Sunday, November 30, 2008

Vacation: Week Two

Here is the second installment. A little delayed but I hope you enjoy it! (New photos are also posted on Picasa.)

My second week of vacation was really wonderful. I arrived at the national airport at noon on Monday, November 17 only to find that the travel agency hadn’t made my reservation, but luckily there were still seats left and it ended up being cheaper than I would have paid the agent. A quick flight landed me in the world-famous region of Patagonia in the rapidly growing town of Puerto Madryn. The area has exploded in the last few years due to an aluminum factory as well as tourism (thanks partly to an UNESCO classification) and there is construction everywhere. I walked around a bit in the sun and wind and found an agency through which I booked two separate day tours. Later that night I had dinner with a Canadian couple I met at the airport. She found out she was pregnant just before they left and hasn’t had the easiest time of traveling but was a very good sport.

The first full day, Tuesday, started with a 7:30 a.m. pickup by our soon-to-be-dear guide Eloy. This day was just me plus three other women, an older lady from Spain and a traveling duo I would spend the next day with as well, Sarah from the UK and Susanna from New Zealand. The first stop was a river-to-open ocean boat trip to see tonina dolphins, and they did not disappoint!

Before the dolphins we headed up-river just a bit for a glimpse at a few flamingoes that were migrating; it’s rather unusual for them to be there and our boat captain was nice enough to share them with us. I’ve been on a constant quest for flamingos and was grateful for the chance to see a group of them flying in formation in an unexpected place.

Tonina dolphins are pretty small, black and white, fast and playful. The water was really clear and we could see them perfectly, and they also obliged us with lots of jumping out of water. Sometimes they’d be alone and other times as many as six or seven would be swimming together. They liked to ride the nose of the boat as well as the waves, which were pretty high that day due to the wind. I took a few decent shots, but Sarah got some excellent pictures that she has promised to send me. Here's one I took:

From there we headed to Punto Tombo, home to the world´s largest Magellenic penguin population during half of the year. Considering all my penguin knowledge was based on a particularly famous documentary on the topic, it was weird to see how these particular penguins live on this barren Patagonia beach. We could see penguins dotting the landscape all around us, Every year the males arrive first to ‘clean house,’ which means finding their old hole in the ground and digging out the debris that has accumulated over the past half year. Then the ladies arrive and head to the same hole – apparently, they mate for life. Two eggs are laid, one for “back-up” we were told, so many couples will have two chicks. The babies were just starting to hatch and we were lucky to see some of their tiny, furry gray heads - as well as hear their insistent peeps. The parents take turns sitting on the eggs/watching the chicks and going to the ocean to eat. Here is a shot of some of them filing back from the ocean to relieve their partners:

They walked among us and were really fun to watch waddle around, but we were warned not to touch or provoke them since inside their cute little beaks they have a sharp hook that can drive a hole through your hand and give you a nasty “I’m still digesting fish” infection. They didn’t seem to irritable, however, and even crossed our path several times. We had a great time watching them.

On the way back to Madryn we dropped the Spanish lady off at the airport and the four of us proceeded to a famous hotel bar in Trelew called the Touring Bar where Butch Cassidy used to hang out. Then we dragged Eloy out to dinner with us after begging his boss to let him be our tour guide again tomorrow.

Wednesday was an even earlier day, and Valeria knocked on the hostel door at 7 a.m. sharp. I was sad that our request to have Eloy as a repeat guide wasn’t fulfilled but Valeria was great. This day we were 20 instead of 4, but I still got a window seat and was able to save Sarah and Susanna seats next to me so I was happy.

The Valdés peninsula is the largest in the Atlantic ocean, and we spent Wednesday touring it. Here is an image of the peninsula:

We arrived at Puerto Pirámides, a small bay at the base of the peninsula, at about 9:00 am for the privilege of being the first whale-watching boat of the day. This turned out to be very lucky as we were only about 20 people on the boat, while other boats were packed to capacity at 50-60. We had tons of room to move around and see the whales from all angles, including a high perch that afforded a really lovely view of the whole whale under water.

It’s the end of the season for these southern right whales. They arrive in the bay every July or August to mate, during which time there is a lot of jumping and tail slapping I’m told. By November the males have gone and it’s only mothers with their babies left, and they’ll head out soon, too. Since the moms haven’t eaten since July, they aren’t doing much jumping these days, but I was able to see some babies learning to jump (the next day, not on this tour) and that was quite fun. There was an orphan calf who was being passed around from mother to mother which we all thought was very sweet.

