevelt saw Iguazu for the first time, she said, “Poor Niagara!” (Niagara is less than half the width of and one-third shorter than Iguazu.)

The falls are split between Argentina and Brasil, with about 80% of it being on the Argentine side. This means that in order to see most of it at once, the Brasilian side has the advantage, especially since right now in the Argentine park, the boardwalk across the Iguazu River to the edge of the largest portion of the falls, the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) is currently closed for renovations. Craig had been on the boardwalk seven years ago and was immensely disappointed by the closure–he told me the falls weren’t nearly as good without that particular vantage point–on the edge of the huge cataract, surrounded in mist, overlooking the rest of the Argentine side.

But we couldn’t just go spontaneously to the Brasilian side, as all those lucky E.U. passport holders could, since Americans need a $160 visa to visit Brasil and we had, out of consideration for cost and time, already decided not to visit Brasil during this trip. We complained about this to all and sundry until one of our hostel’s guests told us that they heard it was possible to visit Brasil for the day without a visa.

“Huh,” we thought. We looked for information on the internet, but it was surprisingly silent about this particular adventure. We weren’t sure what legal lines this crossed, but we were told “lots and lots of people do it!” (Canadians and Australians also need visas.)

We asked the other hostel guests. We asked the bus companies. Nobody could tell us anything helpful. Somebody had a story about an American on their bus crossing the border, who was found out and made to pay for the visa. What if we tried it and got arrested? What if we were able to cross into Brasil but couldn’t get out? If we were successful and then blogged about it, could we get in trouble? We became increasingly reluctant.

Finally we asked somebody who shall remain unnamed. He pulled out a piece of paper detailing every move and told us, “It’s easy! Don’t worry. I’ve told many people this and they’ve done it successfully.” His confidence was reassuring. And it did indeed sound easy.

So this is how you could maybe, possibly cross the border to Brasil without a visa for one day to see Iguazu Falls. And did we end up doing it? Oh, I don’t know… probably best to be… vague… about it…

There are many buses from the main terminal in Puerto Iguazu (the Argentine side) that cross the border. These buses supposedly fall into two camps and might be labeled accordingly: 1) Those that go straight to the National Park on the Brasilian side, and 2) Those that go to Foz do Iguaçu, the tourist town that serves the Falls on the Brasilian side.

The buses in the first camp are full of tourists. Our German hostel friends went across in these and could tell us with good authority that these buses stop at the border at both the Argentine and Brasil control offices so you can get stamped in and out. They’re apparently very strict about it, hence the American who was caught out and had to pay.

However, it’s quite possible that the buses in the second camp are almost completely filled with residents who are commuting across the border regularly. They rarely, in theory, have tourists on them. These buses stop at the Argentine control offices going out and coming in (like good little buses), but it could very well be that they blow by the Brasilian side completely. It’s likely they won’t even pause unless you ring the stop bell, at which point they’re supposed to pull over to let you out, after crossing the border. If you even want to get out, which of course, you wouldn’t if you didn’t have a visa, I mean.

Once the bus is across, it should turn left on a main thoroughfare, going in the opposite direction of the park, towards Foz do Iguaçu. At this point, an opportune thing to do might be to get off after a couple of stops, cross the street, and wait for the local public transport bus that will say “Parque Nac’l” or something like that (not like I know from personal experience). And that bus, so we’ve been told, is a regularly running bus from Foz do Iguaçu to the waterfalls and back.

These two buses, it’s been said, cost about $80 Argentine peso in total, and it’s quite possible that the second bus will even take peso, despite being a Brasilian public transport bus. So you don’t even need to have reales on you, because the National Park on the Brasilian side takes credit cards (that’s easily verifiable on the Internet, no need to have gone in person to be able to tell you that).

Then the rest should be easy because to get back is just to do everything in reverse. Perhaps the Argentine migration officers will look at you funny when they see your passport doesn’t have a Brasilian visa, but it’s not their job to stop you, after all. They just want to make sure you’ve paid their reciprocity fee, not some other country’s. I mean, hypothetically speaking. How should I know?

And so that’s the totally theoretical, not done in practice by anybody we know, way to get to see the Brasilian side of Iguazu Falls for one day without a visa. It sounds quite easy. Maybe it IS really easy! But we couldn’t tell you if it actually was. No, because we wouldn’t do something that reckless and possibly illegal… or would we?!

