December 20, 2005

South America Wrap Up

It´s been 3 months on the road in South America, and I´ve had wonderful experiences too numerous for me to devote a blog post to each. Jonathan and I had the idea to do some Top 5 lists as a way to remember each continent. So here goes…

Most surprising
1. I am doing well and enjoying the prolonged travel on the road!
2. The very clear correlation of skin color and social class.
3. Lack of vegetables to go with all that great meat.
4. How hard it is to do basic things in a foreign language.
5. What little sense I got of Chile as a culture and a country. It felt curiously bland, and very much like the US. What I have can be summed up by lemons and salsa presented at every meal, a love of hot dogs and avocados, and elaborate napkin arrangements.

Things I miss about home
1. Family and friends. Although Jonathan is probably the only person on earth I can actually spend 24/7 with, I miss everyone else too.
2. Variety of fruits and vegetables.
3. Not having to constantly think about water and its cleanliness.
4. Scientific news and intellectual stimulation.
5. Cooking.

Best Restaurant Meals
1. Kaipu – Ushuaia, Argentina. Awarded the best restaurant in Argentina, this amazing restaurant was where we celebrated our 6th anniversary, over a tasting menu featuring centolla (king crab). Most surprising of all, it was located in Ushuaia, the “end of the world”
2. La Barra - Medoza, Argentina. Amaaaaazzing bife de chorizo.
3. La Caballeriza – Buenos Aires, Argentina. Really great parrilla.
4. Izakaya Yoko - Santiago, Chile. I was desperate for ethnic food and rice, and it really hit the spot.
5. Cluny - Buenos Aires, Argentina. Hip, trendy with great service and food. A fantastic cold salmon and avocado starter.

Observations I want to remember
1. Lingering over meals. I found out that I eat incredibly fast, without really noticing. Argentines really draw out their meals, and a waiter will never bring a check without you first asking. I have even slowed down at breakfast. A basket of little rounds (1-2 inch diameter) of toast comes with jam and butter. I have to butter each round, eat it, then take another and repeat, which takes more time to eat. Instead of buttering it up all at once and chowing down like a bagel, it has slowed me down considerably and I find I enjoy the meal more and feel more satisfied in the end.

2. Focus of life doesn´t have to be work.

3. Constant learning – new words, places, geographies, cultures.

4. Learning just to be (in a very zen sense). For the first time in my life I am not working towards a goal (getting into college, getting a PhD, getting a job).

5. Walking as a primary source of transport.

City Girl at heart -loving Buenos Aires

After 2 months of hard travel, being in Buenos Aires was heavenly. While I love being in touch with nature, and I can stay in a small town for a day or two, I like my streetlights, wide paved avenues, and the anonymous bustle of people.

We rented an apartment for two weeks – a one bedroom (separate room for sleeping!), a kitchen (I got to cook!), a washing machine, cable TV and an internet connection, and I was in heaven. After worrying about whether we would have enough hot water for showers, and having to leave our room door open to get heat in Ushuaia, this was blissful. No having to find an internet cafe, eat out every meal, find laundromats, or share a communal TV.

Buenos Aires (BA) is a huge, cosmopolitan city of 18 million. It has the bustle and rhythm of NY (along with the fleets of taxis) but is less menacing, somehow. The guide book describes Portenos (residents of BA) as “Italians who speak Spanish and think they’re European”. And, they are very fashion conscious. I watched thousands of women in my two weeks there, and not a single one was badly dressed. Everyone had coordinated shoes, purses, and jewelery.

Having nothing but my backpacker clothes and Tevas, I felt like I really stuck out (add to it that I’m Chinese, and it’s very noticeable). Shopping was spectacular.

Some of you who know me might be scratching their heads at this moment about that last sentiment. But every single clothing and shoe store (and there are many) has virtually all their merchandise in the window, with their prices clearly displayed. This means minimal interaction with sales staff unless I see something I like. (Yes, my introvertedness kicks in.) And, Argentine women are naturally small, so no having to find petite sections for boring clothes.

Having bought some more stylish clothing, we took in a tango show. The Tango is the famous dance of Argentina, and the dancers are sensual and skilled, executing amazing twists and intricate movements in tandem. What was a great surprise was that singing was a large part of the show. In fact, the tango shows were advertised by who was singing, rather than who was dancing. Also, the accordian is of central importance. We in the US seem to laugh off the accordian as not a ‘real’ instrument, but in the hands of a skilled player, it was truly expressive and took on a life of its own.

