Monday, August 9, 2010

Isla del Sol: Two days in sunny, sacred paradise

I gave into compulsion, pulling my camera off my shoulder although I'd told myself a dozen photos earlier that I had to stop. Only three weeks into my six-week trip, space on my memory card was precious. I climbed on a pile of rocks and looked through the viewfinder into the limitless horizon, breathing heavy in the thin air and rolling my shoulders in an effort to relieve the pangs from my heavy backpack. I snapped yet another picture.

Silky cerulean waters all around. Majestic snowcapped mountains distant on the horizon. Sheep grazing from golden pastures. Undulating hills of rocky green and beige spiraled with ancient Inca terraces. Ruined temples, sacrificial rocks and mythical fountains. Women with weathered faces chatting in the pre-Inca Aymari tongue and leading loaded mules up winding trails. Their husbands tilling earth and holding radios to their ears. Surrounded by glorious sunshine and silence. 

Isla del Sol, this place was mystical beauty, no less than the setting for the creation myth of the Inca Empire. The birthplace of the sun god and home to a legendary city, now lost underwater.

The Bolivian island is the largest of 41 islands on Lago Titicaca, the world's highest navigated lake at 12,500 feet-high. It's a fertile refuge at the crossroads of the imposing Andes and the hostile altiplano. Fed by rainfall and glacial meltwater from the Sierras, at some places the lake's depths reach 1,000 feet. This body of water is so massive that it takes a week to cross by boat. Inhabitated three-thousand years before Christ, today the island has no roads or vehicles, only laberynth ruins of Incan nunneries and subsistence farmers and fisherman.

The day before we'd flown from the jungle over the mind-blowing Cordillera to Bolivia's capital La Paz and then taxied straight to the bus stop for the 3.5-hour trip to Copacabana, a sleepy little town near the Peruvian border on Lago Titicaca.

As the home of the cult of the Virgin Morena, hundreds of pilgrims come the the giant Moorish white-washed cathedral the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Copacabana in the town center on the weekends for the ritual blessing of miniature objects (toy-like cars and houses or even tiny wads of euros) by Catholic priests in Latin or by shamanes in Aymari. 

In the tranquilo European backpackers mecca my Finnish friend and I met a 20-year-old, charismatic German who'd just finished a year teaching in Ecuador. We found a hostel together for the night and hopped on a boat for the two-hour trip to the Isla del Sol the next morning.

Upon disembarking at the little village of Cha'allapampa on the northern shore, we let the tour groups proceed and instead paused on the beach for the Bolivian version of the American breakfast: one egg, bread with margarine and jelly, a small glass of orange juice and a mug of instant coffee or coca mate.

Then we followed wandering sheep and families of pigs into the windswept hills and fields, gawking at the vistas of the sea of cobalt water and the white Cordillera in the distance. We collectively sighed in the serenity of it all.

The island and the lake are right on Peru's notorious Gringo Trail, but we discovered a paradise of hushed solitide. At midday when the sun shone high overhead we stopped hiking for a picnic on a hilltop of 4,000 meters, tired but happy.

After walking all day we came to a hostel with a gorgeous lake front view, high above our $2-3 price range. But after five minutes of bargaining we took off our dusty boots in a luxe (by Bolivian standards) room with down comforters, heat and a private shower. That night an eerily beautiful full moon rose overhead as we ate our modest trout dinners.

In the morning we had to ask the owner to turn on the hot water for our previously agreed upon three-minute allottments. I made my way from the reception to our bathroom in an Olympic sprint. My roommates couldn't stop laughing. My hair has grown long in the past six months, and every drop of water counts.

The next morning we hiked to the south end of the island to the village of Yumani, greeting the more resilient than weary looking locals trudging up the hills and washing laundry on the beach while their children played tag. Before catching a return boat we walked up hundreds of stone stairs to sip from the Fuente del Inca, springs promising aid in love and health.

