Thursday, October 30, 2008

Time flies

Group shot of the volunteers and my injured right middle finger (described later on)!

Quick Recap/Additions
2 weeks down already. I remember the first night I got here I couldn't believe I had only arrived in the morning, because it felt like I had been there two weeks! Well now two weeks have passed, and it barely feels like I've spent a day here. I apologize for not updating sooner - a combination of some personal issues, being busy, and being lazy were responsible for the delay.

Random events I forgot to describe (inserted after the rest of this post was done): We hosted a parilla BBQ last week which was tons of fun! Lots of poker players and their friends came, and our make-your-own skewer style was a bit hit. Later on Daphne, an adorable dog belonging to our friend John joined the party and she was quite the hit. We cooked around 4pm, then took a nap and relaxed...then cooked again around 10! Double-whammy.
Nice day out for a BBQ

Daphne is watching you!
The spit bubble on her left jowel makes this picture an 11/10

Also - we went to a River Plate vs Boca Juniors soccer game. Timing was hugely fortuitous, as this is the game of the year to go to in BA. It also qualifies as the most dangerous thing I have done yet on the trip, as our cab driver kindly dropped us off into a mob of Boca fans while we had River Plate's colors painted on our faces! People hadn't gotten too rowdy yet though, and we got out of there before enough of them realized we were there, or else we honestly probably would have been beaten to a pulp (not joking). Check out my webshots for more pictures!River Plate stadium (colors are red+white, obviously) The fenced/barbed wire/riot policed separate area to the left was the visitor's section

The City and Touristy Events
The reality of the city has set in to some extent - the terrible air quality is aggravating my asthma, and it is impossible to find a peaceful area undisturbed by the perpetual racket on the street. While these things come across as ugly, I know there are plenty of great things about this city, and I am trying not to impose any of my opinions or judgments on it. These things became especially apparent to me when I took a bike tour of the city recently.

In the far back you can see 'The Women's Bridge' - the cool white bridge I explored previously on my own in my Picasa album

All in all, the tour was a lot of fun. I had been cooped up for a few days, only venturing outside the apartment to go to the gym or to get meals. Thus it was nice to do something more active and engaging. I met some cool people - two couples from England, and two girls here teaching English and learning Spanish. Because it's not a high-season for tourism, it seems like most of the foreigners here are a part of a study abroad program, or are hoping to learn Spanish while working teaching English.

As I said, the tour was great - but the closest thing to a 'bike path' that existed was...well...the side of the road. I detailed before about the insanity that is BA driving, so this was a bit unsettling. Nonetheless, it turned it into something of a thrill-ride so I didn't mind too much. The guides were very informative, and while I was tempted to listen to the Spanish guide, I decided to go with the one speaking in English so I could actually learn something about the city instead of catching half of what the other one was saying and trying to fill in the gaps with educated guesses. It also deserves mention that this was the first time in two weeks I had heard anyone mention anything about 'los desaparecidos' and 'la guerra sucia'. I was relieved in a way that people did acknowledge their existence. I was hoping to make it over to the ESMA building where >5,000 people were tortured and killed during that period, but it is closed for renovation.

San Telmo Antique far on Calle Defensa, mobbed with people!

Last Sunday I also visited the San Telmo antique fair, which was quite the event. It was swamped with people and the vibe was good, but many of the things I came across at vendors' blankets that I thought 'oh man that's so unique and cool!' turned out to be some mass-produced trinket to sell to tourists. That said, there were some incredible artists and performers in the street that I was seriously humbled by. The one that struck me the most was the 'Orquesta Tipica' which was almost a dozen musicians - 1 piano, 4 violins, 4 accordian-like instruments, a cello, an upright bass, and a vocalist. The sound they were able to produce in the middle of a packed street with people yelling all over the place was remarkable, and they managed to play expertly despite ragged appearances and old instruments. I asked them 'donde puedo oir mas musica como esta?' - where can I hear more music like this? to which they replied 'como esta? por ningun parte' - like this? Nowhere. I smiled, but realized that hearing traditional tango was probably pretty rare except for touristy tango joints nowadays in BA, which is pretty sad. They did tell me about one of their upcoming gigs though, which I plan on attending if I'm still in the city.

