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.

Bolivia’s Magic Word & other linguistic oddities

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In Bolivia, when you are at a market – buying produce for example – there’s a magic word you must use. After asking the price of all your goods, and paying the nice lady (or man), simply ask, “con yapa?” The shopkeeper will usually nod, look around for something smallish, and hand you two small plums or some hot peppers for free! When we first used it, it definitely felt magical; we had somehow trapped this lady and she had to give us something extra! Like a monster that will only let travelers pass when the correct phrase is uttered… I mean, sort of like that.

We originally thought that yapa must be some indigenous language word that has filtered into modern Bolivian society, but not so! Similar to the idea behind BOGO (buy one get one), yapa is short for lleva 3, paga 2 (take 3, pay for 2). I don’t know if I’m disappointed that it’s origins aren’t so old or not, but I love it nonetheless. The term con yapa comes from the Quechua word yapay which means “to increase” or “to add.” It’s lovely to learn that something so quirky like this has been maintained through modern times. I’ve even learned that there is a version of this known as lagniappe which is used in New Orleans, having arrived via Spanish creoles.

Our recent foray into the heart of camba country (the Bolivian Orient) led to the discovery of many great modismos, or slang words, typical of that region. First, a quick lesson: Spanish speakers love to use diminutives, applying an -ito suffix to make the word smaller. No joke, we once heard a vendor on a bus say something like, “un agüita, bien heladito, para una monedita, señor amiguito” or roughly “a small water, very cold (but somehow small), for a small coin, Mr. Little Friend.” It doesn’t really make any sense, but it’s a way to diminish your request to something less serious.

In Santa Cruz they use the suffix -ingo instead. This adds a sort of flair to their Spanish. Combine this with not pronouncing the “s” at the ends of words, and dropping the second “d” when they end in “dado” and you’ve got a recipe for confusion. So, the next time you’re in the Bolivian Orient, and someone asks you how you’re feeling, answer them with this little number, “Pue, me siento chalingo! Y vos? Sentís bien pelao?”* Oh yeah, they use the Vos form instead of Tú, just like those crazy gauchos down south.

*chalingo is slang for really clean, like a windshield of a car; pelado literally means bare, but is used to call a person who doesn’t have facial hair, or could be going bald.

A South America traveler’s guide to cooking

Before we left on this trip, Sheena and I both got pretty interested in cooking. For me, it was initially sparked by reading Cooked by Michael Pollan, and then following that up with Sheena’s suggestion of The Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn. Both of these books highlighted the importance of avoiding preservative-laden prepared items in the grocery store, and choosing to cook from scratch, a process that was convincingly demonstrated to be not that difficult. We were roasting whole chickens, nailing the soffritto for our soups, and baking bread in the weeks leading up to our departure.

Gyozas

The idea was that this new found knowledge of cooking would help us greatly during our trip; not only to save money by cooking in our hostel, but by giving us some variation from the standard South American cuisine that we would inevitably tire of. Predictably, we found it a lot harder than we imagined.

The biggest obstacle to cooking while traveling is the kitchen. Hostel kitchen quality varies greatly. You’re lucky if there’s an oven that works, pots that have lids/handles and non-stick coating intact, and standard cooking utensils (i.e. can opener, whisk). Not surprisingly, some of our favorite hostels have had great kitchens.

Ham and Corn Chowder

The second challenge is figuring out what you can actually cook, after assessing the grocery stores and kitchen condition. We spent a lot of time coming up with fool-proof recipes – things that we could count on being able to cook in just about any country, and most every hostel kitchen. A lot of those recipes came from fellow travelers. As early as Patagonia, we were learning from some Utah raft guides how to throw together a killer stew with very basic ingredients and backpacking leftovers. From our Swedish friends we learned how to make Béchamel sauce, and a trained professional chef even explained how to make homemade gnocchi (surprisingly easy). Taco seasoning, it turns out, is essentially cumin and paprika.

We travel with a little tuperware full of spices we use often. Some of these are available everywhere, but not everything (instant yeast was particularly hard to find), so we have found it essential to always keep the spice rack full. Here is our complete list: cumin (comino), paprika, oregano, black pepper (pimienta negra), salt (sal), bay leaves (hojas de laurel), chili powder (aji), garlic powder (polvo de ajo), nutmeg (nuez moscada), cinnamon (canela), thyme (tomillo), garlic cloves (ajo), instant yeast (levadura), chicken stock (caldo de gallina) and baking soda (bicarbonato de sodio). Additionally, we’ll usually have ginger (jengibre) and flour (harina de trigo) nearby.

We still eat out several times a week, but it makes us glad that we have options, and we aren’t forced to settle for lomo saltado or fried chicken again… Below is our complete list of meals that we make while traveling.