A mother will nurse for two years. We learned that a whale’s milk is actually excreted from her body into the water and is thick like butter so it doesn’t dissolve; the calf will then move in and suck in the milk from the water. During these two years the pair will make the journey several times between the bay at Pirámides and the south of Argentina where they feed so the calf learns what to do once on his own. After that they separate and the mother gets knocked up again; no living in families for these whales. Hopefully one mom steps up and takes the orphan calf on full-time once they move on, otherwise he’s pretty much done for.

Among the many mother-calf pairs we saw, there was also an albino calf! Apparently a few are born each year. Their skin is translucent and the fat you can see through their skin is white. In time their skin will turn grey and then black and it doesn’t seem to be bad for the baby in any way, but it was certainly cool for us to see. It was so easy to make him out under the water. The mother – who was hosting the orphan at this time, too – gave us tail after tail out of water, which really never stopped being beautiful to watch. They are huge and yet so graceful. Here is the mother and her albino calf:

After the boat ride ended we got back into the van and spent the next several hours on a gravel road through the desolate Patagonian landscape to see the rest of the peninsula. We made three more stops, one to see a much smaller penguin colony than the day before, and the other two to see sea elephants and sea lions and the chance to spot an orca. I admit I was stumped to tell the difference between the two even after it was explained to me many times. The sea elephants live in the ocean but come to the beach once a year to shed their skin, while the sea lions live there year-round (I think – I may also be getting these backwards).

On the road we saw tons of sheep, recently sheared by the local gauchos. There is so little rain and therefore so little life on the peninsula that the sheep are allowed to roam freely to feed, only getting rounded up once a year for their fur. Each sheep is marked so there’s no funny business, and there is a law that says you may shoot a man if you find him stealing your sheep. We also saw many guanacos, a member of the Cameliad family (which I mentioned in my posts on Bolivia and Peru). We saw several pairs and packs of emus, always running away from the noise of the van, and were lucky to catch a glimpse of a strange animal called a mara, which looks like a giant bunny crossed with a dog.

There were two no-shows in terms of wildlife. The one we were promised we’d see were armadillos. I never had an interest in them until I thought I’d see one, but sadly they were on strike that day. The second one was very unlikely to see but nevertheless I was disappointed: orcas! The peninsula is one of the few places in the world where orcas will beach themselves to chase sea elephants and sea lions. It’s not high season for them yet but people had been seeing them in the water in the days before. One interesting thing I learned is that orcas are a type of dolphin, not a whale.

At the end of the tour I had them drop me off in Pirámides instead of going back to Madryn. Pirámides is quite possibly the most perfect little beach town ever invented. I could live there easily and not-so-secretly started plotting my return. It has one road that runs through it that forks off to the beach. There is an ATM and wireless internet, yet no dock junking up the bay. Boats are put in and pulled back out by trailers attached to tractors. Only 400 people live there and there are strict building codes since it’s technically part of a national reserve. People are friendly and largely relocated from the blur of Buenos Aires for a quieter, simpler life.

I had made a reservation in the one hostel in this tiny little beach town and quickly discovered the major problem they face as a community: housing. My 12-bed dorm room had more like 20, and half of the beds were occupied by people living there. To make a top bunk my own I had to remove someone else’s clothes and stash them among the rest of her worldly belongings scattered about.

As soon as I had checked in and claimed a bed I made the short walk to the beach. Within two sandy steps I realized I was about to traipse over the outline of a court of some kind and quickly stepped back. The two boys playing greeted me amicably and offered to teach me how to play what I can only describe as beach shuffleboard. One was a chef and the other worked at the swanky hotel on the water. Suddenly I had friends in town, and the housing crisis was made even more apparent by the shared house they live in: two rooms, one for living, cooking, and eating, and the other with five beds packed in tight. Still, it was obvious they were all happy in the pristine setting and I didn’t see any signs of roommate angst among them.

That night we went for a long stroll on the beach, the pitch-black moonless sky a perfect backdrop for millions of stars. I noticed that some constellations were upside down, and then I noticed that the waves seemed to be glowing. I went to the water’s edge and noticed that my favorite natural phenomenon was occurring, and strongly, this night: glittery phosphorescence. I spent a long time playing with it, throwing handfuls of pebbles into the water and carving outlines in the sand. It was the strongest I’ve ever seen it save one night on Shaw Island several years ago. We could also hear the whales out in the dark water exhaling from their two blowholes (apparently, if it isn’t windy, this makes a rather cool V shape).