Just two days on the typical tourist itinerary, but for us it was two days of mystical, unexpected bliss.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Four days without a shower: The Santa Cruz Trek

Huaraz, eight hours north of Lima, is the gateway city to the Cordillera Blanca, a glorious mountain range with more than 22 peaks over 6,000 meters, second only to the Himalayas. (North America has only three mountains over 5,700 meters. Europe, zero.) It´s the Andean adventure capital for daring rock and ice climbers and hard-core trekkers.

Mountaineers and backpackers returning from arduous expeditions congregate in the town center. Getting to my dorm bed involves tripping over giant boots, ice picks, crampons, tents, sleeping bags and piles of provisions.

I am hopelessly intimidated.

It doesn´t help that ¨In Memory of¨plaques with inspirational quotes and photos of young mountain climbers adorn the walls of the cafe in my mountain-lodge-themed budget hostel.

I´m here for the Santa Cruz Trek, a famous four-day circuit with some of the world´s most thrilling scenery -- snowcrusted jagged mountain peaks that jut into the clouds and loom over azure lakes and golden meadows where sheep and cattle graze.

When I handed over my $100 for the excursion I innocently failed to make the connection that I was signing up for four days with no hygienic facilities, showers or running water. I blush at the memory that I packed a towel and my mesh shower sponge. I even stuffed some face powder in my backpack. At least I knew better than to bring more than one outfit as I´d be carrying all my belongings on my back.

The guide would pick me up at 6 a.m. My phone that I´d depended on as an alarm had stopped working, so I asked the guy at reception to knock on my dorm door at 5:40 a.m.

I jolted awake at a knock, grabbed my headlamp to locate my belongings and rushed to the bathroom to get myself together. Then I went to reception bundled in my jacket with my backpack and water bottle in hand, only to find the lights out and the door locked. No bus waited for me in the street. I shined my flashlight on a clock in the office. 3:40 a.m. The groggy receptionist sat up in his mattress on the floor and rubbed his eyes. Lo siento! I hissed. Then I went back to bed still dressed, waiting for another knock.

Over breakfast I met my group: an eccentric mountain-climbing Swedish couple, a comedic little Spanish guy with glasses, a gorgeous medicine-studying, snowboarding couple from Austria and a whiny French mother and daughter. Edith, a soft-spoken young Quechua woman who spoke intermediate English, would be our guide. We all piled in the van for the four-hour journey deep into the surrounding mountains, taking in the aerial views of the villages and agriculture below.

During the drive I mentally replayed the previous day´s experience and the blow it inflicted on my confidence in my athletic ability. The saleswoman in the mountain bike agency had assured me that I´d need no experience. Yet I´d arrived to the bike warehouse to meet the New Zealand couple that would be joining me -- a pair of chiseled athletic gods. The man was seven-feet tall. A professional rugby player. They wore spandex shorts. I had on jeans. They graciously pointed out that I´d put on my cycling gloves backwards.

I tried to remain calm as our taxi drove one hour into the stunning yet tranquil Cordillera Negra mountain range. I tried to maintain my dignity when a second guide had to stay behind with me on a gravel road, only periodically venturing onto the single track trail, as everyone else flew ahead down over grassy boulders and sharp curves.

I couldn´t figure out my gears, but I refused to give up, huffing behind them with my hamstrings on fire up the steep, never-ending hills as we bumped by village women lugging water and children leading mules. I feared my forearms would give out on the brakes. My insides jostled on every rock. When we finished the nearly vertical 1,000 meters down in Huaraz four hours later, I was humiliated, exhilarated, exhausted and throbbing with adrenaline.

Still, I was pumped about Santa Cruz. The 50-kilometer route in the Huascarán National Park (named for a 6,768-meter Andean leviathan) led up the sensational Quebrada Cruz, climbing the valley and crossing the Punta Union pass at 4,760 meters above sea level. It ended with a ramble down into the Quebrada Huaripampa on the other side.

