February 29, 2008

into te anau

Driving a left-side car is not quite as difficult as it could be - it's more unnerving than anything, and a bit comical to watch us flounder, like an Amazing Race team trying to get out of a parking lot. Turning isn't even the most difficult, really - often, we could just follow the car ahead or, no joke, keep an eye on the sticky Hertz affixed to the car in front of the speedometer to "keep left." It's hard to keep track of the boundaries - we hit a curb pretty hard when pulling up to it, and as the passenger, it's my job to tell Susan when she's too far over left and nearing the shoulder or a parked car. No incidents yet, though we did spring for the extra insurance. If we paid for it, might as well use it.

And having a car, in addition to the novelty and flexibility, has already proven its worth in freedom. Tonight, our scheduled tour to see the glowworm caves here in Te Anau was cancelled on account of flooding (we've rescheduled for tomorrow, after our Milford Sound day - pray for more climate weather). Unfortunately, Te Anau is no Queenstown, or even Franz Joseph. There is essentially one street, with good restaurants but few shops (why no wool, Te Anau?) and no nighttime activities whatsoever - after we did one pass, we were done with town, really. But it was still light out, so we hopped in the car and headed for Manapouri, 20 km away.

When booking trips, we (OK, I) kept having crises of tourism - Milford Sound is what everyone comes to see; the pictures and postcards are spectacular, and the many dozen daily tour buses can't be wrong. But on the other hand is Doubtful Sound - similarly beautiful, but far more remote, less visited, harder to get to - image no sound, no other people, just majesty. Of course, it's also three times more expensive to go there than Milford. I finally decided Milford was going t be more than enough and that I needed to quit pining.

Well, Manapouri is where the first leg of the Doubtful trips leave from, so we got a little taste of it. The lake is crystal clear and cold, and on a chilly, almost-rainy night, it feels impossibly remote. The silence as we stood on the rocky beach was extraordinary - the occasional lap of the water, or droplets from the earlier rains falling from the trees behind us, but no insects, birds, man or machine. Just silence and calm. It was the best sunset possible, and we never saw the sun.

Tomorrow is when I try to drive. As I leave on that scary note, also bear in mind that I am doing so in an area where cows can finagle their way through the fence and go trotting by - and in - the road like a wayward stray. This happened on the way to Manapouri, and Susan had to do a bit of unexpected herding with the Ford Focus. So I have to: stay left, not too far left, and watch for cows. And sheep! Yeah, this could go poorly.

February 28, 2008

Queenstown Rocks (sung to the tune of "Cleveland Rocks")

This may be the prettiest place I've been; if it isn't, it is certainly in the top few, because Queenstown is stunning.
It reminds me of Patagonia, given the glacier landscaping, but in a good way - Queenstown, too, has this pretty blue hue that often overtakes it, and the lake it is perched on (Lake Wakatipu, one of the top 10 most fun words to say) is both massive, looks more lik
e a fjord than a lake, and is also pretty and blue and opaque.

I don't know what bribe we paid the weather gods, but yesterday when we woke up, ti was cloudy and overcast (unsurprising for fjordland...) so we wandered about town a bit - went to some shops, lost my sunglasses, found my sunglasses, signed up for obligatory tour options, and so forth. By then, the clouds were clearing, so we went up the gondola. It's not as long as the gondola in Christchurch, but it's much steeper and faster, and the views from the top of Bob's Peak are supremely awesome.

And no, I am not calling it Bob's Peak because I don't remember the name, as I am given to do. It is really called that. One more reason to like this place.

When we came back, we had lunch, and by then the clouds were thicker and darker and the lake had gotten choppy and the wind picked up - somehow we managed to go up the gondola in the only 2 hour window of gorgeous weather.

Even though our hotel was a little pricer than we may have liked, it is right on the lake with some incredible views from the room
plus they had laundry, so Susan and I have all clean clothes (it's amazing how travel turns laundry day into Christmas morning - all this clean underwear! It's a fiesta!). We walked across the harbor to the gardens after dinner, to look back at all the lights.

We will only be spending about two days here all told, but for all that it is stunning and lovable, that's enough. The vastly skewed tourist-to-local population here gets a little hard to take before too long. There is such a backpacker population that the shops and restaurants seem to be all operated by visiting Aussies, Americans, Irish, British, and other travelers who decided to stop for a while. I am starting to wonder if anyone here is actually Kiwi. So we are good to go - plus it's raining today.

