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.

Finally a “W” I like

I am so happy to have peaceful, joyful thoughts to associate with the letter “W” instead of the current president.

The “W”, so named for the shape that the trail carves through the park, is a 4 day hike through the Patagonian Torres del Paine National Park on the southern tip of Chile. It is truly a symphony of nature, a coordinated collection of movements, covering an incredible variety of terrains, climates, and ecosystems all in a 40 mile hike.

It is said that you can experience 4 seasons in a single day in Patagonia. Although officially it is late spring, we walked through snow and fog, only then to emerge into a clear, sunny summer’s day. Winds gusted and plastered us against the mountainside, or at times were still enough to watch butterflies flutter among flowers. We started one day wearing long underwear and ski jackets, and shedded layer after layer to end up in shorts and T-shirts.

If the weather determined the tone of the Torres del Paine, the terrain provided the theme and melody. Mouthain slopes of barren rock suddenly parted to reveal thick woods dense with leafy trees and rich soil. Trails through rolling grassy hills surprised us with bogs, beaches of perfectly smooth stones, and immense, brilliant mint green glacial lakes. Massive glaciers wedged between snow capped mountains loomed over clearings of gnarled, wind twisted trunks. Babbling brooks, roaring mountain waterfalls and ominous rumblings of the calving glacier provided a voice to the terrain itself.

The plant life added its own tune to the hike. New spring blooms punctuated the landscape with flashes of color, with bright red Chilean firebushes, brilliant yellow trifoils, and delicate purple orchids. The trills of small birds and the buzzing of enormous fuzzy insects provided accompaniment and accent.

The first hike up to the namesake of the park, the Torres del Paine (Towers of Granite) was truly a treat – a trail that really knows how to deliver a bang at the end. We’ve hiked up many peaks, and seen innummerable pictures of the Torres in Chile, but nothing could have prepared us for the actual Torres themselves. After a steep scramble up a moraine (imagine a mountain side of nothing but 1-2 ft boulders), we crested over a ledge to reveal the sheer granite towers. Three monolithic peaks soared smoothly and straight up for 1000 ft. And for the finale, the surprise bang at the end to keep us on our toes, a glacial lake pooled at the bottom, reflecting the towers themselves.

We searched briefly for a geocache that was hidden there, but with a terrain of all boulders and many nooks and crannies, it was hard to find, and we sadly had to leave time to descend.

Since we didn´t have camping equipment, we carried relatively light packs containing water, clothes and toiletries. We stayed at refugios (basic shelters), each spaced a days hike from the other. These rustic lodges sleep only 20 people, and were hard to reserve, but allowed a comraderie with other hikers and campers we would never otherwise have had. We shared our dinners on long picnic tables next to wood stoves, used communal bathrooms and slept in bunk beds with sleeping bags in a room with 4 other stangers. Though it was strange the first night, by the second it was old hat, and we met some interesting people along the way (one was an Antartic marine biologist).

My favorite part of the trail was the 11 mile, hilly grassy meadow hike along the immense glacial lake Norjenskold. Each hilltop gave a new view and perspective of the landscape. Flowers were in full bloom, birds were chipring and small butterfiles accompanied us. It was the only day when we virtually saw no other people, as it was a trail that could only be done if one camped in the park the day before. As we ate our lunches, it occured to us that it was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and normally we would be running for a plane, finishing up odds and end at work, and undoubtedly stressed and tired. Though I sorely miss my family and the food of Thanksgiving, I hope to hold onto that spiritual well being feeling forever.

All of the “W” demanded “Look at me, feel me, hear me, experience me!” I am only sad that we didn´t have more time to explore the rest of the park.

November 28, 2005

Soyan vs. the Volcano

…And the volcano won.

Promises of seeing flows of hot lava, peering into an active volcano crater, and the ability to slide down in carved ice chutes led us to hike up Volcan Villarica, located in the Villarica National Park in Pucon, Chile. It´s a perfect, cone shaped volcano, snow capped with smokey white fumes coming out of the top.

This was by far one of the toughest hikes I have ever done.

We went with a tour company with about 20 people, 8 of us f rom Hostel Victor (had a really pleasant stay there meeting nice people). They provided all the gear, outerwear, boots and backpacks, so each group trekking up the volcano looked like serious, uniformed mountaineers. I was excited to use crampons, which attach to the bottom of your boots and consist of 2 inch metal spikes to allow you to walk directly on ice. By the end of the hike, I fervently thought they were one of mankind´s greatest inventions. I also learned to use an ice axe. These scary looking things are useful to help walk up in ice, as well as indispensible for stopping you if you should slide down a mountain.

