Wednesday, July 30, 2008

High and dry

I can hardly believe that my 6 1/2 month adventure outside the US is almost coming to a close. For a final hurrah, Natalie and I decided to take a two-week whirlwind tour of Bolivia and Peru. We´re covering a lot of ground for two weeks. I didn´t realize until we got on the road that even though Bolivia is the fifth largest country in South America, it´s still the size of Spain and France put together. I thought the nine hour busrides through the Sinai were long, but this trip so far has been dominated by 15-hour tours.

Despite the amount of time we´ve spent on the road thus far, the places we´ve seen more than validate the cramped buses and dusty trains. Our first stop in Bolivia was Uyuni, land of salt flats. We signed up for a two-day tour which would include one night of sleeping in a `salt hotel´. I was a bit skeptical. Two whole days of looking at...salt? I thought it might get a bit old after awhile, but two days turned out to be perfect.

We set out around noon with a lovely Irish couple and two French girls. The air was cold and thin. Bolivia´s highest peak is over 21,000 feet, but the entire country has a high altitude, which we had spent a day or two adjusting to. It didn´t take long for us to get out of the tiny town and into the land of wide open spaces, of which Bolivia is not in short supply. The open dirt and sagebrush soon gave way to a wide, white sea that stretched on for miles and was peppered with tiny black islands. The salt was so white that it reflected light like water, and the islands appeared to be floating. The sky was so blue it hurt to look at it, and the sun beat down harshly on the salt that had cracked into millions of honeycombed puzzle pieces.

We spent the day riding over the salt, stopping to explore an island and a salt-processing factory. As dusk was approaching, our 4x4 set a course for one of the large mountains bordering the edge of the salt flat. As we got closer, we could see that the top had blown off the largest mountain, leaving bright streaming rays of rose and sun-colored stone. Yes, we were going to sleep at the foot of a volcano. Luckily we were told the volcano was very, very dormant. At the base of the volcano was a tiny village, surrounded by marsh grass, small ponds, lichen, and...what...flamingos!? At the edge of the salt desert in Bolivia, there are flamingos. I´m not sure why they are there, but they must feed on the lichen that grow on the salt and volcanic earth. We passed our pink-plumed welcoming committee and arrived at our hotel. I am using the word `hotel´quite loosely here, but the food that our tour guide made us was delicious, and the company was highly entertaining.

The next day we explored more salt formations and made it back into town to catch our overnight bus to La Paz. The bus was definitely an adventure, but our hostel and La Paz are wonderful. We´ve spent the last two days exploring museums, the witches´market (where one can buy llama fetuses to bury beneath a house and ward off evil demons), and beautiful squares and churches. I could definitely spend a few more days here, but I´m excited about the prospects that lie ahead. Machu Pichu and more adventures await.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

There are butterflies at the edge of the world

Before Magellan sailed round the world, daring seamen believed the world was flat; that they might fall off the edge into a great abyss of nothingness if they ventured too far. This weekend I thought for a moment that I could be standing at the edge of the world, but I was not navigating the high seas or staring at inaccurate maps. I went to Iguazu Falls.

Iguazu means “big water” in Guarani, which is the language of a native tribe in northern Argentina. The Guarani inhabited the region of Iguazu long before Eleanor Roosevelt went on a much-publicized trip to South America and allegedly took one look at the falls before declaring, “Poor Niagara.” After this weekend, I can see Mrs. Roosevelt had a point.

We spent three days in Iguazu, staying at the popular ‘Hostel-Inn.’ Our hostel was a few minutes outside of town, and the first thing that struck me while driving down the road were the strips of rusty earth smudging the edge of the highway and the verdant margins of forest spilling generously over the deep red. Our hostel was large, commercialized, damp, and as per usual with hostels, brimming with interesting people. There were a lot of Dutch, Belgian and English people staying there, with a handful of Israelis thrown in. We were there for the 4th of July weekend, and celebrated by toasting America’s royal creaming of the British with a bunch of rowdy Londoners while drinking Brazilian liquor. Probably the most unconventional 4th I’ve had so far, but still fun despite the fact that I wanted to track down some sparklers and whip up some strawberry shortcake.

Our first day there we decided to explore the town. I was perfectly happy to walk around looking at the gorgeous scenery and drinking in the thick air. Those who know me well know I have a weakness for water, trees, and anything earthy-crunchy. If it’s possible for one to OD on nature, it would happen in Iguazu. Our trek through town took us out to a lookout where visitors can see the border between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina. Top 5, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Lush, tree-embroidered slopes fell down to an oversized river that stretched out for miles before us. I could have stayed for hours just looking at it, but everyone else in the group wanted to move on.