The next day, Thursday, I lounged on a chaise in front of the fancy hotel, drank grapefruit soda, ate calamari, and read an entire book. I was supposed to catch the one bus of the day at 6 p.m. back to Madryn and spend another night there before my flight the next afternoon, but my new friends found me a ride the next morning and I stayed on another night. A second night walk to the beach revealed that the phosphorescence had already gone. Its replacement was a swarm of what seemed to be migrating beetles, small and light brown and inoffensive except for their obnoxious quantity. The next morning while I drank coffee and waited for my ride I noticed that they had all seemingly died in the sun – hundreds of tiny beetle corpses littered every exposed surface.

I arrived to Madryn and subsequently to Buenos Aires on Friday without any complication, other than riding in what was surely the oldest plane still in service. That night was Sol’s monthly wine tour, a fantastic event of walking to posh stores and drinking different wines inside of each. I had Saturday to decompress and then my friend Katharine arrived from Philadelphia Sunday afternoon.

Stay tuned for a blog about her week here and our fantastic Thanksgiving. My time here is quickly wrapping up… less than three weeks before I’m back in Seattle!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Vacation: Week One

Warning: this is a long post, to be followed shortly by another long post. Sorry.

Colonia, Uruguay

The weekend before I left for the waterfalls I spent in Colonia, Uruguay with Sol and Flor, which was incredibly fun. The boat ride across the river is about an hour and they stamp you into and out of each country on the same side, which is unlike any other border I’ve ever crossed. The first day we wandered the historic area – about a six block radius – and climbed up the old lighthouse before drinking a fruit-filled white wine beverage while watching a beautiful sunset. (It should be noted that most of the time we were eating or drinking. We also ate chivitos for both lunches, a typical beef dish in Uruguay.) Here are the lovelies on a typical street in the historical district with the river in the background.

That night we played Truth or Dare, a first for Sol and something I haven’t done in at least a decade. (My dare was to kiss the pizza deliveryman, a normal yet intimate greeting.) The second day we rented a golf cart, the first motorized vehicle I had driven in 9 months. We puttered out of the city and up the coast to the old Plaza de Toros (bullfighting ring) and took a picture in front of the Shipwreck Museum (deciding not to pay the entrance fee or deal with the OCD woman running it) before heading to the surprisingly ocean-like beach (technically, Río de la Plata is the world’s largest estuary, so it isn’t so odd that there were shells and sand and the water was semi-salty). I went swimming while they took pictures of me from the shore. Both Sol and Flor are persistent photo-takers and I actually stopped taking my own in the face of their certain coverage of any possible image I may want to remember.

Misiones, Argentina (Iguazú falls)

My trip to Iguazú falls, situated in the uppermost part of the country and bordering Paraguay and Brasil, was amazing. After an 18 hour bus ride there, wherein I discovered that a ‘bed bus’ does not necessarily mean that the seat is flat but rather wider and cushier than a ‘semi-bed bus,’ I arrived at the insanely large yet lush Hostel-Inn Iguazú and was in the pool within 10 minutes. Since I had gone straight from the boat from Uruguay to the bus, I was still covered in the sand, sunscreen, and sweat from the day before. Luckily I had no one sitting next to me on the bus. Suffice to say the pool was a welcome relief.

The hostel itself was pretty cool. It was much bigger than I realized, 200 beds, but the pool was great and there were always lounge chairs to be had. They also organized lots of events and I attended two delicious asados (barbecues) while there, each of which had a dance show (tango and samba, with real Brasilian Amazonian ladies who shook their mostly-bare butts in mortified tourists’ faces). My room had 6 (comfortable!) beds, one of which was occupied by an older Argentinean lady who had been there for two weeks, kept the room shockingly cold, and snored. She was very sweet, even tucking me in one night, and I was grateful for the wax earplugs I remembered to buy.