La Orquesta Tipica in San Telmo

Speaking of the city, I finally got out of it for about...2 hours! I had heard La Tigre was a great day trip, so I decided to go check it out on my own. It was easy to get to Retiro train station (the big hub for busses and trains in BA), and the round-trip ticket to Tigre cost a grand total of 2.20 pesos (I am proud of this fact, because foreigners usually pay a higher price, so I must have appeared like a local! Or...he just felt bad for me), and about 45 minutes later I arrived. I must nice as it was to be out of the city, La Tigre was pretty lame. I'd compare it to a far more touristy, dirty, crowded Concord river (ironically it has a similar historical significance as the Concord river as well). I took a short boat tour of the area, but couldn't hear anything the guide was saying due to a shoddy sound system. The (relatively) fresh air was a nice change, but I didn't spend long there because there wasn't much to do.

The not-so-spectacular Tigre

Note: All pics during volunteering were taken by the group organizer, Elena.
I know there isn't any real difference in privacy, but because I don't feel right posting picture of the kids directly in this blog, they are in my picasa album, which is linked elsewhere in this blog.

Today, without a doubt, has been my most engaging and mentally exhausting day of the trip so far. The volunteer group I had been approached by while roaming downtown that I mentioned in the last post sent me an email saying they would be doing their thing at the children's hospital today and that I should come, so I decided 'why not'? I must admit I was a bit nervous, as my Spanish is decent but not great, and they told me I should bring my guitar, but I didn't have any music prepared. I arrived outside and was greeted by Johnny, an incredibly funny nice guy my age who was also volunteering (he was from BA), and told him I'd be right back because I needed to get some money from an ATM. Unfortunately, on my way out of the phone-booth style ATM I smashed my right middle finger in the door which ripped off a good 1/3 of the fingernail off along with a chunk of skin underneath it and immediately started to bleed profusely. I had no idea my finger could bleed that much, but thankfully I was in fact right next to the hospital, so they fixed me right up and despite my finger being completely wrapped in gauze, I could still play the guitar so I wasn't worried.

The Volunteer Group for 'Mundo Mejor'

The volunteer group turned out to be an incredibly talented, friendly group (all roughly my age, and all from Buenos Aires except for one girl from Germany who was also volunteering for her first time). I changed into the ridiculous outfit they gave me once I realized the others were also doing so, and we quickly ran over what we'd be doing for the kids which involved playing/singing some songs, and a comedy sketch of 'the boy who cried wolf'. I played one of the townspeople that repremanded the boy after he misled me many times! One example of the spontaneous nature of the whole thing, was, just before the wolf came creeping out, he quickly ran up to me and whispered 'When I come out, play wolf music!!!'. I would have laughed if I wasn't so busy trying to think of what 'wolf music' was exactly. Thankfully, I think I was able to pull it off.

The room itself that we performed in must have been some sort of children's ICU. There were about 15 beds along the walls, all with extremely ill or injured children. I hadn't known what to expect, and believe me when I say that dancing, singing, and playing guitar while entering that room felt incredibly wrong (well, wrong isn't the right word...but it didn't feel natural). These kids were not in good shape, and it was an interesting challenge acting happy and funny while surrounded by such misery. We played our songs, did our skit, and then spent some time one-on-one with the kids just chatting and making them balloons. Seeing the kids laugh and smile was extremely moving, given the circumstances. The child I talked with, Rodrigo, seemed to be in a happy mindset despite being completely bedridden. When I asked him how he wanted me to make his balloon, I was beyond relieved to hear sim say 'simple normal'. The only thing I knew how to make was a sword, and the few I had practiced looked more like bizzare sporks. I made him a few balloons and we talked briefly about what he liked to do and what music he liked. Then, as we were about to leave, we were informed there was a particularly sick child in a separate room that wanted attention, so we spent some time with him. After some introductions, the organizer Elena thrust my guitar into my hands and told me to play a song. To say I was caught off-guard would be quite the understatement, but I managed to play a broken version of Hotel California with probably 50% 'creative' words. Thankfully everyone liked it, and a little while later, I was back in my normal clothes and back home. Before I left, though, Elena mentioned they have a volunteer's house where they occasionally have big dinners, and invited me to one which I look forward to greatly after I get back from Patagonia.