The second day was our waterfall day. We entered the park and got on a small train which took us to our first trail of the day. The park is shared by visitors, birds, coatamundis (which look like anteaters and raccoons mixed together), and thousands and thousands of butterflies. It seemed that every five minutes we stopped to admire a new display of yellow, orange, turquoise or purple. The trail to the waterfall takes trekkers through the jungle and then over a series of bridges. The river is huge and broken up by small islands. We walked on the metal bridges while murky water flowed several meters below us, hopscotching over islands on our way. Suddenly without warning, the trail stopped. We could see a huge wall of steam billowing above us and hear what sounded like a highway. We walked forward to a railing and looked down at the river simply falling off the edge of the earth. Clouds of bright yellow butterflies floated around us and refracted sunlight bore more than one giant rainbow above the water. There are definitely rainbows at Niagara, but the butterflies, tropical forest and sheer size of the river set the falls apart for me.

Our last day there we decided to visit an aviary and a hummingbird garden, both of which were peaceful and beautiful. We almost didn’t get a bus back to Buenos Aires, because we didn’t think we needed to book a ticket in advance. Luckily there was one bus company with seats still available, and we were able to book seats for a reasonable hour that night. We began to panic for a moment, but in retrospect I probably wouldn’t have minded had we had to spend one more day in Iguazu.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Purple Haze

This weekend Natalie and I went to Mendoza, otherwise known as wine country. We rode a bus for 13 hours overnight and arrived in San Rafael, the capital, around 9:00 AM. It was Saturday and San Rafael was just beginning to wake up, although it would remain in a sleepy state for most of the weekend. Nat and I spent the first day there exploring every nook and cranny, which meant wandering into chocolate shops (yes, plural), craft stores, and a cute little restaurant. Siesta still exists in this small town, so when the stores closed for about three hours in the afternoon, we wandered over to a park and sprawled out on the dry grass to look at the clouds. There is something magical about the light here. If Egypt’s sunlight is harsh, unyielding, 180 proof, then Argentina’s light is like clarified butter; soft, with all impurities removed. I could gaze at the sky for hours, which this day reminded me of an inverted river delta: not only was I upside down, but instead of a blue river on a sandy delta, concentrated milk white clouds floated over a blue shore, rippling and gathering before they quickly disintegrated. If I had been close to an earth-bound body of water, I feared both expanses might melt together, sealing me into a sandwich of great blue yonder. I wanted to hold onto the light sky, the darkening pine trees, and the golden grass, but soon it grew chilly and we had to leave for the indoors.

We had heard that the circus was in town that night, so after dinner Nat and I headed over and met up with two Australians and an American we had met at the hostel. The circus here was not at all like it would be in the US. It was more like a night club combined with a circus. There was a fog machine and a DJ mixing techno music up on the stage while flashing lights turned everything purple and green. Occasionally performers would come out and do very cool, acrobatic things, but mostly it seemed like people were there for the dance club atmosphere. We were tired and decided we’d seen enough around 12:30, so we headed back.

Sunday was our day to explore the countryside surrounding San Rafael. We hired two lively guides to take us on a mini road trip around the town. They hadn’t been to bed the night before (which made us feel incredibly lame), but they were still full of interesting information and eager to share. They took us to see rivers, canyons, a giant dam and the lake behind it, and a fruit farm. It was a beautiful and relaxing day. We cooked dinner for ourselves in the hostel that night, and then settled in to watch Batman Begins. Around 2:00 in the morning, two drunk Argentineans wandered in and tried to convince us to “share” the couch with them. They were very tired, you see, and just wanted to use our laps as pillows. Unfortunately they were not quite good looking enough for us to oblige, but we had fun talking with them for awhile and watching the rest of the movie before heading off to bed.

Monday was vineyard day, so of course I was very excited. We road the bus a couple miles out of town to a vineyard which was famous for champagne. Unfortunately, once we finally arrived we were told that the vineyard was closed for inventory. The lovely looking tea shop next door was also closed. Well crap. We were out in the middle of the country and didn’t know when or if the bus would be by again. We considered our options: Waiting, “borrowing” a tractor and driving it back ourselves, walking all the way back, or…hitchhiking. We were in the country and there were two of us, so I walked up to the road and stuck out my thumb. Soon a lovely farmer stopped, and we climbed into the back of his truck. We wizzed down the road, wind whipping our hair into birds nests while we grinned like idiots with the thrill of victory. We made our way to two vineyards after that. I had toured a vineyard once before but hadn’t really been listening. The two tour guides we had were very nice and knowledgeable, taking us up and down flights of stairs, into dark and earthy-smelling storage rooms and around goliath vats of ageing wine. The best part of course, was tasting.

After the last vineyard, Natalie and I slowly lugged our newly purchased bottles and ourselves back into town. We grabbed our bags and walked the few blocks to the bus station. The station looked like it had when we’d left it: people tangled up in comings and goings, an omnipresent smell of gasoline hanging in the air, giant half-occupied parking spaces striping the concrete. The only thing different this time was that Mendoza was saluting us farewell with a spectacular sunset. We boarded the bus against a background of technicolor layer cake. It looked as though Barbie Dreamhouse had fought an epic battle with a container of apricot sherbet, and the victor was yet to be determined. Pink and orange floated between layers of puffy frosting and pale blue. I ached a little as I boarded the bus, sad to be leaving such a place of peace and beauty, but happy to head back after the long weekend.