I arrived on the afternoon of November 10, a Monday. On Tuesday morning, I hopped the yellow bus that makes the circuit between Puerto Iguazú (the main town), the hostel (5 kilometers from town), and the park entrance (another 5 kilometers). The Argentinean area is enclosed by a national park that has fantastic infrastructure; it was much like I imagine Disney would run government property if they were asked. I didn’t go to the Brasilian side even though it was allegedly possible to evade the $150 visa fee (after my near-deportation from Bolivia I’m playing it safe at borders these says). The view is more panoramic because almost all the falls are on the Argentinean side, but I got a pretty wide view from the boat and didn’t feel like I missed that much.

It’s cliché, but the waterfalls itself were breathtaking. The river was really high, so the crush of the water was deafening when you got close. Luckily the river was a bit lower than the week before since they closed the metallic walkways that cross over the river and to the biggest of the falls, Garganta del Diablo (throat of the devil), since they were essentially underwater, which is considered unsafe for some reason (joking). This particular fall was indescribable, a near-circle of fierce brown water tumbling to an invisible bottom. Here is a video I took, sideways - sorry, I can't figure out how to edit it. (I have many such videos and hope to bug one of my knowledgeable friends to edit them together for me for everyone's viewing enjoyment.)

video
I have to admit it was terrifying, since the whole time all I could think about was, what if I fell in? What if the walkway collapses and we ALL fall in? How long would it take to die? How long until they found my body? Etc, etc. I felt sort of grotesque for this until I talked to other people and pretty much every single person, regardless of nationality or gender, had the same issue. In addition to getting scared, I also got incredibly wet, and my camera was a real trooper (and continued to be for the next two weeks as I exposed it to fresh water, salt water, sand, sunscreen, and several unfortunate impacts).

By far the best part of the falls was the boat ride that literally stuck us UNDER one of the falls, an incredible experience I screamed through. Being in the front-most seat I definitely took the brunt and I have no complaints. At the end I had the opportunity to buy a DVD of said screaming for a shocking 90 pesos ($30). I declined. Here's a view from the boat:


It was high butterfly season and it was seriously shocking how many butterflies there were. I took a video of one of the many literal swarms I saw. My mom knows very well that I do not like it when these lovely creatures land on me, and there was one type (incidentally, the largest) that was determined to do so. I actually went running and yelping like a little girl on a few occasions and I know I drew some odd stares. Incidentally, my ‘safari’ guide told me that they land on human skin to lick the salt off of us, which I thought was interesting. I also saw huge tiger ants whose bite is apparently like a bee sting, and any number of other bugs I couldn’t identify but enjoyed watching. I made an interesting discovery about myself this way: in their natural habitat, bugs don’t really bother me, but in MY natural habitat, i.e. my apartment, they gross me out. (I will not bore you with my cockroach updates, but I have found a lethal gel and now they greet me belly-up rather than scurrying away, which is still gross but at least doesn't involve me spending 45 minutes working up the nerve to kill them.)

There are many varieties of birds in the park since it’s a sub-tropical jungle, and I even saw a toucan. Apparently there are macaws as well. There are also two species of monkeys, but I saw neither. Otherwise I saw tons of lizards, a few of which were huge iguanas, but only managed to get a picture of a cluster of three, by far the smallest ones saw all day.

I also saw two coatis, which are like raccoons. There are signs everywhere telling you to stay away and not to feed them; apparently they are mean and can bite. I saw tons of bunnies jumping out of the way of the train tracks (there is a free, eco-friendly train that moves through the park) and I was temporarily disappointed to find such a common animal in such an exotic place. Then I reminded myself that bunnies are adorable and have just as much right to be there as the cooler animals.

By the end of my day there the sky was starting to turn, and as I was leaving the park it started dumping rain. The power kept going on and off in the little stores at the front of the park, which resulted in some confusion with the ATM since people's transactions were cut off. Luckily I was able to use it with no problems, avoiding an unnecessary trip into town. I haven't gotten that wet in a long time, and the instant I arrived at the hostel the sun came back out.

That night the sky was mostly clear I managed to take a full moon tour, which was lucky since of the four nights I was there, it stormed – hard – for two of them. I met a girl from Spain on this tour and she managed to take some pretty rad pictures with her much more advanced camera, and has promised to email them to me when she gets home. I’ll share them with you once I get them.

The next day (Wednesday) I booked a tour to see more of the Misiones area, the northernmost region of Argentina. The first stop was at Minas de Wanda (pronounced Vanda), named after a Polish princess who killed herself rather than marrying an enemy prince in hopes of repairing relations. Apparently the Polish immigrants who settled the area were sentimental about the story. These mines are special since they produce a variety of stones, including several types of quartz, amethyst, and some others I forget. I bought a lot of rocks here.