Now, we head south. If you don't hear from me in a while, send help; today we rent a car, so we may be trapped on the right side of the road somewhere, trying to get left.

February 27, 2008

diet coke: new zealand

It's taken me several tries to get a fair assessment on this one.

Try #1 was actually a rum & diet coke, at a place where all the shots are double shots. So it tasted...like rum. But it didn't make the rum taste bad, so my hopes were high.

Try #2 was from a can, and it...was good. I mean, canned Diet Coke, but not coca light or some such abomination. Slight aftertaste, slight tinnyness, but good.

try #3 was not good. Fountain diet coke has an aftertaste that will curl your toes. Seriously scary. It tastes fine, but then it...well, it tastes going down the way no good beverage should. Let's just say that.

So, the verdict is that I can drink canned (and perhaps bottled? We will try that soon) diet coke here just fine, in a pinch. It's no 7/11, but it's freedom from the Sprite prison I was in while in Argentina.

On to Queenstown

I am pretty glad that I am off bus travel for a while. I know I am a pansy, but I don't really like car trips anyway, and buses are even less comfortable, plus they stop when THEY want, not when you want. So we were on a bus for hours today and it was long and I was so glad to be finally off of it, but fortunately the trip from Franz down to Queenstown is gorgeous. It goes by Fox Glacier, through the Mt Aspiring National Park, by Lake Wanaka, and past about a zillion sheep. You will have tot ake my word for how pretty it was, though, because I couldn't get many good shots from the coach window. But the low-lying fluffy clouds on the huge mountains were quite stunning.

And now we are in Queenstown, home of the most adrenaline-packed, outdoor-loving, extreme-loving population on the planet. This place is so hardcore, they even have a giant X carved into the side of a mountain (I don't actually know if that's why it is there, but there is, in fact, a giant X in the side of the mountain overlooking town). It is a little overwhelming, how aggressive this town is in pushing the availability of jetboating, skydiving, parasailing, quad biking, bungy jumping, mountain biking, and various other creative ways they have of dropping you from great heights or forcing you to achieve great speed. I feel vaguely guilty for being in the adrenaline capital of the country and...not really caring about the adrenaline sports. But I have no desire to book some bungy-boating package deal. Which is ALSO too bad, because oddly, everything in Queenstown is also a booking agent. There are information stations and tour bookings at just about every restaurant, store, and counter in town. You essentially cannot take a pee without simultaneously being able to schedule a trip to Milford Sound.

But besides all of the in-your-face guest services, Queenstown is GORGEOUS. It is a living, breathing, postcard, this charming little town on the shores of a huge glacier lake. We could not for the life of us find any affordable accomodations (even though now, in town, there seem to be tons), so we ended up in a hotel about a 15 minute walk from town. The good news, though, is that our hotel is on the lake with million dollar views, and it has everything under the sun. Totally worth it. We got here late enough (stupid bus) that the pictures will have to wait until tomorrow, but they will be there, never fear.

Oh! I almost forgot the wine experience to end all. It's no wine-by-bike tour in Marlborough, but Queenstown has a wine store where you put money or open a tab on a rechargeable card, and can taste virtually anything in the store. After dinner tonight, Susan and I went and plowed our way through the store. This place is incredible, and we unsurprisingly found sauvignon blancs, rose, pinots and rieslings to die for, all bought by the taste. I would go to that store all the time if I lived here. So it's a good thing that I don't, or I would probably end up accidentally signed up to bungy or something.

February 25, 2008


OK, yes, so I am sitting at an internet cafe, blogging about Franz Joseph and the like, and I decided to make it into multiple posts. I fear people will get bored if I have things in one big post, or that I won't be able to fully remember everything if I put it all into one? I don't know. My days need to all be separate posts, apparently.

But we are still in Franz,
until tomorrow when we take a long bus ride south to Queenstown, where you can to everything stupid and adrenaline-y ever. But for now, we were not feeling adrenaline-y, or rich, so we did not do any of the heli-skydive-trekking-packages that are everywhere in this town. Instead, Susan and I decided to get to the glacier on our own steam, so we walked all the way there from town. It made for a tiring morning, but how often can you say that you woke up, talked out the door, and walked over to a glacier? Cause we did.
Franz is dirtier than the glaciers in Patagonia, and the body of water it ends in is much, much smaller, so the terminal face is not nearly as much of a sheer drop as the others were. The river it ends in is deceptive, though, apparently - it's small, but it is very unpredictable, so lately one of the paths that gets closest to it is closed because of falling ice and flooding, and there is another path that has been reclaimed by the river on the other side. Apparently, the river will just change course and take over things without warning.