The food was also great, though a bit monotonous. There are wonderful cafes on virtually every street corner, serving excellent coffee and a bewildering and tempting selection of pastries. With the large Italian immigration in the 18th century, there are an enormous number of pizza and pasta places, topped only by the number of places serving empanadas and beef.

I had been looking forward to Buenos Aires as a place to savor ethnic foods before heading off to Africa. What we found sadly were only a handful of Thai, Indian, middle eastern places. Surprisingly, these meals were relatively expensive, costing about what they would in the US (thus extremely pricey by Argentine standards). Ethnic food is considered ‘exotic’, and not the cheap, plentiful, good standbys that I take for granted in the US.

I found the tiny (one street) Chinatown on the outskirts of town. We had a pretty decent meal there, though no one spoke cantonese. The most recent and most prosperous wave of Chinese immigration seems to have come from Shanghai and Taiwan.

With city life and an apartment came some semblance of our life from home. We were pretty bad tourists in BA, even though we saw a lot. We relished in being able to rent movies, cook at home, and not having to pack every few days. Jonathan got to play poker online, and I got to go to class (Spanish lessons). Although we had saved a lot of annoying errands for BA, it was nice to know that we could find those things easily.

We found out from our realtor that our modern one bedroom apartment in one of the ritziest neighborhoods in town, with parking and doorman, would cost about $75,000. Wow…we were almost ready to move in…

Meat, meat and more meat

I am enjoying the amazing Argentine beef and barbeque (parrillas). They really know how to prepare beef, and it really does taste better than American beef – supposedly due to natural grass diets and less antibiotics.

The Cordero Patagonico (Patagonian lamb) was excent as well. Whole lambs are butterflied, arranged on a wire frame, and cooked over an open fire. Juicy, sweet and tender…yum.

As expected, there are many cuts of beef , as well as a huge variety of glands, organs and unidentifiable parts. Jonathan and I ordered a Mixed Grill for two, and the first plate came with blood sausage, intestines and several other items I couldn´t even identify. We took one small bite, and then it sat. Our waiter came by to whisk it away, not even batting an eye at the virtually untouched platter. I hate to be a typical tourist, but I couldn´t do it. Internal organs really don´t appeal to me at all.

Pork, and to a lesser extent chicken, are also popular. I also tried goat for the first time, which tastes like a cross between chicken and pork.

The “vegetable” platter included potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, and another starch. Not a single green thing there. To say vegetables are not big in the diet would be a massive understatement. I can feel that I will go into meat overdose very soon…

Penguins at the End of the World

At 54 degrees south latitude, Ushuaia, Argentina is touted as the most southern city in the world. This is impossible to forget because Ushuaia has the best PR and signage for a city I´ve ever seen.

It is a popular destination for those embarking on Antarctic cruises (it takes 3 days to sail there). Otherwise, it is sort of a bleak, shipping port with not a lot to do. And freezing – though I should add I was recovering from a cold at the time.

The best part was we got to visit a penguin colony in the wild, and walk on the island where they breed (only 45 people a day are allowed, most tourists sail by on catamarans). There are just thousands of Magellanic penguins standing there, and completely unafraid of humans. Just chilling out. Completely ignoring us. It made me feel insignificant somehow.

We were warned by the tour guide that we couldn´t make any noise because “the biologists” would get mad. Those scary biologists… :)

Into the nothingness of Patagonia

If someone had told me that I would be excited to hop on a bus to go over 1500 miles of gravel and dirt road in South America, I would have told them they were insane.

But of course, I actually was very excited to take a bus down the famous Ruta 40, to experience what Patagonia really was like, instead of flying over it.

Patagonia is an enormous region that encompasses pretty much the entire southern half of Chile and Argentina, and unlike the images that I had of soaring mountains and spectacular wildilife, was mostly flat and empty. The Andes gave way to shorter rolling hills, dry and shrubby patches of grass, some sheep, and not a single thing else.

The tour which would take us did not start off well. To make a long and annoying story short, the bus was delayed 8 hours, leaving at 3 pm instead of 6:30 am. Forty minutes after we started, I made the bus stop on the side of the highway, and ran off with a roll of tissue paper to a convenient bush. (Travel tip…do not eat meat stews that may have been sitting around for a while). But that aside, the ride was uneventful.