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

There will always be times, when traveling, that you will smack your forehead and think, “Argh, why did we do that?!” Our entire foray into Uruguay was a 4-day-long, giant smack on our foreheads.

It wasn’t necessarily Uruguay’s fault. The weather was fairly horrible the entire time we were there–gray, cold, windy, and rainy. Besides getting American dollars in Uruguay, the only other purpose for our visit was to enjoy the beaches on Uruguay’s Atlantic coast. Apparently, they can be quite pleasant when not freezing cold. But we only made it as far as Montevideo (which is still on the banks of the Rio Plata before it meets the ocean), when the 50 F degree weather nixed that idea.

 

Colonia del Sacramento – Our first day in Uruguay was our only day of good weather.

We spent our entire time in the country wondering what we should do. Should we stick it out and hope for better weather when we reached the coast? Should we just call it good and head back to Argentina? Which route should we take? There are so many choices and options when you have an open plan of travel that it can be overwhelming. Craig and I we’re pulling our hair out trying to decide. Saying, “It’s up to you,” or “Whatever you want,” is also supremely unhelpful in instances like this.

Montevideo – grey skies reflected.

Finally, we decided to just leave. The weather didn’t look like it was improving and Uruguay was, to our surprise, actually quite expensive anyway. We decided to take a six-hour bus to Salto, on the eastern border, and stay for a night. The next day, we’d visit the thermal baths in Salto, and then cross the border over to Concordia by ferry in the afternoon. From there, we’d take an overnight bus to Iguazu Falls.

In theory, it all sounded like a fine plan. But we didn’t anticipate certain things such as…

  • The cheapest hostel in Salto we could find was super expensive and really grotty–not worth the price at all, especially because it didn’t include a breakfast!
  • The ferry to Concordia wasn’t running because it was raining.
  • The buses to Concordia left too early or too late for us to both go to the thermal baths and still catch an overnight bus to Iguazu.
  • By the time we made it to Concordia, all the cama seats were taken, relegating us to semi-cama, which recline at an angle of only about 120 degrees (Cama goes from 140-160, usually. We have yet to experience the magic of 180).
  • Also at the time of our arrival in Concordia, everything was closing for siesta, so we starved for about an hour looking for a restaurant that was open.

So it seemed things weren’t going too well and we were wondering how we could have done any of it better. Then we met the Russian couple.

The Russian couple had stopped us in Salto and asked us how to get to Concordia that night, which we told them was impossible on a Sunday unless you took a taxi, which would be an exorbitant amount. They said they thought they’d try for the taxi anyway.

Mmm, bus food! But at least they gave us food–something we haven’t had since Peru.

We then met them again in the Concordia bus station the next day, waiting for the exact same bus as us. “What happened?” we asked. Apparently, the taxi was too expensive (could have seen that coming), and they decided to stay at a hotel in Salto and then take the earliest bus to Concordia at 7:30am. But since all the buses to Iguazu are night buses, they then spent the next 12 hours waiting around the really crappy bus terminal. Which is probably why they seemed so happy to see us. That, and because we spoke English, and they spoke no Spanish.

They then regaled is with the story of their travails in South America so far and suddenly, Craig and I started feeling much better about ourselves.

The Russians flew into Asuncion, Paraguay first. Their rolling luggage case then broke because they wandered about seven kilometers trying to find their hostel. They ended up buying one of those old lady shopping cart things to replace it.

Then they went to Mar de Plata, south of Buenos Aires. We’re not sure if they flew or buses, but either way it would have been at least a 24 hour bus ride, or a very expensive ticket. From there, they went to Montevideo by way of BsAs. And that’s were we met them, on their way back up half of Argentina to get to Iguazu.

So in just several days, they managed to zig zag across a fairly large country to almost the exact same spot that they started in! They also told us they’d be going back to BsAs so the immense distance they were backtracking just grew even more immense! They had received really crappy exchange rates for their euros (we got 14.2 pesos per dollar, they got 10 pesos per euro), and had failed to take out US dollars in Uruguay, due to some banking restrictions or something.

When we arrived at Puerto Iguazu (I slept fairly okay despite the reclining angle, but whenever I woke up, the Russians seemed to be awake still… sleeping on a bus is a learned art), we told them about our hostel, its prices (which we thought were very reasonable), and that they were welcome to come check it out with us. They declined, citing reasons of wanting to find a private en suite room that was also cheap. Hah! Isn’t that every backpacker’s dream? And not likely in such a touristy place, but who were we to criticize?