We said pish posh, though, and crossed the little stream to get to the path anyway, and got pretty close to the face. I have seen a couple now, but glaciers are no less breathtaking at this point; they really are extraordinary. And we were never menaced by the river, but it was awesome to walk right up under the waterfalls pouring from the mountains, see that the big boulders in the river were, in fact, blocks of ice off the glacier, and see all the places where the river has gone at one point or another.
We even went for another easy stroll at the end, because it was supposed to lead to some good views. It did:

The hikes were easy enough, they just meant for about 7 miles of walking before lunch, so we are beat. We are going to wander about town a little bit, and that my be it. Besides, it's time to repack (again) in time for tomorrow's departure. I like Franz, and it is certainly the most similar to my time in Patagonia, with both scenery and remoteness, but far easier. Not just the English, but the high-speed internet, the fully staffed i-site information centers, the easy, well-marked hikes.

(I even got to watch a bit of the Oscars last night. Really? Was No Country that good? I didn't even want to see it. Normally, I throw Oscar parties and organize betting pools, but being out of the country for the nominations, campaigning and now the awards, and I am terminally out of it; of the big 6 categories, I have seen...There Will Be Blood.)

So we are remote, but not too. And I still love New Zealand.

Tranz Awesome

OK, first of all, since I am back on a non-temperamental, email-only Mac, I want to justify my last post: what is not to love about New Zealand?

They don't call Christchurch the most British city outside of England for nothing.

But I am not in Christchurch any longer - yesterday, Susan and I took a train west. Trains are not really used in New Zealand for transportation - there are a total of three trains, all by the same company, all used pretty much for tourist transport. But it is totally worth it - and for our itinerary, the most efficient, and certainly prettiest, way to get where we wanted to go. We left from Christchurch and went straight over the mountains to Greymouth on the West Coast. The Tranz Alpine route goes through the Southern Alps and the coal mining towns and over to the West, where there is more rain and fewer people. It was lovely when we left, but started getting cold and rain at the summit. Cold, sure, rain, sure, but still stunning.

And it seems Susan's good travel karma, and my apparently horrible travel karma got into a cage match, and hers won the battle: Our train was nearly an hour late getting in, which proved a problem for the bus we were supposed to catch. But apparently, the train is often late, so the buses wait. We had about 4 minutes grace period, but it was all we needed. After a quick stop in a tiny town, we made it south to the town of Franz Joseph (size: two streets, one glacier) in time for some bitter, brutal rain to come in. Plus, it was COLD. (Speaking of, I love how it is about 30 degrees colder here than it was in PATAGONIA. Weird weather, yo.)

Franz is backpacker central, and there are probably more helicopters and camper vans here than actual Kiwis, but it's also pretty awesome. It is the only place I have ever, ever been that I can take an easy hike in the rainforest and then come out on the main road, turn left, and see the glacier. It's surreal.

February 23, 2008

Kiwi luvvin'

Y'all, I love New Zealand. 

I love that we are staying at a pod hotel in the middle of town that has 7 different "mood" tv stations (not to be confused with the "wake" stations - those you can set to come on with some gently increasing light to wake you up gradually), one of which is a crackling fire. I love that this place is so tourist oriented, but in this country that means lots of tour packages and help, rather than in-your-face commercialism. In fact, I love that the souvenirs you can buy everywhere are things like merino wool, handcrafted jewelry and artisan crafts; I have seen maybe one cheap tee-shirt shop.

The weather is divine, if unpredictable. It's fall, so it makes sense. Yesterday morning, we went to the weekend craft market at the Arts Center. This is how cute this city is: The University of Canterbury outgrew its amazing gothic campus right west of town center, so when they relocated, Christchurch kept the entire thing exactly as it is and turned it into a free center for visual and performing arts, and now there is an art house movie theatre, a theatre venue, artists in residence, stores, cafes, events...it's really cool, and the weekend market is wonderful. Plus, a whole alley of cheap street food. And I love street food.