Side Dishes or Small Plates

  • Potato Salad
  • Fried Potatoes and Veggies
  • Meat & Cheese Platter (picadas) – probably only want to do this one in Argentina, as the cheese isn’t nearly as exciting elsewhere
  • Green Salad

Cheap and Easy Dinners

  • Chicken noodle/rice and veggie soup
  • Ham and Corn Chowder
  • Soy Sauce Chicken (or sometimes called Chicken Adobo) – soy sauce is available everywhere
  • Veggie Stir-Fry – use beef when in Argentina because the quality is amazing; otherwise, chicken is available everywhere, although you might have to spend a long time cutting it off the bone yourself!
  • Pasta with Béchamel or Red Sauce
  • Tacos – imported Mexican tortillas are available almost everywhere, which was surprising
  • Fried Rice

More Advanced Options

  • Lasagna – ricotta cheese isn’t available, but Béchamel sauce is a great substitute (and an Italian told us that’s what they use in her part of the country anyway)
  • Braised Chicken and Veggies
  • Pizza or Calzones – pizza dough is simple, our recipe came from What to Cook and How to Cook It by Jane Hornby
  • Gyozas, also known as Potstickers – the pre-made wrappers can be found in Peru and Ecuador, or you can make your own
  • Curry – maybe best to have an Englishman, Indian, Bangladeshi or Pakistani around to try this one (the spices can be hard to find as well)
  • Homemade Gnocchi

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?!

How to Bargain – A Beginner’s Guide

We were on Lavalle Street in Buenos Aires, chatting with a money-changer. I say, “we’ve got $500 in $100 dollar bills, what kind of exchange rate can you give us?” He responds that $1 USD: 14.10 Peso is the best he can do. Sheena counters by saying that we had a better offer further down the street. What was the offer, he asks. And at the same time, Sheena says “14.50” (not true), and I say “14.20” (totally true) – completely torpedoing our leverage.

I’m terrible at bargaining. I’m not sure what it is, but I suspect mostly a lack of practice. It just wasn’t something culturally present when I was growing up, and I fear it will probably never be instinctual. Sheena, on the other hand, is great, but not always willing to play the game. I mean, there’s only so much haggling you can do down here before you feel like you’re taking advantage of your stronger currency more than is warranted. In short, we are far from the perfect team.

The first time we really had to confront bargaining was in the Galapagos. We had arrived a week before high season started and we were positioned to get some deals on day tours and inter-island ferries. Puerto Ayora was short on tourists and high on tour companies. We even lucked out and had a great coach in our hostel – Seamus from Ireland. His most valuable advice was to make a plan, and slowly reveal your cards; don’t give away all of your leverage in the first round. This turned out to be pretty solid, and most likely obvious, advice.

We would go around to the tour offices and I would enter alone, asking for the price of one tour. Then we would surprise them with the fact that we wanted two, and should therefore be entitled to a discount. We were successful in getting $5-10 discounts off the official price using this method. But if one surprise is good, three would be even better, right? With inter-island ferries we actually needed 6 passages. Bargaining down the individual price with the buying power of 6 allowed us to save $30. But it took time. Back and forth for 10 minutes, and agreeing to go on certain days, before they buckled. I wouldn’t say I was giddy, but it was nice to have secured the same price that Seamus was able to get the day before.

Knowing what kinds of things are on the table for bargaining is also super important. When we arrived in Ecuador, we really hadn’t ever considered bargaining down the price of a hostel room. A Frenchman staying at our hostel proudly shared with us the (much lower) price he was paying for equal accommodation. Asking if you can have the room for less than the quoted price seemed impossible to us at the time. But if you see that the hostel is not full, and you have paid no deposit, it certainly does no harm to ask.

Helpfully, the same Frenchmen mentioned that in Colombia you could bargain for just about everything, including buses. Armed with this information, we entered bus terminals confidently, calmly going from one desk to the next, playing the prices quoted off of each other. I suppose it helped that Colombia seemed to have buses with empty seats, going to any desired destination, at just about every hour of the day. They had no leverage.

So, for you novices out there, here are my official tips and tricks: 1) Always make a plan by figuring out where your leverage lies. 2) Ask around, and never assume the price is fixed. 3) Have fun with it – people tend to respond positively when you are joking around, or display a good attitude. And as a last resort, try to lower the price one more time by saying, “not even for your [insert nationality here] friend?”

Wayfinding in South America

Part of the trouble with traveling is that you find yourself in a completely unfamiliar city every 3 or 4 days, and you have to figure things out all over again. To make it even harder, South American cities tend to use a lot of the same street names, but each city puts them in a new order. Did Rivadavia come before or after Bolívar here? Step one is always to ask for a map.

More than likely, you will find occasion to ask directions on the street. At first, you think you’ve had the greatest luck, the very first person you ask knows what your talking about! But after following their directions, you realize that they lied. People here just want to be nice. I can count on one hand the number of people who have responded “I don’t know” when asked for directions. Whether they know what your talking about or not, chances are you will receive a confusingly vague response. Your destination will lie a la vuelta, which could be translated to roughly “around the block.” Around the block literally, or around the block and then five more blocks?! It’s hard to tell.

So what do you do it you’re lost on the street and you can’t trust the directions you’re receiving? A tour guide in Medellín told us that his mom had a saying, “Ask, and you will arrive in Rome.” Meaning, keep asking, and you’ll eventually get there. I like to ask, on average, about once a block. If the directions remain pretty consistent for a few blocks, I might back off, but if their all over the place… well, you can always increase the number.

Another trick is to just pull out that map, and within about 25 seconds someone will have stopped to ask you what you’re looking for. You might say, won’t that make you stick out like a tourist? It could, but in 95% of the places you’re likely to visit, everyone already knows you aren’t from there.. And truly, there are more good people out there than bad. Good luck!