Next we went to the Jesuit ruins at San Ignacio, which were gorgeous. I pulled a fairly idiot move in not bringing my camera charger and the battery died at the mines, but luckily I did the circuit with another solo traveler, a Peruvian who has lived in Santa Barbara for 10 years. He took some great photos and has promised to send them to me. The area the ruins encompass is huge, and apparently several thousand people lived and worked there back in the day. One of my favorite things about Misiones is the high iron content in the soil, rendering everything in the area a bright, beautiful red. (Once we were behind a truck of cut trees that looked shockingly like redwoods, but were just pine that had been reddened from exposure.) The ruins consisted of many complexes of red brick buildings surrounded by wide fields punctuated with shady trees. There was a bright blue sky with lovely clouds, and I lay in the grass nearly an hour, content with my surroundings. From there it was about 3 hours back to the hostel where an asado and a fantastic lightning storm were waiting for me.

I decided to come home a day early (Thursday evening instead of Friday) since I had done everything I wanted to and still had almost a full day (Thursday) to just lay by the pool. I changed my bus ride without any problems (except I got a much less cool seat in the back of the bus instead of the front-most one I had reserved on the upper level) and 18 hours and a thorough drug search later (apparently being so close to the Paraguay and Brasil borders is worrisome for Argentina, much to the terror of the German couple who were strip-searched since they had stayed at a notorious drug-user’s hotel) I was back in Buenos Aires.

Weekend in Buenos Aires

I packed a lot in to my three day weekend back in Buenos Aires, including going to a nightclub opening on Friday, eating a great brunch and seeing Benicio del Toro in part 1 of Che: El Argentino (I guess in the states they released all four hours of it at once!) on Saturday, going to the Noche de Museos on Saturday night, and spending Sunday at an asado at Sol’s. I have to say, she cooks a mean barbecue and rivals any of my U.S. friends and family for top honors.

Back to the Noche de Museos: it’s one night a year from 7 pm to 2 am when all the museums are open and free to the public. There were over 100 participating places with open-air art installations and performances, free busses that moved people from one spot to another, and long lines snaking from block to block. I finally saw the inside of the Congress building which is only 2 blocks from my house but almost never open to the public, and it was a delight. There was an orchestra playing and visitors had access to every room including the congressional and senate chambers. The same was not true for the Casa Rosada where I met Kirsten and her friends. The presidents used to live and now presumably work there, and the line was twice as long yet only gave access to the tiny museum that is open every day. I abandoned that claustrophobic space for El Cabildo where the Argentinean revolution was planned, and then Sol met me at 1 am to see the Manzana de las Luces (block of lights), a series of underground tunnels that used to stretch the entire city and were used at various times for communication between churches and monasteries, as well as for many types of smuggling and trafficking. It got its name since the tunnels were also used at one point to share scientific ideas that were otherwise considered blasphemous or dangerous. Overall a very fun night and it was fun to see so many old people in the streets at 2 am. Here we are waiting to get in to the tunnels:

Phew! This has been week one of the last two weeks of vacations I’ve been on. Stay tuned for part two, a truly incredible visit to the northern part of Patagonia. Also, there are new pictures on Picasa, so, enjoy!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Culture and Vacation

Culture

I’ve been rather cultural over the past two weeks. Sol and Flor both get a lot of invitations and free tickets and have been kind enough to invite la yanqui to experience them. I hope to do a sporting event tour - also hopefully with free tickets - but so far I've been sticking to the arts.

It started with an invitation to see the opening night of an opera/modern dance called Carmina Burana at the teatro Opera here. It was only an hour long, and it started and ended really well (the final scene featured a giant piece of gold fabric that stretched across the entire stage that then enveloped a character as he descended into "hell" aka a trap door; very cool effect), but the middle was sort of repetitive. It didn’t help that I had no idea what it was about, but later research told me it was based on 12th century Austrian verses about the vices of life. To illustrate a key cultural aspect of Argentina, you should know that at this opening there was free wine, but no programs for the show. It was hosted by Teatro Colon, one of the most famous theaters in the world that has unfortunately been closed for ‘renovations’ for several years and shows no sign of opening in the near future. It also featured a famous national dancer, Iñaki Urlezaga. We were pretty high up in the balcony so I didn't get a good look at his face, but his moves were pretty sweet.