And even though it was chilly and overcast in the morning, it cleared right up so that in the afternoon, we could be uber-touristy and take the gondola up the mountain. We took the bus to the suburbs and went up a little ski lift/gondola thing to the top of the 450m peak. The views up there were outstanding - Christchurch, the harbors and beaches of neighboring towns, these tiny little hamlets all along the coast. The wind was inSANE, so we have a lot of pictures of walking against the wind and me in the "I'm flying, Jack!" pose, but it was no joke - you literally had to brace yourself to not be knocked over by the gusts.

It got chilly again last night, and there was a brief cloudburst, but this morning it seems to have passed, and it's back to being mild and lovely. I love the New Zealand food - we've had all ranges, and all of it uniformly excellent. I love that the people here are so polite they don't even litter, so the town is very clean and liveable. I love that they also seem to love straws, so every time you buy a soda even at a conveninece store, they hand you a bendy straw; awesome!

This place is insanely awesome, y'all.

February 22, 2008

in which things look up for our hero...

The number one reason why things were better today was that, by the time I had gotten up, showered, packed my pathetic belongings into a shopping bag, and checked my email, my sister had already landed in Christchurch. I just had to go to our hotel to meet her.

The next reason is that our hotel? Is awesome. It is this weird, new, hip, tiny place that is...so weird. It is designed to save on space and save on money, so it's like IKEA threw up in here. They clearly spent money on design, and it's brand new, so everything is spectacularly spiffy. And our room is about 12 feet by 7 feet. Total. Bathroom included, no closet. But it's all been designed with that in mind - the bed is built in, and runs along the back of the room; it's lofted a bit to have storage under the room; the flat panel tv, reading lights, and elaborate sound/alarm/mood music system are all mounted to the wall; the bathroom is shaped like a 1/4 circle, separated by frosted glass, and organized so everything serves multiple purposes. It's like being in a ship's cabin, and it's a trip, but it's also super comfy beds, free brand-new Macs for web surfing, a posh gym and sauna for use, et cetera. I would rather a trippy, small, ultra-designer room for the same price as a private room in a hostel, thanks. I love it. Stay here, seriously.

Another rocking reason for today is the food - my sister and I have really similar tastes, so we go the order-and-split route, and today has included for my chewing pleasure: a Moroccan lamb salad, a chicken sandwich with cranberry relish, flatbread, an Indian chicken satay pizza, and an Asian chicken salad that was not at all like it sounds, but really wonderful. Oh, and also, a lovely fruity reisling from the region. I like New Zealand food a lot, already.

And finally, late this afternoon, my bags arrived. That's the other reason today rocked. I am now in jeans, with a cleansed and moisturized face, and no longer carrying everything I own like a crazy bag lady. I feel so much better - when you've only got a backpack for all you own, you WANT TO KEEP the BACKPACK.

On an administrative note, these computers are free, but they are just for web surfing - so no pictures for right now, though I am taking them, and I will update the posts soon. And also, I think this Mac is running Safari or an old Firefox, and I can't change it, so I think the blog formatting will be wonky. Sorry about both, but I love the free Macs, so I won't turn it down.

February 21, 2008

what have you got to lose?

First, I lost February 20. I left on Tuesday afternoon for my flight, and landed on early morning on Thursday. And Wednesday was my sister's birthday to boot; that's totally an excuse not to have to get her anything, right?

I got to Auckland ridiculously early yesterday, just after 6:00 am, after some barely sufficient sleep on the plane. But I had just over 12 hours until my flight down to Christchurch, so the plan was to enjoy Auckland for a day. Unfortunately, by bags just did not want to leave home, and they - along with those of about 40 others - didn't get on the plane. I was told that they were being rerouted, and would be here...eventually. So I still had 12 hours in town, but now I had them without a toothbrush or a pair of non-yoga pants.

If you're ever in the same boat, it's really easy to get into town from the airport, and then back again. There is a hop on/hop off airport shuttle that goes all around the city center and requires no reservations, so I tooled into town and went for pretty much the only sight in town that was open at 8:15 in the morning, the Auckland Sky Tower (New Zealand has adhered to the international law that every city have a really tall thing for tourists to go up and look around; the Sky Tower is very, very tall). Normally, I am not the first one to go up the towers because I find them expensive and interchangeable after a while. From up top, all cities are just rooftops, right? But since I had one day, it was a great way to get my bearings and to "see" all of Auckland. Plus, it was still barely 9:00, so it was really quiet, and lovely to look around on a clear day. Auckland is a booming port, and seems to be an immensely liveable city. And because they are ridiculously addicted to adrenaline activities here, I also had the option to either walk around the outer walkway of the tower (!) or jump off it (!!). I did neither. It does not seem a good thing to try when one has nothing to change into. Should one, hypothetically, soil oneself at hurling own 90 stories. I had a hard enough time with the disconcerting glass floors in the observation deck. I am not scared of heights, but we were REALLY HIGH.