The first day we hiked past towering eucalyptus trees and boulders carpeted in moss with the Río Santa Cruz roaring along the trail. We encountered dozens of other trekkers and even more mules. I felt a pang of sympathy for the burros. They looked as cuddly as a stuffed Eeyore and heaved with exhaustion under the load of all the trekking gear -- tents, sleeping bags and food. The solid and stocky village men led them along, sometimes prodding them with sticks. Occasionally a horse would trot past, an emergency animal used to quickly transport sick trekkers.

We went on, traipsing through expansive pampa meadow and by alpine wildflowers before arriving to our campsite under menacing glacial peaks. There I peeled off my boots to inspect my new callouses and blisters.

That night the wind whipped my little one-man tent as the temperature dropped below 10 degrees. I shivered, curled up into a ball in my high-tech sleeping bag, sliding on the sloped hillside with rocks jutting into my back, wearing all the clothes I had. I coughed most of the night, sure the other campers would eventually toss my tent in the river. Tears welled in my eyes when I tried to work the jammed zipper on my tent door to use the bathroom for the second time. I swore I´d never camp again.

Edith woke us up with coca mate tea at 6 a.m. After my morning bread and hot chocolate I was ready to hit the trail again, feeling better as the sun rose overhead. We trekked along waterfalls spilling over rock walls, jade and emerald lakes and marshland. That day´s walk included a breath-stealing, two-hour ascent to Punta Union. During the entire climb I walked briskly without stopping, looking down at the ground rather than up ahead toward the torturous path. At the top we took in the goose-bump-inducing views of toothy ridges and razored peaks, all white. As we ate our sandwiches and fruit we spotted a viscacha, a rodent that looks like a rabbit with a squirrel´s tail.

That night we camped in a lime-green meadow under Nevado Tailuaya (3,830), where an occasional crash of thunder split the air as avalanches broke from above. I washed my hands, feet and face in the rushing hypothermic river before crawling in my tent that night, trying not to think about the foxes and occasional puma that Edith had mentioned when I´d asked her about local wildlife that afternoon. My aching knees helped distract me.

The third day was a long eight hours. Edith led us on a side trip to a mirador for a sensational mountainscape panorama, and we continued up to the climber´s base camp for Alpamayo (a frozen pyramid once dubbed the most beautiful mountain in the world) and then kept climbing past lovely red quenua trees, amethyst lupins and tube-shaped cacti up to a pristine aqua lake under threateningly close glaciered crowns.

That night Edith filled our bottles with boiled river water before we went to bed so that we could stuff them in our sleeping bags to stay warm. On the two-and-a-half-hour hike the last morning I was too thirsty to mind the foul taste.

At the trail´s end in the hamlet of Vaquería our van awaited us. I tried to appreciate the mind-blowing, airplane-quality views of the countryside below during the dizzying, two-hour descent, but I dozed off in exhaustion with the sun on my face and Latin pop music in my ears, fully content in the moment and willing the bliss to stick around a few days.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tales of an accidental backpacker

I´ve been wearing the same shoes every day for nearly six weeks. A pair of hiking boots. When I tie the laces a puff of dust releases into the air. These boots have crossed the world´s driest desert, squashed through muddy jungle, sunk into pampa swamps, braved the frenetic streets of South American metropolises and trekked around some of the world´s highest mountains.

In the past 40 days I´ve learned that it´s possible to live with only two pairs of jeans and two T-shirts. I´ve gotten used to the way my face looks without make-up. My daily routine no longer includes body lotion and perfume. I´ve forgotten how my hair feels when blown out long and smooth with a hair dryer. I´ve gone days without encountering a mirror. Or checking my e-mail or logging on Facebook.

My eyebrows need tweezed, my hair is desperate for a conditioning and my cuticles are a disaster. My back aches from lugging around my heavy backpack, which contains my current livelihood and I therefore protect at all costs. After weeks of traveling between 2,500 and 5,000 meters above sea level, I´m used to gasping for breath. My once oily skin is dry, and my once voluminous hair is almost flat in the thin, dusty air.