Upcoming Trip!
What's this about Patagonia you say? Yes, finally! Ian and I have a 5:45 AM flight out of Buenos Aires on Saturday, heading to El Calafate. We will jump right into the action with a boat ride to, and a short day hike on, the Perito Moreno glacier! I am extremely excited for this - especially the celebratory brandy + glacier ice drink we receive after we hike a ways on top of it. That night or the next morning we head to Puerto Natales (~6 hour bus ride), where we will prepare and depart for Torres del Paine national park in Chile on a 4 night/5 day trek on 'The W'. This area is supposed to be one of the best in the world for these hikes, and thankfully is very well organized and set-up. We are not joining with a tour group or anything, which makes it much more exciting I think, but we will be taking extra precautions for safety's sake.
The Perito Moreno glacier - 'awesome' in the true sense of the word

Torres del Paine national park in Chile - where I'll be trekking

The trek itself (The 'W') is a shortened version of the full circuit, which usually takes at least 8 days to complete. There are many 'refugios' cabins that we might hop between, or we might rent camping gear. We will base our decision on what the locals suggest - maybe we'll do some sort of combo. Wildlife is harmless thankfully - except for pumas - but they are incredibly rare (farrrr more rare and reclusive than bears in Yosemite, for example). Thankfully no parts of the hike are considered dangerous, and our main obstacles will be outrageously strong winds and the cold (but it's summer, so it's not that cold). Mom, don't worry, we're being very careful and dliberate with our preparation!
'The W'

Earlier today we went to 'Fugate' hiking store (recommended by south american explorers club) to get the gear we didn't have and couldn't rent. Unfortunately it was closed when we got there, but when I told the owner we needed gear for El Calafate y Torres del Paine, he opened the store for us because he could probably tell we were gonna be buying a lot. He was extremely helpful, and when I told him he had been recommended to us by something we read at South American Explorers Club, he gave us an addition 10% off the already very inexpensive equipment. I asked him about his products, and all of it is made domestically. I was happy that I could support a local gear store while getting great quality equipment for not much money. In total we purchased:
1 Long underwear pants
1 Long underwear top
4 pairs sock liners
1 pair hiking socks
2 pairs gloves
2 fleece hats
4 meters of rope

for only 488 pesos (under $150 US!). He gave us his card if we had any questions, we thanked him, and left satisfied. I sitll need to pick up a few things (emergency whistle, food, etc.), but the rest can be rented in Puerto Natales for very cheap.

Tonight we're splurging and hitting up some fine dining with buddies, tomorrow is designated for some more prep, relaxation, and then of course...halloween! Not sure if Ian and I will be calling it an early night or just stay up, because our bedtime has rarely been before 3AM the last 2 weeks straight (not because we're party animals, only because normal dinner doesn't end before midnight), and we will have to leave for the airport by 3:30.

Wow that was an incredibly long blog post - hope you guys enjoyed it. As always - comments encouraged!!! I will do my best to respond to them quickly now, so check back for answers to any questions (I have responded to previous questions in the earlier post as well).


Monday, October 27, 2008

Down-time soon to be over

Hey all - sorry I haven't updated again yet. Things in general have turned to a more relaxed pace, but I am looking to pick things up again starting this week. There has been a lot going on though, and while I am too tired to write them up right now, I just wanted to let you guys know I posted some more pics at my picasa site which is linked in the previous post. I will make a real post soon to keep you guys up to date. Hope everyone has been well!


Monday, October 20, 2008

Welcome to Buenos Aires

Leon Enters our first OneWorld flight

Newly added: for clarity, here is the link to my photo album with more pics:
Includes not-described-below pictures of a boca-river soccer game worth looking at, I'll describe them next blog update.

The trip got off to a great start. About 5 minutes after take-off I was attempting to explain to Leon when to write accents in Spanish, and the guy sitting next to us offered to help. Pablo, an Argentine businessman (about 35 y.o.) was returning home from his four day vacation in NYC where he was meeting two of his high school friends. Him and his friends made this annual vacation to a new spot each year, as they had separated since school and wanted to stay in touch. Despite his trip only being four days long, and our trip being a year long, I saw a sort of similarity between his situation and ours. We talked with him for hours on the flight (in Spanish of course), and what I thought was going to be an eternity which I would fill with reading guidebooks, watching in-flight movies, and sleeping, flew by (pun not intended), and before I knew it we were landing 5,000 miles away.Before we even got to the apartment - we met up with Ian and Daniel, a poker
player from Sweden that we have been hanging out with frequently, at 'Cafe Seis'

Customs was a breeze and Leon and I soon discovered just how insane Argentine drivers are. I wondered to myself how it was possible that there weren't accidents all the time, both car-car and car-pedestrian. Soon enough I realized that yes, these accidents did happen all the time! Yesterday I was walking to a music store to buy a small guitar when I heard a sound like an empty soda can being stomped on. I looked up in time to see a jeep flipping over on it's side after it had been hit in the side by a minivan). A small crowd gathered, but the driver hopped out of the topside door and acted like nothing unusual had really happened.