The most remarkable thing about Patagonia was the sky….I have never seen so much of it. It wasn´t blocked by anything, not a building, not a mountain, not electricity lines, not even disturbed by other cars. The cloud formations were so strange…given the high winds, they took shapes like paint smeared on a palette, thin and stretched, rather than white and fluffy. Because we were going far south, it didn´t get dark until midnight, sustaining a sort of twilight glow for hours after the sun went down.

My overwhelming impression of Patagonia was that of wind and of isolation. It felt lonely as no place I´ve been yet has. I could not imagine living there, and indeed, Argentina had to entice people to move there by giving huge parcels of land to anyone who would go. There were towns every 300 miles or so, each with populations under 2500. There are definetly more sheep than people. We dined on whatever food they had in the gas stations (ham and cheese sandwiches, empanadas), and shared dorm rooms with our friends Barbara and Ronald in hotels so crappy I don’t even want to relive by writing about it. We made our way further and further south until we reached El Calafate 72 hours later.

With little sleep and terrible lodgings, it was a real pleasure to be off the bus. Though I admit that bus travel was not as bad as it sounds…even though in the US I would never elect to take a bus for more than 4 hours (Boston to NY). I got to read, do some spanish lessons, and listen to music while watching the unchanging terrain whiz by. It was the free time that I never could find while at home. Wish I had my photos to organize into photo albums…

December 16, 2005

A course in masichism- Mountain biking 101

I am sure that all the bike genes in the family went to my brother Chi :) .

My first attempt at Mountain biking in Los Arrayanes National Park nearly did me in. I fell off my bike 3 times, got scratced and bruised, and was completely exhausted at the end of the 12 km trail. It was so rough I hung around for 2 hours to take the ferry out instead of having to brave the trail all over again. It was a HARD trail, ridiculously narrow and steep, with sheer dropoffs and all the while having to dodge enormous tree roots and cows. I´m sure it was beautiful, but I was too busy trying to stay on my bike and not kill myself.

What was even more amazing was that there was no warning at all about the difficulty of the trail, from either the park ranger, the bike rental guys, or the rep at the National Parks office. We only got helmets because we saw some hanging there – they didn´t even try to give them to us. We saw some really unhappy and exhausted people making their way out (Jonathan saw a guy with his T shirt torn in half). People in general were too tired to even say hello in passing, just grunting and pushing their bikes up the steep hills.

The big smiles in the photo above from me was due to the thoughts of being “rescued” by the ferry, and not having to go back on the %$&! trail again. Every part of me ached and twinged.

I think I will stick to my own two feet.

December 8, 2005

Chocolate capital of Argentina

Chocolate superstore There is more chocolate here on display than I have ever seen in my life. Bariloche is the self proclaimed “Chocolate Capital of Argentina”, and they really mean it. The warm chocolately smell as I entered one of the chocolate supermarkets will be one of the loveliest memories of my trip.

To add to the temptation of constantly eating everything around me, plates and trays of mouth watering pastries and endless rows of metal tubs of gelato were on display, their enticing aromas wafting to the street through the open doors. There is a strong German and Swiss influence here due to early immigration, and it is reflected everywhere. Hence the amazing chocolate, the incredible alpine wooden lodges, and the weird fascination with forest gnomes.

We also sampled some of the famous alfajores, a confection composed of two crumbly shortbread discs glued together with dulce de leche (a completely addictive spreadable caramel, translates on menus as “milk jam”) and then coated entirely in chocolate. Waaaay too sweet for me, but I can understand why it is such a treat for people with insatiable sweet tooths (Jonanthan).

The little mounds of freshly made chocolates mimicked the peaks that surround the city. Bariloche is blessed with mountains, alpine wildflowers and glacial lakes of over 100 km in length. To offset all the eating, we took ample advantage of the outdoors, and went hiking up to several scenic peaks.

The cheap prices for food and excursions, combined with the spectacular scenery and blooming flowers has made this one of the best places I´ve been. We spent 8 days here easily, though we originally had only planned on half that. Though it´s probably a good thing that we had to move on – any restraint on sampling more of the scintillating treats was due to give out at any moment. :)

December 3, 2005

Authentic Argentine Asado

I love food. I also really love seeing food prepared, and I was psyched to particpate in an asado, or an Argentine barbeque. It is some of the most delicious meat I´ve ever tasted. It is also one of the most excruciating excercises in patience I´ve endured, as it takes 2 HOURS to slowly cook the meat over the embers of wood, which first must be produced by burning up serveral logs of wood.