Yet through all of this I´ve never gone to bed without washing my face, brushing my teeth, and God bless my orthodontist, putting in my retainers. Sometimes that meant splashing river water on my face, getting out my toothbrush in bus station bathrooms splattered with vomit and diarrhea or scrubbing my retainers in a possibly snake-infested jungle fountain. And, may my dermatologist read this, I never stepped out into the oppressive mountain sun without lathering myself in sunblock and even donning an embarrassing safari hat I bought in the black market on the streets of La Paz before a spontaneous jungle expedition.

I can´t remember bathrooms with toilet paper and soap or with doors that even shut, besides lock. I sigh with relief if water actually flows from the faucet, always cold. I´ve accepted that sometimes baño means a hole in the ground with two footprints in front. I automatically hold my breath when I enter a bathroom and come out breathless like I´ve just finished a sprint. I´ll have to train myself to flush toilet paper again instead of tossing it in an overflowing basket.

Hot showers are a luxurious surprise. A hot shower with good pressure is an extravagance that I´ve encountered only once on this journey. I try to recall what it was like to drink water safe from the tap or buy produce from the market without fearing for my health. Or to accept change without worrying that it´s counterfeit.

I´ve learned to wash my socks and underwear in hostel sinks. I´ve discovered that almost no price is ever fixed, whether it´s a hostel, tour or earrings. I´m now wise enough to request a seat toward the front of the bus after suffering nights bouncing over the wheel on unpaved roads with cold air and exhaust fumes blowing in from the iced-over window that wouldn´t close. And I´ve found out that even if I have my bus ticket, I won´t be allowed to board unless I´ve paid for the right to access the terminal.

I wake up between 6 and 7:30 a.m., sometimes as early as 3 a.m. if an excursion requires it. I go to bed between 9 and 10 p.m., sometimes as early as 7:30 p.m. if I´m exhausted and there´s no electricity. My typical breakfast is bread and jam. My budged lunch and dinner usually consist of soup followed by rice, potatoes and chicken. (However, I tried llama in San Pedro de Atacama and ate lots of fried bananas in Bolivia.)

Every meal is served with coca tea, made from the same leaves as cocaine but sharing none of the illicit drug´s affects. (The people in this part of the world have been planting, chewing and drinking the plant for thousands of years, believing it to possess dozens of medicinal benefits essential for the hostile, high altitude conditions.)

I shake my head at the realization that I´ve been traveling through South America with a backpack for more than a month. It will be 42 days when I fly back to Santiago. Eighteen of them alone. I´ve been in three countries, 12 cities, 14 beds and one tent. I´ve suffered bone-chilling zero-degree temperatures with blustering winds on desert nights and steamy, 90-degree jungle days. I´m 1,667 miles from my home in Valparaíso, Chile with more than 900 photos on my camera´s memory card. I´ve had conversations with people from Sweden, Bolivia, Austrailia, Peru, New Zealand, Chile, Austria, Canada, Germany, England, Poland, France, Scotland, the Netherlands, Spain, Finland, Japan, Belgium, Argentina, Columbia, Mexico, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Israel, the Czech Republic and Brazil.

I crossed the world´s driest desert in a jeep. I went into the jungle. I traveled down the world´s most dangerous road. I´ve seen geysers, volcanoes, lakes of every color, deadly mines, ancient ruins, pampas, some of the world´s highest mountains and deepest canyons and the world´s largest salt flat. I´ve rafted on canyon rivers, trekked in the Cordillera Blanca, canoed on tropical lakes and mountain biked in the Andes.

I visited villages where electricity and running water have yet to arrive, where mules are used for transport and radios for communication. Communities where Spanish is a second language, if spoken at all, and Aymara and Quechua peoples still hold true to their pre-Inca and Inca dress, food and faith.