Chilling on our favorite patio in the world

I have been exploring a fair amount locally (our neighborhood, Palermo, is an awesome mix of an old-city feel with trendy cafes and plazas). One recurring theme I have seen in my short time here is the contrast of clean and filth, new and abandoned. There is trash strewn about all over the place, thanks to an absurd system of recycling where the city leaves it to homeless people to rip open and dig through trash bags to find recyclables, which they can turn in for a small paycheck, instead of promoting an easy to use public recycling system. On the other hand, the city has clearly put an enormous effort into making the city more green by having every single street completely lined with enormous, gorgeous trees. It reminds me of memorial drive in Cambridge, but everywhere, more colorful, and on smaller streets. There is the strongest dog-culture I have seen anywhere here, with happy dogs running around all over the place. For every four or five people I come upon, I see a dog. However, there are mangy strays roaming around as well, and the sidewalks are covered with dog crap. There are well-maintained historic buildings in much of Palermo as well as downtown (beautiful 8-10 story castle-like apartment buildings), as well as a new influx of reflective mirror-covered office buildings (which I don't really like, but some people do), but they are countered by an abundant supply of completely abandoned or neglected construction sites that stick out like nasty pimples on an otherwise beautiful face.
This picture sums it up - Nice new and old buildings on one side, Old abandoned ones on the other, ample beautiful green space, and me stuck in the middle of all of it not knowing what to think.

Me in front of the Casa Rosada, the main government building in the city

A typical cheapo lunch - 'el bife', y agua con gas. In front of the eco preserve (more pictures in the web album linked at the bottom)

The people here have been extremely nice so far, and I think that being confident with my Spanish has had an enormous influence on how I am perceived in the area. I was approached while I was wandering alone downtown and asked for money to support a volunteer group, but instead I started a conversation with them asking about what they did, and was invited to come join them on Thursday, which I plan on doing. I am trying to strike up mini-conversations where there would otherwise be a two-sentence exchange like at a restaurant or in a taxi. I have to say that I have probably been a little lucky so far with my social encounters, as one of the guys we went to a soccer game with yesterday was robbed twice on his first day here!

Maybe a banzi tree to spice up our apartment?

The poker players and their friends have been a huge part of our social life here, and I'm definitely thankful to Ian for connecting us with them. They are all really nice people (unlike many other poker players, the ones that are happy to travel to faraway countries tend to be of a different mindset), and I expect to spend a good amount of time with them in the area here. I'm hoping to branch out on my own though as well to explore other areas of the city, and of Argentina as a whole. At a party hosted by a poker player, I spoke with two Australian guys from Perth that absolutely raved about their city and insisted that I go there. I was struck by how enthusiastic they were about their city, because as much as I love Boston, if asked about it by a stranger, I would certainly recommend visiting it, but I wouldn't have done it with the fervor that these guys did. Anyways, they convinced me, and I will add it into my own itinerary.

Leon, Me, Daniel, Ian, Brant, Will, at one of the many great restaurants in our neighborhood

For local trips, I am hoping to fit in many places, and what I thought was going to be a laid-back, relaxed month in Buenos Aires is becoming significantly more dynamic. Because the three weeks after our lease expires is already half-committed with a Macchu Pichu trip, I will probably be venturing out during our lease as well to fit in a number of stops:
-Puerto Madryn, a long bus ride or short flight away to the south, is supposedly the best scuba diving spot in Argentina. Only a few dozen meters off shore is a deep trench that Orca whales use like a superhighway. I am hoping to do some whale-watching and seal diving (hoping to dive with a whale as well, one of the things on my 'must-do before dying' list) for a few days there.
-Bariloche, also a very long bus ride or 2-3 hour flight, is southwest of BA near the border of Chile and is supposed to have extraordinary hikes and treks. It is right on the mountains, and is normally visited for ski vacations, but summer activities also thrive there.
-Ushaia, near the southern tip of South America, is supposed to be an place like no other, with an incredible landscape and coast. It is the launching point for many ferries to the Antarctic, but I probably don't have time for that.
-Iguazu falls is an absolute must, and Ian and I are planning our trip there probably as soon as next week. Don't need to say a whole lot about that, as it is one of the 'travel wonders of the world' according to wikipedia, but we expect to spend at least 3 days there to experience it.
-Colonia and Punto del Este are two spots in Uruguay that I really want to visit. It's an easy ferry to get to the country, and from there it's not too hard to get to either. Colonia will probably just be a day trip since it's so close, and Punto del Este will be at least a couple days.