Auckland was gearing up for the Chinese New Year festival with all sorts of Chinese lanterns all over town. Albert Park had these massive displays of really elaborate lanterns and...papier-mache sheep (?) that were lovely and cool. I wandered through Auckland University an over to the Domain (big, gorgeous park). In there is the Auckland Museum, and it's Maori exhibits. New Zealand is a fascinatingly young country. There were no mammals here save bats until man brought them over; their idea of historical objects date back to 1860. I am from California and that seems...really new to me. But the Maori artifacts were really, really cool. I can already tell I am going to go to town on the souvenirs here.

I walked up Queen Street, the main drag (also decorated with Chinese lanterns) and to the Quay and the waterfront (and marveled at the QEII in dock for the day). It was not a lot of time, but I think I got a feel for Auckland. Very clean, very accessible, very lovely city.

When I got back to the airport, no dice on the bags. I have to say, I have had three major legs on my trip thus far, and have had major problems with every single one of them. I hope this is not a trend. By the time I made it south to Christchurch, I was exhausted, cranky, smelly and at the end of my rope. I had only the overnight emergency pack with its odd assortment of toiletries (toothpaste, toothbrush and shampoo were all very appreciated; soap or face wash or moisturizer would not have gone awry) and my carry-on to my name. I showered (which was lovely) and put back on the clothes (less lovely) and slept hard.

I like New Zealand already; I lost a lot getting here, though.

February 18, 2008

diet coke: home

i think i'll miss you most of all...

(ps - expect the blog to be back to its regularly scheduled gallivanting very soon; i leave for new zealand tomorrow).

February 14, 2008

notes from the homefront

It really is impossible to overstate how nice it is to once again have soft, two-ply toilet paper that you can flush. So much better than thin, scratchy stuff that abuses areas only meant to be treated nicely.

I also have a ticket to New Zealand, so early next week, I will once again be writing from interesting places.

February 12, 2008

Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in

One thing I know about travel, especially international travel, especially international travel to places that do not have the ultra-polished infrastructure in place for the tourist set, is that it teaches flexibility. I knew this would be something it would teach me, anyway, because it really is not innate for me to just go with the flow and take what happens.

So, yeah. I am writing this entry from home. As in, California. As in, the US.

It's a really long story, and it involves two and a half or so days of the longest, most miserable, most impotent-feeling, most depressing days ever.

But no, the trip is not off. It's just now my round-the-world trip includes a mini stop in California. I go to New Zealand next week.

OK, so for the full version: When I first arrived in Argentina, during that rough start that involved my late flight into Buenos Aires, I went back to ask the flight attendants about my flight on Aerolineas Argentina, one of them got a big,, wide-eyed look and said, "But Aerolineas is on strike. There were riots yesterday." Well, it turned out that it was a strike that only lasted a couple of days, and it only affected international flights anyway. I didn't worry about it too much, especially since they were able to help me get to Ushuaia only one day late.

Turns out I had reason to worry. I have since learned that Aerolineas is a fairly dodgy airline. I was pretty ready to get out of Buenos Aires, and really eager to get to New Zealand, from at least Friday on. Saturday went pretty quickly, and on Sunday I checked out of my hostel and spent the day wandering about the city - my flight was originally scheduled to leave just before midnight, but was pushed back before I reconfirmed, so was now leaving at 1am. When I came back to the hostel to pick up my bags before taking a bus to the airport, the guys at the desk told me that Aerolineas called that morning, and my flight was pushed back another 8 hours, and was now supposed to leave at 9am.

I was not happy, and a little skittish about the 2 delays before the flight was even supposed to depart, so I decided to go to the airport anyway and try to suss out what was going on in person. The trip to Ezezia airport was miserable - it took an hour for the bus to come, and then it took ages to get that far out of town, but I made it. And apparently, sometime in the 3 hours I took to get to the airport, my flight was cancelled.