It began raining in earnest shortly after we arrived at our own hostel, so we just hoped the Russians had found something quickly. We also hoped we’d meet up with them again at the Falls, just to see what happened.

Our wish came true as we were leaving the park the next day–the Russians were in line to buy their entrance tickets.

“How are you guys?” we asked.

The answer was not so good. Their old lady shopping cart had fallen apart as they were searching for hostels, so they had to just go to the nearest one which turned out to be awful. Cockroaches and giant tarantulas “as big as a mouse, and hairy” were crawling around their room. They were afraid to turn off the lights when they went to bed in case they were eaten alive. Basically my worst nightmare. Even our worst hostel experience doesn’t even come close to that.

They also failed to ascertain the price of the park entrance and hadn’t brought enough pesos. “Should we even go? Is it worth it?” they asked us.

Craig and I just gaped at them. They came ALL the way back up north just to see these falls, and now they were thinking of backing out of the whole thing because of a little matter of the entrance fee costing a bit more than they thought? “YES!” we said. Those crazy kids. I just hope one of them didn’t accidentally fall off a railing or something… I wouldn’t be surprised.

So, yes, there are times when I want to smack my forehead, Uruguay being one of them. But if I had been having an exhausting, pest-filled, no Spanish speaking few weeks like they had had, you can bet I’d be doing more than smacking my forehead. I’d probably be on my way home post haste! It’s great that they’re trying… it’s really commendable. But a little research and care could make their trip so much better. Craig wanted to take them under his wing and tell them all his traveling knowledge, but they didn’t seem too keen on the advice we had given them up to that point, we weren’t sure how receptive they’d be.

But now we can always say to ourselves in times of trouble, “At least we’re not as bad off as the Russians!”

It’s Iguazu Falls and a disappearing Craig! Oh, Google+, you’re so crazy.

Public Service Announcement

Dear South America:

It would be really great if you could stop guessing where I’m from. I know that there must be lots of Japanese and Korean travelers down here, but I’m not one of them. I’m actually from the United States, born and bred. I know, it’s totally crazy, but believe me when I say there’s quite a lot of us Asian-Americans, actually. So please stop making me wait for you to correctly guess what really should be a no-brainer–I mean, Chinese people outnumber all other Asians by quite a lot. Just ask. I’ll tell you exactly what you want to know.

And I know it’s also hard to believe, but yes, my name really is Sheena. My parents did not, in fact, name me that because my heritage is Chinese. I know you don’t pronounce the “sh” sound in Spanish and it sounds like “China” to you. It’s really just a coincidence that my name sounds exactly like what you would call a Chinese person. A very unfortunate coincidence, in my opinion.

You see, long ago, when I was just a gleam in my mother’s eye, she really loved a Scottish singer named Sheena Easton. You might even have heard one of her songs, “Morning Train”. It was quite popular back in the day. So the name is Scottish. Not some strange nickname I’ve given myself because of my ethnicity.

There’s just one more favor I’d like to ask: Would it be possible for you to stop staring at me? I know I must look different from the norm, but it really makes me very uncomfortable. I mean, I don’t stare at you and make whispered comments about your race, do I? No, I don’t, because that’s rude. It’s been nine months and you’d think I’d have gotten used to it by now, but honestly, it seems to annoy me even more than ever these days.

Thanks for listening, and I hope to move forward from now on in a manner that will make everyone happy. If you can just help me out with these three little things, then I think it’s quite possible!

So here’s to the next three months where I tell everybody my name is Gina and that I’m Chinese-American before they can even think to ask!

This is the Milonga

Since we’ve been in Buenos Aires, we’ve gone to two milongas, which are informal gatherings for people to dance the tango. They usually have a cover of about $5-10, and are set up with tables surrounding a dance floor. Beer and wine are readily available, and many people go just to watch. But of course, the main reason for milongas is to DANCE! The tables are lined with ladies, young and old, sitting in a position that is meant to broadcast availability, but not desperation. The men walk the room, looking for prospective partners. A tilt of the head and a gesture are enough to convey an invitation; milongas aren’t for conversation, after all.

Our first foray into the tango was at a local theater/dance hall just a few blocks away from our hostel. They had a beginner’s lesson, but we decided to just watch and see if we wanted to pay the extra money. I’ve always loved watching the Argentine Tango on my favorite show, So You Think You Can Dance, but would I love dancing it?