While we were at Rancho Lamaral, we met 2 nice guys (chicos) from Buenos Aires, Mauro and Gaston, who were on a 20 day backpacking trip. We were sitting around wondering what to do about dinner, when we all decided we wanted to barbeque. This was especially cool, since we were doing this with locals…Jonathan and I had seen Argentine barbeques in restaurants, and hotels and hostels will arrange them for guests, but this felt more authentic…like being invited to a bbq at someone´s house, instead of seeing it done at Redbones.

We piled into our Suzuki Fun to go into town to get some meat. I watched in horror as the butcher cut ribs with an enormous electric saw, barely even looking at where his hands were while it sliced efficiently through bone and tendon.

I was told that the appropriate amount of meat for an Asado was 2 kg of meat per person (1 kg if female). That´s 4.4 lbs of meat, per person. No chicken, no vegetables, nothing but beef.

I bought some rice to prepare for myself, as I was going through rice withdrawl (bread is the carb of choice). When I went to prepare it in the kitchen, I was greeted with shock and horror. You want to eat beef with rice? Really? I assured him that Chinese food was based on rice with everything, including beef, and even some vegetables. He looked a little dubious, but allowed me to keep on cooking.

Time slowed as I eagerly anticipated the succulent pieces of meat slowly cooking over glowing wood embers. But, with some good company and a glass or two of wine, soon enough it was all ready. Eating began around 11:30pm. I was so full I could barely fall asleep…

November 5, 2005

The best $2 car wash ever

Before returning our rental car, we decided to get it washed. After driving on dirt and unpaved roads through mountain towns for 6 days, it looked really grimy, and we wanted to make sure it didn´t look like it had scratches before returning it to Hertz.

We pulled into the small rural town of San Augustin de Valle Fertil, and found a car wash (Lavadero). We were thinking of a quick rinse on the outside, just to remove some of the dirt and mud. When we were quoted a price of 6 pesos (US $2), we thought, fine, expecting a 5 minute wash.

We got out and stood waiting while he started with a hose. Then, he opened the doors and handed me my backpack and asked us to remove the things inside. We looked at each other, and realized he was going to clean the inside of the car as well.

After we stood for 15 minutes in the hot sun, we saw that he started to take out the floor mats and wash them. At this point, we began to grow concerned. Wet carmats would take time to dry. We told him that we were going to buy some water across the street, and he said fine, it would only be THIRTY more minutes.

Two men washed, soaped, rinsed, vacuumed and detailed the car for over 45 minutes. They cleaned the trim around the internal gasket of the trunk, the rearview mirrors, the door frames. We couldn´t believe the attention that the car was getting. I was so used to machine Scrub-a-Dubs, and those cost $10 just for a quick run through.

The car was spotless and gleamed beautifully – what a shame that it was only a rental!

October 31, 2005

Heat shock in a 42C bath

I was really excited to check out the thermal baths at Pismanta. I chalk this up to good marketing and brochures from the San Juan tourism office, as well as my natural enthusiasm for good hot baths.

I had pictured in my head a huge rectangular pool carved into the side of a volcano, with people lounging around in a fog of steam rising from the thermal waters. Some lush, red hibiscus would be growing a little ways off in the distance.

Instead, what I found were small, indoor, private stalls with the thermal waters continuously piped in. Each stall was marked with what temperature the water was, ranging from 37-42 degrees C. (37C is body temperature). Each temperature was supposedly correllated with treatment for a specific bodily ailment (arthritis, rheumatism, etc…).

Being my geeky self, I couldn´t resist trying out the 42C bath. In lab, 42C is the magic temperature for heat shocking competent bacteria into taking up foreign DNA. I can´t count the number of times I did this to bacteria in eppendorf tubes after incubating on ice, and was psyched to actually know exactly what 42C felt like.

It took a little while to slide in. 42C is hot, almost painful, but felt great once I was all the way in. The water felt a little bit slick, kind of oily, which I think is from the minerals in it.

To my surprise, after only 5 minutes, I was absolutely roasting, and had to get out to cool off. The clerk had suggested a soaking time of 7-15 minutes, and to be careful not to be in there too long. Every part of me was giving off steam. Any longer and I would have been par boiled.

I´m glad to have done it, and it felt pretty good afterwards, though I was hot for at least an hour afterwards. 42C is for bacteria…I think next time I´ll try a degree or two cooler.

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