What were the best (most useful) things we brought

Sheena and I spent a lot of time thinking about what to bring on this trip. Maybe we should have spent a little less, since some of the last minute, least thought-out purchases ended up being the most useful. Here are a few that almost everyday we’re glad we brought along.

  • Camelbak All-Clear UV Water Filter – Thanks Mom and Dad! Best Christmas gift ever! This thing is amazing. It costs about $100, but we think we would have spent about three-times that in bottled water throughout Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador (parts of Colombia too) without it. We’ve never been sick from drinking the filtered water from the tap, and it’s super easy to use. The advantage over other systems (like Steripen) is that you screw the UV-cap directly onto the bottle and agitate. No spillage – no hassles.
  • Tokina 12-24mm, F/4 Wide Angle Lens – I bought this one week before we left, when a photographer friend stared at me, mouth open, after I told him what equipment I was going to bring. For our first month in Patagonia alone, the purchase was worth it. The Tokina works flawlessly with my Canon SLR body, and I saved about $100. Highly recommended!

Wide angle shot of the reservoir surrounding Guatape, Colombia

  • AYL Portable Speaker – It’s small and easy to use. The charge lasts a long time, then easily charges back up with USB. The sound quality is great and always surprising how loud it can get considering it’s size. We use this for music and watching movies on the laptop.
  • Charles Schwab Investment Checking Debit Card – Sheena did all the research, while I got on this one at the last possible minute (seriously, I shipped this overnight to California days before we left). This is the one card that we found which has no Currency Conversion Fees, and refunds all ATM fees. We’ve saved more than $400 by using this card. Many banks down here only let you take out $100 at a time, and will charge you up to 5%. Then your own bank might charge you the same! We are so happy we have had this card with us. It’s a bit of a hassle to set up, so do it more than a week before you leave..

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.

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?!

Secrets of the Air Kiss

Here in South America, people air kiss. It’s that very European cheek kiss thing that you see in movies and wonder who on earth actually does that. Since nobody does it in the States, it took me a few months to get used to it. In fact, I’m still not really comfortable with it…

These are the rules:

  1. Always go for the right cheek.
  2. You don’t actually kiss their cheek, you kind of just kiss the air right in front of their ear. But you do rest your cheek against theirs.
  3. Kiss hello AND goodbye.
  4. If you’re female, kiss both women and men. If you’re male, you only kiss women (unless you’re in Argentina, where the men kiss each other as well).
  5. One kiss ONLY.

The number of kisses depends on where you are and where you’re from, though. Once, I was saying goodbye to a Frenchman we met on a trek, and after the first kiss, which I was feeling quite smug about since I managed not to be too awkward about it, he went for the other cheek and a second kiss! “Whoa, whoa!” I exclaimed. “TWO kisses?!”

(That’s how you make the air kiss awkward, by the way.)

I still feel like a bit of a fake when I do it… like I’m just playing at being very cosmopolitan and that I know what I’m doing. But I do enjoy it… probably for that same reason. I think it’s that same feeling that children get when they’re pretending to be grown-ups.

But don’t worry. I won’t come back to the States and try to implement the air kiss there. It might not seem like it, but I really do try to avoid awkward situations as much as possible. And an American doing an air kiss in America? AWKWARD!