In six weeks I´ve had no less than five adventures of a lifetime. Please don´t think I´m bragging. I´m just in awe of my blessings. I´m fully aware that I´m utterly unworthy of any of this -- I´m not especially daring or outgoing. I wear makeup and love shopping and read fashion magazines. I don´t know East from West and bought my first big backpack on the street in Chile two days before I left.

Nothing was planned. This has been an unanticipated, undreamed of gift, the most spectacular trip I´ve experienced thus far, just in time for my quarter-of-a-century birthday.

And now I´m left the unrelenting urge to tell you all about it.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A weekend in El Norte Chico: The mystical Valle de Elqui

En el valle de Elqui, ceñido
de cien montañas o de más,
que como ofrendas o tributos
arden en rojo y azafrán

I turned in a 10-page analysis on Gabriela Mistral’s poetry the week after I explored the Elqui Valley where the Nobel-Prize winning poet grew up. The narrow slice of paradise protected by looming desert mountains on either side inspired dozens of her poems. Although Mistral left behind her humble beginnings in rural South America to travel the world as a foreign diplomat and live in Madrid, Nice, Naples, Lisbon and Santa Barbara, she insisted that the grand azure sky, oppressive sunshine and voluptuous figs of her childhood home would always define her.
The Elqui Valley is in Chile’s Norte Chico, or “Little North,” about six hours up from the port of Valparaíso. In the lush basin farmers harvest a mouthwatering list of produce including avocados, papaya and olives. The sunny skies drenching the vineyards make for the sweetest grapes in the country, ideal for the production of the national drink, pisco (similar to brandy).
The air in the sleepy towns of Pisco Elqui and Vicuña smells sweet. The fragrance drifts from the tiny, juicy grapes drooping down the terraces and the mandarins adorning the trees. Coral and amethyst blossoms and golden leaves punctuate the rugged, sandy panorama. The strong sunlight casts a warm glow on the rugged landscape and the rustic steeples. And speaking of steeples, the buttercup yellow church with aqua trim in the flourishing main plaza of Pisco Elqui is storybook perfection. I found myself comparing the tranquil and mystical atmosphere to New Mexico -- The two regions share colonial and adobe architecture, lots of cacti and a majestic mountain panorama. 

In both towns my friends and I, an exchange student from South Dakota and a couple from Versailles, France, lingered over the spread of artesenia in the markets, boutiques and sidewalks. I'm currently obsessed with stocking up on woolen winter accessories hand knitted with fleece from Chile’s sheep farms. But instead of cold weather gear I picked out a pair of delicate lapislázuli dangles, the semi-precious gem mined in Chile similar to turquoise but royal blue. I resisted the urge to buy a jar of papaya marmalade or manjar with walnuts but finished off a half-kilo bag of raisins, which were mouth-puckeringly sweet dried grapes just plucked from the vine, stems and all.

The region’s clear skies (averaging more than 300 sunny days a year) make it a choice destination for the highest-tech U.S. and European astronomical observatories, where astrophysicists make the majority of current discoveries. We toured the Mamalluca site because it offers night stargazing to the public. It's the most visited facility despite being one of the oldest and smallest because of its accessibility. The big-time observatories open occasionally for daytime (No looking at stars! I was so disappointed when I called.) tours that must be booked months in advance. 
Our little guide left us all dumbfounded with a Powerpoint presentation on the vastness of the universe and the mortality of our solar system, making me nostalgic for my two semesters of honors astronomy with my genteel NASA-employed physics professor. Then he made Star Wars Jokes after we climbed upstairs to take turns peering into the telescopes for glimpses of Saturn’s rings, galactic clumps and details of the lunar surface. Outside we shivered in the damp night air and contemplated the unfamiliarity of the Southern Hemisphere sky. I'd just spotted the Southern Cross when we had to descend the hill early after a veil clouds suddenly concealed the stars.