Two Saturdays ago I went to the San Telmo district to catch a show at the Museo de Títere, or puppet museum. The museum itself is two rooms filled with cool puppets from around the world, and is run by two old ladies who have clearly been friends forever, both of whom seem to be relatively famous as puppeteering goes. Here is one of them:
They have daily shows for kids, but Saturdays at 9:00 are ‘adult puppet shows.’ I was so curious about what that might be that I decided to go even in the absence of anyone else willing to accompany me. For 15 pesos I was treated to an hour-and-a-half show in a long, narrow room filled with plastic deck chairs facing a tiny stage, upon which two talented tango dancers/singers/actors played out a semi-biographical story about tango in the 1920s, occasionally using those creepy, androgynous wooden dolls to represent different sides of their characters. Seeing wooden dolls dancing the tango was interesting, and it was a very sweet experience overall, but definitely not what I would call a puppet show.

Last night I went to two events in one night, first taking the subway to the end of the line in Barracas to the opening of a modern art exhibit at the Centro Cultural Moca. Sol, Flor and I enjoyed a free glass of champagne while giggling and gawking at the art installations. I'm not much for modern art and apparently, neither are they. The weirdest piece was called "In contempation of Agnus" and was a nearly full-scale human replica in the cobra yoga position, covered in a sort of cottony substance with only her bare feet and face showing; she was set in a creepy forest scene surrounded by dead and dying - real - roses. The creepy part was that there was some sort of lung apparatus that made it appear is if she were breathing.

We spent a total of 15 minutes there before booking it across town - a mere 10 blocks from my house, no less - to our next event, a concert at the Teatro Metropolitan II on Avenida Corrientes in the theater district. I should note that I also drank free booze here, a popular national drink called Fernet that they mix with Coca Cola. It's not that great but not terrible either. Do we have Fernet in the U.S.?

Anyway, the concert: there was a three piece male band consisting of drums, cello, and (mostly flamenco) guitar, and they were all fantastic. The focus was a female singer called La Shica (who we later found out was married to the drummer). They are all from Spain and it was her first time in "America." It was fun to hear the Spanish lisp again! The concert itself was... odd. The concert postcard advertised it as a mix of flamenco, hip hop, baile, copla, and funky. I never really caught any hip hop but it was certainly funky. The most outrageous song was about a woman who has anonymous sex in dressing rooms, which she sang wearing red flashing heart-shaped sunglasses while gyrating around the stage. Her voice was beautiful, but it was distracting watching her dance. We left before the encore.

I also want to take in a showing of Eva, El Gran Musical Argentino, based on the life of the very popular Argentinean figure Eva or Evita Peron. (If you don't know who she is, especially after she was popularized by Madonna, well... shame on you.) The role of Eva is played by a very famous actress named Nacha Guevara. Eva died when she was 33 years old; Nacha is 68. Talk about long in the tooth, but apparently she looks damn good for her age. (Note that she also played Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate" on stage...) I know this is photoshopped, but still:
She is revising this role, first played in 1986. It runs until just before I leave, which is good since I won't have a chance to see it for a few weeks, because...

Vacation

...I'm going on vacation! I know, I know, my life is so difficult that I clearly need a break from it. It starts tomorrow morning when I head to Colonia, Uruguay with Sol and Flor for an overnight. It's supposed to be a sweet town with a nice beach, and even though I am obligated to leave the country to renew my tourist visa I'm still looking forward to seeing a new place. Then on Sunday night I head to Iguazú falls in the north of Argentina. I have about 4 days there which includes a full moon boat tour. Should be amazing!

I get home Saturday morning and plan on attending Noche de los Museos that night (November 15). One night a year, a bunch of museums stay open until 2 am and have various exhibits and films. Then everyone parties in the streets. (This is almost as cool as the city-wide pillow fight).

That Monday, November 17, I get on a plane to Puerto Madryn in the middle/south-ish of the country. I will head to Península Valdés from there to see the Atlantic wildlife, including a huge colony of Magellanic penguins and hopefully right whales, with their babies no less! It's supposed to be a beautiful area. Here are the very penguins I will see:

I will not make it to El Calafate to see the glacier, nor Ushuaia to see the Beagle Channel and everything else the "southernmost city of the world" has to offer. (In quotes since technically Puerto Williams in Chile is further south, though often overlooked since it is so tiny. This is where my extreme friend Clare studied birds for many months.) Ultimately I had to make a decision and it was easiest to get to Puerto Madryn and gives me the best chance to see what I want to see on a limited schedule. Plus, Clare has offered to take me hiking on a glacier in Washington - I told you she was extreme. (Did you know that WA state has more glaciers than any state other than Alaska? And that Mount Rainier has more glacial ice than all the Cascades combined? Yeah, me neither. Don't worry, that won't last long.)