It seemed very complicated, with a lot of leg flicks and rond de jambes and I couldn’t understand how the female partner was supposed to anticipate the male’s movements. At least it was slow and not a fast, intimidating dance like the salsa, though.

“I don’t know,” I said to Craig, who was diffident to the whole venture. “Maybe we should just skip it.” Perhaps it was enough to just watch… no chance of being made to look like a fool in front of a crowd of people.

But when our Irish friends, Seamus and Claire, decided they wanted to go to a milonga later in the week and invited us along, I was feeling more confident. It was just a matter of following your partner’s lead, right? And when would I ever get a chance to dance the tango in Buenos Aires ever again?

So when an Argentine man asked if I wanted to dance and seemed okay with the fact that I had never danced before, I thought, “This is it!” And it was surprisingly easy, really. The tango is danced with very little space between the partners. Not amazingly comfortable in a hot, sweaty dance hall, but it’s much easier to follow a lead when you have so many signals–the man’s hand on your back, the push and pull of his body. And despite a reputation for being a sexy kind of a dance, it really didn’t feel sexy at all. Even those dancers that were really good; you didn’t feel as if they were broadcasting sex appeal–it was just all about the steps, and the music.

Tango music is just as popular as tango dancing. There are usually live bands at milongas for at least a portion of the night. They didn’t take the stage until 1:30am, but that’s when things start getting really heated up anyway. Porteños keep very late hours. It’s great to see a six-piece band on strings and accordion playing their sad melodies into the smoky darkness. Tango wouldn’t be the same without it.

Craig’s cousin once moved to Buenos Aires and lived here for a couple of years just to pursue his passion for the tango. Where else would you go, after all? You can find at least 20 milongas every night and lessons aren’t expensive. Even a professional tango show isn’t completely out of the picture every few months–only about US$50. And there’s nowhere else that you can live and breathe the tango like you can here.

The most incredible part of its pervasiveness, is that the tango crosses all boundaries in this culture. At both milongas, there were dancers ranging in age from early 20s to 60s. Some people were just wearing jeans and sneakers, others in fancier dresses and high-heels. One guy was sporting a mohawk, tank top, wallet chain, and Converse. It’s fascinating because there isn’t any activity in the States that has this kind of broad appeal. Young and old, alternative and classical, rich and poor… they all interact through the tango and it’s a wonderful thing.

Buenos Aires – To Ease the Homesickness

Buenos Aires is often called the “Paris of South America”, and after being here for a little more than a week, I can say that is has felt more like “home” than any other city we’ve been in since we started this trip. We just bought our return tickets back to the States, and so I’ve been looking at our BA stop as a kind of travel-reprieve before we get on with things and head through Uruguay, Northern Argentina, and Bolivia before finally returning home in January.

A beautiful city, with colonial architecture in more buildings than you’d think. Buenos Aires is one of the first large cities in South America we’ve visited that hasn’t at some point been completely destroyed by an earthquake.

Our hostel is a quiet place in the Boedo neighborhood–just two block from two subway lines, which makes it incredibly easy to get around the city. There are, of course, exotic things about BA–their strange Spanish accent (they use an “sh” sound for a “y” sound–for the word yo, they pronounce it sho), dancing the tango, drinking maté… but I think I like BA because it reminds me of home so much.

Divide by 8.5. Wine for days.

Here, I’ve been able to take a ballet class, which strikes me as something akin to going to Mass–it’s always the same, no matter where in the world you are. This is lucky, since the retired ballet teacher in her 60s didn’t speak any English. But ballet moves are always in French–the universal language for classical dance–and the only trouble I had was with trying to get my muscles to do things they haven’t done in months.

We’ve found dim sum in the Barrio Chino, as well as some much-missed Asian foods. There’s McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway. Good wine is readily available. I found an area in Barrio Villa Crespo that had lots of yarn shops, so I decided to indulge there as well. In fact, our whole stay in BA has really been about indulging… we’ve only three more months of traveling and tempers have been starting to fray. It would be great to recharge our batteries on good food and home comforts before we go off again.

Siu mai, loh bac go, and xiao long bao with some chrysanthemum tea to wash it all down.

So we’ll spend a lot of money on seeing a professional tango show, we’ll eat at a nice Italian restaurant, and we’ll drink wine and cider. I keep thinking to myself, “What would I do if I went back to Seattle for a week?” And it’s been surprisingly easy to do all of it.