Our last day we toured a garden-like pisco factory deep in the midst of beige, leviathan mountains with snow-crusted peaks in the distance before returning to our home base La Serena two hours away. La Serena is a pleasant colonial city known for Chile’s oldest, most elegant churches and breezy beaches. That night on the overnight bus trip home our bus broke down. We were stuck from 4 to 7 a.m. in the middle of a desolate nowhere, with rugged coastline on our left and sandy hills dotted with cacti on our right. 

... Now that I'm reading up for my upcoming trip to Bolivia I think the delay was a warm up for the misadventures to come in the true Third World.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Falling for Chile

El Cajón de Maipo -- outside Santiago. Whenever I have a rough day, I look back on these past (almost!) three months and remember why I can't stay mad at Chile.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Welcome to the World of Rotary: Service Above Self

The gray-haired Chilean man with round glasses stepped down from the podium and thrust the microphone in my face. I sat in the front of the ballroom of the Hotel Militar Coraceros, behind a long table with a plate of half-eaten noodle casserole with breadcrumb topping in front of me. I nervously tapped the binder of class notes at my feet. A visiting Rotary International director from Tucson was set to present a complex earthquake fund proposal heavy with Rotary jargon. He wanted me to translate. I looked into the crowd of men in suits and gulped. “Gracias,” I began. 

My Rotary host counselor Dan Luis Martinez invited me to the Viña del Mar club lunch meeting a week earlier. I’d prepared a photo-heavy PowerPoint presentation, which I'd saved it to my Macbook. I’d toted the laptop on the wild bus ride and up the steep hill to my class in Sausalito that morning. Several of the students glanced at me when I walked in the classroom that morning dressed in black pants, ballerina flats and a pink sweater that stood out among the Chilean college student uniform of distressed jeans, destroyed sneakers and bomber jackets. 

I slipped out early to walk down the hill to the Rotary meeting conveniently located 10 minutes away in a hotel on a quiet leafy street in Viña, a new location due to earthquake damages in their traditional meeting spot. I entered the lobby and tracked down my counselor in the crowd of mingling men in suits. I quickly realized that I was the only woman present among the dignified men, average age 75. 
A waiter passed around a tray of drinks, and I passed up the pisco sour for what looked like a fancy latte. The circle of men surrounding me quickly warned me that it contained alcohol. While the men sipped their drinks my host counselor introduced me to the president of one of the many clubs in Valparaíso. The gracious gentleman invited me attend one of his club meetings. Next the district governor handed me his card and offered to help me with anything I needed during my stay in Chile.   

The friendly Rotarians dialed up their hearing aids and practiced their English with me, asking me where I was from and what I was studying. They wanted me to meet the Rotary International director  visiting Chile from Arizona. All the while I engaged in the Rotary custom of exchanging cards with everyone I met. (Thanks to my Charleston sponsor club for giving me a stack of beautiful, professional business cards!)

Some of the Rotarians suggested I get in touch with the Valparaíso Rotaract club. I actually made contact with the group, a Rotary sponsored served organization for young people, before I left the States. I’m looking forward to meeting with them Friday evening and adding a Rotary-affiliated service project to my current volunteer activities at La Católica. 

After the three-course lunch the members stood to sing the solemn Rotary anthem. The meeting commenced with a presentation on community projects from the youngest member present. Afterward they asked me to stand and briefly introduce myself before the other American's presentation.

I thanked them for the invitation and expressed how grateful I was to finally get in touch with Rotary and how blessed I feel to be given this opportunity to study in Chile this year through the generosity of Rotary. In conclusion I presented them with the club banner from the Charleston club (I must say I’m proud of the pretty and colorful design depicting Broad Street).
After the two-and-a-half-hour meeting I was running late for my next class, but one of the hospitable Rotarians offered to drop me off at the university on his way into Valparaíso. Traveling between the two cities via car instead of jolting bus offered a new experience. As we sped on the highway I gazed out the window watching waves crash against the rocks below the castles and resorts of Viña as the sun glimmered and ships sailed on the cobalt sea. Thank you Rotary, I thought.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Porteña at heart?