I get back on Friday, November 21, just in time for Sol's monthly Wine Tour, a shi-shi event in hip Palermo where you walk around to different boutique stores and they serve you delicious wine. Saturday is the biennial pillow fight (warning - Spanish link). Then on Sunday Katharine comes from Philadelphia to spend Thanksgiving week with me - she isn't going to know what hit her, I have so many plans for us. After that I'm already into December! I know my remaining time is going to fly, but I plan to enjoy every day of it.

Special shout out to my dad for turning a year older yesterday. I love you, Dad!

p.s. I am once again reiterating my request for comments. I know you're reading, people. Throw your two cents in!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Yes We Did

Well, it's over. This election cycle has finally ended, and for the first time in my voting life, it has ended with the candidate of my choice.

My night was pretty anticlimatic. Argentina sprang ahead and the U.S. fell back, so I'm now 6 hours ahead of the west coast, which means that when Washington state polls clossed it was already 2 am here.

At 10 - my time - I went to the official Democrats Abroad party:
It was nearly 90 degrees here today (no joke!) and the humidity ensured that the heat stuck around after nightfall. Much to my dismay, there was no air conditioning in the very packed bar. Plus, for some reason, they were letting people smoke inside. So, I quickly abandoned that party (thought not before getting interviewed yet again, this time by a newspaper) and headed for another one a few blocks away, which was even more crowded and even less air conditioned:
I was sort of depressed at this point, since I realized that, other than being in an uncomfortably hot bar, I was sharing it with the type of people I generally try to avoid socializing with in the U.S.; why would I want to spend such an important night with them abroad? Why not conform this historic event to my Argentinean realities? So, I quit that party faster than the first one and got on a bus to Sol's house to watch with her family:
They fed me empanadas and we watched CNN en español as the breeze from the patio doors brought the smell of night jasmine inside; clearly I had chosen correctly.

At 1:30 I decided if I headed out then I'd get home in time to see the west coast polls close (all the news channels here were, and still are, covering the election). Sometime during my bus ride home, Obama was declared the winner. When I walked in to my apartment and turned on the TV, McCain was walking on stage to give his concession speech. I could tell he was incredibly gracious, even through the Spanish dubbing, and I think he's a good person I just happen to disagree with on a lot of issues.

I didn't have much of an emotional reaction at this point; I pretty much knew Obama would win, and it's hard to get excited without other people stoking those flames. I saw a headline on The Stranger's website that read: "Whatever happens, don't be alone on election night." Reading this actually made my heart ache for a moment; I wish I could have been at Adam and Jeremy's in Columbia city enjoying the moment with a large group of friends, or on Capitol hill with Justin screaming with the crowd, or in New York with Jacob G watching the city explode into fireworks and festivities. But instead I was here, isolated in my apartment in a foreign country, migrating between my computer in the living room and my television in the bedroom, trying to force myself to realize the importance of the moment.

And then, Obama spoke.
Live dubbing still lets you listen to the actual words, albeit faintly, and his eloquence yet again struck me (once I got past my initial "What in the hell is Michelle wearing?" reaction). He didn't say anything that was necessarily new or exciting; I know his message so well, as do all of his supporters, that any one of us could have given the speech. But just listening to him speak is thrilling, now more than ever, especially since I've spent the last 8 years frantically turning off the television any time G.W. Bush appears since his voice literally makes me shiver. I admit, I cried during the speech. I saw Jesse Jackson and Oprah crying in the crowd too, and I'd like to think that, despite their high visibility, they were crying for the same reasons I was.

Then I noticed that he was standing behind a discreet glass fortress. "Is that BULLET-PROOF glass??" I thought with horror. The terrifying image of someone taking a shot at him during his presidential nomination acceptance speech made my heart race in fear, and I silently implored any would-be assassins to please reconsider or get caught. Then I reminded myself that maybe it isn't bullet-proof glass after all, and just there to ensure that any one of the nearly million supporters present didn't jump on stage for a photo op. I convinced myself that this was the case, and tried to focus on his speech again, but the seed had been planted.