Mendoza and Bahia Blanca are also on the list, but I probably can't fit everything in with only 7 weeks in the continent, and I don't want this to turn into a travel-frenzy or get burnt out this soon into the trip.

Today Leon and I are heading to see the Recoleta cemetary and pay our respects to Evita. Other plans are a poker dinner tomorrow, a cookout on Wednesday we are hosting thanks to our awesome patio+parilla grill, and drinks at one of Ian's favorite bars.

I finally set up my web album that I will post all my pictures at, it is:

Check it out for more fun pictures
I will try to update the blog at the end of the week.

Comments and questions are encouraged!


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

It begins!

Leon and I, Posting in NYC
Vagabonding Definition From

The trip has begun! For those of you I haven't already told, I'm traveling for a while now that school is done. At the moment it seems like most of it will be done with my two high school friends, Leon and Ian. Depending on how things go, we will likely split up and meet back together at various points throughout the trip. We booked a round-the-world ticket through the OneWorld alliance. Although it's a little more expensive than other rtw tickets, it allows us significant flexibility for timing (most of these flights are open-dated) and route (for a small fee the entire trip can be changed). The itinerary is roughly as follows (and will no doubt change significantly):

Oct 14th (yesterday) Boston > NYC via boltbus
Oct 15th (today) NYC > Buenos Aires, Argentina (Oneworld)
Late October?: Local trips to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Montevideo, Uruguay. Maybe southern Argentina too.
November 15th?: BA > Lima, Peru (Oneworld)
November 17th?: Lima > Cuzco, Peru (to see Machu Picchu)
November 22th?: Cuzco > Lima
November 23rd?: Lima > BA, Argentina (Oneworld)
November 24th?: Iguacu falls, Argentina/Brazil border
December 1st?: Iguacu > BA
December 6th: BA > Sydney, Australia (Oneworld)
December 17th: Sydney > Queenstown, New Zealand( Oneworld)
January 3rd?: Queenstown > Auckland, NZ (Oneworld)
January 17th?: Auckland > Melbourne, Australia (Oneworld)
February 16th?: Melbourne > Hong Kong, China (Oneworld)
February 23rd?: HK > Kunming, China (w/trip to Lixiang)
March 4th?: Kunming > HK
March 5th?: HK > Beijing, China (Oneworld)
March 19th?: Beijing > Shanghai via train
March 31st?: Shanghai > Beijing
April 2nd?: Beijing > Tokyo (Oneworld)
May 1st?: Tokyo > Bangkok, Thailand (Oneworld)
Late May?: Local trips to Laos, Vietnam
June 1st?: Bangkok > Mumbai, India (Oneworld)
Mid June?: Local trips around India
June 15th?: Mumbai > Helsinki, Finland (Oneworld)
Late June/Early July?: Local trips to Stockholm, Sweden, and St.Petersburg, Russia
July 15th?: Helsinki > Budapest, Hungary (Oneworld)
Late July/Early August?: Local trips around Eastern Europe
August 15th?: Budapest > Zurich, Switzerland (Oneworld)
Late August/September/October: Local trips around central Europe
Latest return date possible, October 15th, 2009: Zurich > NYC.

The above dates are outrageous estimations and as the trip progresses they will undoubtedly change. Also, these are my dates - Leon and Ian may have very different ideas of where to spend time. Ian also has an earlier last possible return date (in August) because he left earlier than Leon and me.

In an attempt to get started on the right foot, Leon and I (after saying hi to my former housemates and dropping off our backpacks) went out to a popular Jazz club last night (Dizzy's club) and heard some great music and got a couple drinks. Got back around 2 and fell asleep instantly despite being really excited for the beginning of the trip. I woke up around 6 when my housemates were getting up to work so I could say hi before I left, since I will be gone when they get back.

I won't post too much about my expectations or predictions for the trip, because a)I want to get outside for a jog before we leave for JFK and don't have much time and b)They probably won't make any sense at this time anyways because honestly, I don't really know what to expect or predict. I'll type something sensible on the upcoming 12-hour flight to post here when I get in Buenos Aires. No doubt I'll also have some pictures to show by that point as well.

I will try to keep this blog filled with observations, commentary, and anecdotes, as opposed to a recounting of daily activities. If anyone notices it starts to turn into dull mumbling, please yell at me in the comments.

Next post will be from the southern hemisphere.