I was young and in love. I remember the six-month affair as a hazy muddle of euphoria and depression, passion and frustration. When we went our separate ways my emotions faded. On the other side of the world I all but forgot my former infatuation.

Yet some memories still make me shudder or induce a wave of nausea while others accelerate my heart rate and induce a wave of nostalgia. I remember being cold and lonely, always lost. But I also remember smiling and dancing, feeling so alive.

After three years of 5,230 miles of separation, I suddenly reencountered my former flame. I'd always wondered what it would be like. I was sure my feelings would have changed -- I'd explored so many places since we left off. I was jittery at the first encounter, then a flood of long-turned-subconscious memories washed over me. We spent almost a week getting reacquainted. I kept thinking, How did we end up back together?

Melodramatic imagery aside (the turbulent relationship in question is with a city, not a man), my experience with Buenos Aires is complicated. The city seduced me with a dream-like, balmy summer and then turned on me with a tragic, dreary winter.

But I swooned all over again for the beguiling South American capital as soon as my taxi from the airport entered the city. With every verdant park, palatial building and Italian-inflected line of Spanish the driver uttered, a layer of my grudge melted.

I was back home. But it wasn’t so sweet. Although everything was familiar I found myself disoriented and confused, looking at maps upside down and furiously flipping through my Guia T bus guide. And things had changed. Where were all the mullets and mate drinkers? And when did Starbucks get here?

But running through the Bosques de Palermo, carrying out a load of shopping bags out of Palermo Viejo and wandering through slick art museums with my iPod blasting soothed my irritation. As did spending a day at the spa, lingering over gourmet dinners of spinach gnocchi with vintage Malbec and  downing dozens of cappuccinos and Volta ice cream cones (some of the best, coming from someone who frequented multiple gelato establishments daily during a three-week tour of Italy). I hate to admit it, but the 4:1 peso/dollar exchange rate can bring happiness.

Soon I forgave Buenos Aires. For everything. I would do anything to be back.

Why Buenos Aires? That's complicated -- It's a chaotic, European-style metropolis made up of a bundle of diverse neighborhoods at the far southern end of the world. A sprawling city known for books and theater, design and fashion, art and music, luxury and poverty, cafés and dulce de leche. It seems as if everyone on the street is walking a purebred dog or in a passionate embrace.  But all that comes with a heavy dose of exasperating bureaucracy, disconcerting plastic surgery and psychoanalysis and constant political protests. And watching elegant women clicking in heels and toting designer bags walk down the same block as leather-faced men from the slums driving horse-drawn carts and sorting through trash can make anyone feel uncomfortable.

The city has stolen and broken many a heart. So many who visit fall in love. But like a jealous, naive girlfriend I secretly believe that the swarms of tourists gushing about the clubbing scene (deserved -- during my taxi ride to the airport at 5:30 a.m. we passed still-pulsing clubs) just don’t know the city like I do.

On the colectivo bus ride to the Palacio Barolo where I interned with Time Out on Avenida de Mayo I contemplated my feelings. Buenos Aires is an exciting city. It’s a volatile combination of thrills and frustration. Anything is possible, yet nothing is possible. Things just don’t work the way they should. Its cycle of political strife, economic failure and government corruption continues.

Over cortados in the business district an 11-year expat and former supervisor tried to divert my fantasies about starting a life there. But the heart wants what the heart wants. And mine wants Buenos Aires. Whether Buenos Aires will ever have me back, that’s yet to be determined.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Into Patagonia

The sky dimmed with the passing hours as we leaned over the rails and pondered the colossal sea of ice looming below. Snow-crusted mountains framed the frozen city that extended beyond our vision, like the ocean itself. Thunder ruptured the silence whenever a chunk of ice cracked from the mass and crashed into the aqua lake below, shooting a water high into the sky. Each explosion brought on a wave of chills. The glacier seemed so powerful, so alive. The jagged jaws of ice gleamed a brilliant blue, their dagger-like forms jutting into the sky with an air of violence.