So now we just have to see what happens. (With his presidency, not with assassination attempts - can we please try not to think about that?) It's encouraging that Democrats are winning such wide-sweeping victories, hopefully allowing him to get more of his policies enacted, and quickly. I'm excited to see who he chooses for his cabinet, and what he does with those highly emphasized first 100 days. If he can deliver even half of what he's promised, it will have been well worth the struggle to get him elected. And, for my Republican readers, I want to say I really am sorry for how you're feeling right now. It's a feeling I know well. But I want to assure you that Obama's tax plan will save you more than McCain's would have - there are a variety of independent studies that verify this! Just give him a chance. Maybe you'll like him.

It's after 4:00 am here, which in my normal life would be late but in my alternative, living-abroad life is a pretty standard bedtime. Still, it will be hard to sleep tonight. I imagine Obama waking up tomorrow; you just know the first through through his head will be, "Holy Sh**. I am the next president of the United States."

Monday, November 03, 2008

Halloween Weekend

Argentina does not traditionally celebrate Halloween; however, over the last few years it has slowly taken hold and there are more and more celebrations each year. Since I can't remember a single year of my life where I haven't dressed up, I certainly wasn't going to miss this opportunity to spread Halloween cheer and convinced some of my friends to participate. Sol took it one step further and convinced a bunch of HER friends to also dress up, and we had a fantastic pre-party at her house to eat, drink, be merry, and get ready together. Sol's sister Cielo even carved two pumpkins! I was blown away by their enthusiasm.

My particular costume, as I explained before, was Snow, in honor of my many winters this year. Although they tend to interpret costumes a bit more literally here, I assured my fellow partiers that abstract concepts and weather patterns were totally acceptable as costumes. This is me pre-glitter, as I was trying to spare Sol's house:


After we were all ready we decided to head to a club just around the corner, which actually ended up being a combination flogger/gay club. Floggers are a growing cultural oddity here, mostly angsty teenagers who have very deliberate hairdos and post pictures of themselves online (i.e. keep 'photo logs' hence the name). The most famous one is a teenage lesbian named Cumbio and is actually paid to make appearances at clubs and such. Here's a picture of a group of floggers - they famously hang out at the Abasto mall every Sunday. I fully plan to go one day and get a picture with Cumbio. Until then:

Anyhoo, it's safe to say that my particular costume was a bit out of place among the dark outfits within the club; the floggers gave me dirty looks and the gays stopped to kiss me on the cheek and make adoring comments about my outfit. It made me realize just how much I miss the gay scene in Seattle, since here they are mostly confined to very specific spaces (though I later found out that this weekend was, in fact, Gay Pride weekend, and even caught a bit of the parade that went a mere block past my house).

The club itself was hosting a rad Halloween party with a Tim Burton theme - amazing! They were projecting Ed Wood on two huge screens, and at one point a group of exquisitely costumed dancers performed on stage for about an hour. The get-ups included characters from Mars Attacks, the Joker, Beetlejuice, and a few others that were indistinguishable yet well-done. By far the two best were Edward Scissorhands and Willy Wonka. I would kill to get my hands on pictures from within the club. (Sol, did your friends take any??)

We danced for a few hours like crazy high school kids with me throwing glitter into the air any time someone complimented my costume, and often for no reason at all, resulting in a smattering of glitter bits on anyone near me (which some people loved and others were not so pleased about). Now, three days and three showers later (which kills me, a devoted infrequent showerer) I am STILL covered in glitter; my scalp is veritably glowing with it. My apartment is equally coated, as is my bed and a fair amount of my clothes. I guess I'll just celebrate Halloween all month.

There are more pictures from the evening on Picasa so just click on the link to the right. The next big Yankee holiday to introduce them to is Thanksgiving, which will also be hosted at Sol's house, and I can't wait!

As you all can't help but knowing due to the inundation of ads and e-mails, tomorrow is Election Day. No matter how you feel, get out and vote! It is your greatest right and responsiblity as a member of a democratic society, plus wearing that little sticker all day is a perfect way to feel smug in the face of non-voters. Remember, your office has to grant you at least an hour to vote, so take advantage of that paid time off, vote for 5 minutes and have a few drinks for the other 55, knowing you've accomplished your duty and are now stoking the economy with your consumptive habits. Cheers to that!