In just 5 miles, we climbed 3900 ft straight up . It was extremely steep (it serves as a ski resort in the winter), covered in snow and ice, with a fresh layer of snow that had fallen the night before. We had bad luck with the weather that morning as well, as the winds were so high that the ski lifts could not run, which added an extra 1.5 hrs to the hike to the summit. We braced ourselves as gusts of wind would whip snow and small pellets of ice at us. Clouds and fog swirled among us, alternatively giving us glimpses of sun, fog, and complete whiteout conditions. I had never experienced a whiteout before- it really is so white that it´s impossible to tell the difference between the surface and air. People in my own group disappeared from view only 5 ft in front of me. It was so windy (30-40mph) that we had to camp out in a shelter for 30 minutes to wait for it to clear.

Despite all this, there were some amazing things on the volcano. It was the first time I had hiked up above the cloud layer, and was rewarded by sun and a clear view of the volcano peak, with its plumes of sulphuric smoke. I experienced more types of snow than I thought possible in one hike :powder, corn (looks exactly like little styrofoam balls that break off bigger chunks), slush, thin layer of ice over snow, thick layer of ice over snow, packed snow, etc…

One of the coolest sounds I will remember is that of the tinkling cascade of ice shards down the volcano every time the crampons dug into the thin ice layer on top of the snow.

When we got closer to the top, a funny burning, acidic feeling in my throat and lungs appeared. So, this is what it was like to breathe sulphur fumes. Pretty unpleasant, and tough going as we were working very hard to hike up. We were then told that the winds were too strong, blowing the gases further afield, so we wouldn´t be able to make it any closer to the crater. To add insult to injury, we also wouldn´t get to slide down the ice chutes either. By that time I was less interested in reaching the top, and completely devastated by the overwhelming burden of actually having to walk all the way back down the volcano. In total, it was 7.5 hours straight up on ice, slush and powder, plus 3 hours to return to the bottom.

I am glad to have done it, but I don´t think I have the heart of a mountaineer in me. It struck me more of a journey of personal determination, and of browbeating myself to continue and not give up. There was nothing to look at on the way up except my feet. No birds or trees, plants or even lichen. Just perfect, icy, whiteness.

November 20, 2005

Easter Island, Moai Madness

I have always wondered what it would feel like to be in the absolute middle of nowhere.

The sad truth is… I felt a lot like being at any other major tourist spot, surrounded by backpackers, badly dressed British and German tourists, and enterprising locals.

Easter Island is in the middle of the Pacific ocean, 2500 miles from both Chile in the east and Tahiti in the west. It is a volcanic island only 20 miles long and 10 miles wide, with a few trees, about 3000 locals, and of course, the famous stone statues of the giant heads, the Moai. To avoid the hordes and tour buses (and to get some cool photos without a million people in them), Jonathan and I rented at 4X4 jeep and drove on the only road in search of the different sites.

The Moai were full of surprises for me. I learned that all of the statues were destroyed or toppled during a period of civil war sometime in the 19th century. There are a few restored Moai, but the majority remain fallen and crumbly. And contrary to all the photos I´ve seen, the the Moai are not only heads…they have torsos, and hands with long fingers wrapping around their round bellies. They sometimes also are adorned with huge topknots made of a reddish stone, quarried from a different part of the island. Furthermore, I also didn´t expect that there so many of them. We saw at least a hundred Moai in different stages – half carved, carved but half buried and sticking out of the quarry, transported but not erected, or erected but toppled over. They ranged in size as well, with some as tall as 20 meters, weighing over 100 tons.

The 15 restored ones at Ahu Tongariki are imposing, facing inland to watch over the island. Why they were made, and how they were transported and erected remain a subject of speculation. I learned an immense amount, and the Moai are very impressive.

And the Moai had another surprise for me…it almost a let down to be physically seeing the statues, after all the photos and the buildup. Easter Island lived in my mind as some far off place I never expected to see, and yet I was there, and it didn´t feel so unusual or exotic, even though there were these mad giant stone heads. I walked into the supermarket and was able to buy more products with brands that I recognized (Doritos, Cadbury, etc) than I could find in small towns in Argentina. They even had soy and oyster sauce for sale!

On our second day, we were excited to explore a different side of the island, the northern face. We were told that there were no roads there, so we took a taxi to the other side of island, and hiked back. When we started, we had some sort of trail, but that soon disappeared into farmland, and we found ourselves climbing over barbed wire fences, gates and stone walls to stay close to the coast.

While the views were spectacular, with the rough Pacific ocean waters crashing onto the black volcanic rock, the 12 mile hike was more notable for the most horses and cows I have ever seen in my life. They were everywhere on this side of the island, hundreds grazing or taking naps, and newly born foals and calves fumbled after their mothers. I couldn´t believe that being in the middle of nowhere would be so…normal. I felt (unreasonably I know) that there should at least be some exotic wildlife, unique to the island. Horses? Cows? Heaps of cow and horse crap? This was Easter Island?

I think that my fantasy of being in the middle of nowhere has been blown and needs to be revised. I think that¨middle of nowhere¨ probably isn´t related to geographical isolation anymore, especially with our global economy and ease of transportation. I´m looking forward to the rest of the trip to see what else I will find.