Standing in the mighty vicinity of El Glacier Perito Moreno in El Parque Nacional de Glacieres of southern Argentina is a thrilling, even spiritual experience. The glacier is an imposing, active presence. I mulled over the idea that the entire metropolis of Buenos Aires could fit inside the 100-square mile, 200-foot-tall mass of ice as the last of the sunlight gleamed an incandescent pink through a break in the clouds. Antarctica seemed dangerously close. It was ... surreal. There I was, more than 6,000 miles from home in the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields, facing one of the world’s natural wonders. 
A week earlier I hadn’t known this glacier existed, but after a three-hour flight south of Buenos Aires I'd landed in the Santa Cruz province of Argentina. I suddenly found myself 2,000 miles away from my apartment in Valparaíso and my chaotic new class routine in La Universidad Católica. I'd arrived with three new acquaintances-turned-friends: Natalie, my shining fellow Rotary Scholar and two tall, blond and beautiful Christian-school teachers. During the next three days we bonded over conversaton accompanied by Quilmes, empanadas, Malbec, ice cream and gooey Argentine pizza after our long days of excursions.

We took refuge in our cozy and rustic hospedaje in El Calafate, the boomtown gateway to Argentine Patagonia (its population has more than tripled since 2001). In the mornings Balén and her husband served us homemade bread and jam made from fruit from the backyard trees (our favorite tasted better than cherry pie) along with the quintessential medialunas. We topped our sweet-grain cheerios with vanilla or strawberry yogurt and sipped mate cocido or coffee by the old-fashioned stove. From the moment the warm and beautiful couple (always chasing after or scooping up their puppy-eyed, snotty-nosed toddler) first greeted us I swooned, dismissing any doubts I had about my former affinity for Argentine accents and memories of Argentine hospitality. The husband was a typical shaggy-haired and aquamarine-eyed Argentine – imagine an older brother of Gael García Berna (from The Motorcycle Diaries and Y Tu Mamá También).

Our second day in El Calafate we woke up for a three-hour bus ride to the village of El Chaltén, the base for some of the best trekking in Patagonia where we hiked around the Fitz Roy Massif. While walking through the sunny forest we met three red-headed Magellanic woodpeckers. The giant birds announced their presence with the drum of their tree-demolishing double knocks. Again I reflected on my circumstances -- Here I was, meandering though the rugged wilds of Patagonia, admiring turquoise lakes, peering down into gargantuan valleys and gazing up at the sheer granite faces of the extra-terrestrial-shaped Fitz Roy mountains. The peaks protruded like fangs into the clouds of the Patagonian heavens, perhaps the most spectacular on planet earth.

The next afternoon following a round of cappuccinos in the pleasantly touristy El Calafate, Natalie and I walked to the Laguna Nimez Reserve on the edge of town. The wind whipped our hair and our hiking boots sunk into the soft, wildflower-carpeted field shoring the lake. A flock of flamingos soared over the water while horses grazed and upland geese waddled through the grass.

Later that evening we hired a taxi to the Lago Roca, an almost-secret spot where the locals spend their weekend afternoons. Our driver turned out to be a private local guide, an opinionated character named Mauricio who drove us through the lonesome highways of rugged Patagonia, dodging dozens of leaping, dog-sized hares reminiscent of miniature kangaroos in the golden glow of evening. He paused for photo opps of aqua lakes and a took us for a look around of one of the estancias (a sheep farm in this case) before parking at the shores of Lago Roca to share a round of mate in the plains below El Perito Moreno. After the sunset we piled back in the car, just as the stars punctuated the humbling expanse of Patagonian sky to ride home in silent, sleepy gratitude. 

And there I was, unworthy, exploring Patagonia, the namesake of the ultimate brand of outdoor gear and the wilderness enthusiast’s definitive adventure at the southern ends of the earth.

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