There was a long line to speak to an agent about the flight, and when I did, there was not much information. While one woman ahead of me was told that a strike was back on, the ticket agent I spoke to denied it, said the flight would definitely leave tomorrow, they just didn't have a time yet. For now, they were giving us taxi vouchers, hotel vouchers, and covering our food costs. They would contact the hotel tomorrow with a departure time, and bring us back in time to check in.

Really worried, irritated, and feeling pretty trapped in Argentina, but nothing to do at 1am, I went ahead to the hotel, and chose to have faith that everything was as they told me. By the time I got to the hotel, the airline had even already called with a departure time of noon - they would pick us up at 9am.

It was late enough, and between my nerves and calling home, I barely got any sleep (though it was in a hotel room, where I got to watch Fight Club and fall asleep in front of House). The next morning, I woke up and showered, repacked, and went for breakfast. But when I stopped by the front desk, apparently Aerolineas had already called, and the flight was once again cancelled. No departure time was on the table. But have a good breakfast!

I called Aerolineas myself, and the official answer I got as to what was going on? We don't know. We don't know why the flight is cancelled - though they did claim there was no strike, that other flights were taking off just fine, OURS just wasn't for the forseeable future. And he was also very confused why it was not enough that they were putting me in a hotel - it occurred to no one that the hotel was on the WRONG CONTINENT, and perhaps I made reservations to fly to Auckland because that was where I wanted to be. No one, at the airline, the hotels, anywhere seemed to grasp this.

I called my travel agency next. At this point, I needed to get out of Buenos Aires, however I could. I had done some brief research before, when I was worried about the rumored strike, and sure enough, there were two options - fly LAN through Santiago, or fly any number of airlines. Through the US.

The front desk called with even better news - we had to check out of the hotel, as we were being moved to a different one. Awesome. I got a voucher for lunch at a mediocre buffet, where I met the others from my plane who were housed at the same hotel, and we chatted there and then back to the hotel, sharing what we knew and what we were trying to do.

There were two Swedish backpackers, who were actually ok with having to stay in Argentina, though they didn't like having to stay close to the hotel and on standby all the time. They were told that the plane was in Auckland and broken, so it needed to be fixed and flown here, and that is why we were cancelled.

There was a woman from Sydney who needed to get home for business reasons, and she was the one told that the pilot strike was the reason we were not flying.

There was a guy from Melbourne who had been living in London for six years, and who did a bit of travel in SA before going home. I think he was the one who was told that the pilot was sick and that was why we couldn't go.

There was a guy from Wellington who was in Argentina hiking for a couple of weeks, and who was supposed to be back for work. He wasn't told anything.

And there was another couple, I think she was from Britain and him from Spain. He was the one who spoke to our shuttle bus driver to the other hotel and learned #1. that the airline needs to give 12 hours notification to the hotel, so the absolute soonest we would leave is 1:30 that night, if we got word as soon as we reached the new hotel; #2. that the reason was a mini-strike. Apparently, Aerolineas is not in the habit of paying their pilots on time, so thy keep striking, then the airlines freak out and vow to negotiate, and then the negotiations are bad or they don't really negotiate, so they refuse to fly again, but they are not a full-fledged union walk-out, so they keep it under wraps and there is no news on it; and #3. that we were going to a rather sketchy area, better not to be out after dark.

Aaaaaawesome. We also exchanged many lovely tales about Aerolineas - their domestic flights being 5 hours delayed for a 90 minute flight; the Melbourne guy had been on four flights on the airline, every one of which was delayed from between 6 hours and now more than a day; the British girl said their flight from Madrid was supposed to be 12 hours - how it was listed, what they were told. But then it stopped in Rio for two hours, which they apparently knew they were going to do but opted not to tell anyone. Then they proceeded to circle the Buenos Aires airport for 2 hours because they hadn't paid for a gate. She also knew of a planeload of Auckland folks last week who were kept waiting in Buenos Aires for 5 days for their flight.

All of this strengthened my resolve to get out of there however I could. Back on the phone with the travel agent, I got to work on getting a refund from Aerolineas (which I will evidently get, thank god, without penalty) and got to looking at flights to New Zealand. The cheapest option? Fly to San Francisco, then fly to Auckland. No joke.

So that is what I am doing. For a couple of reasons, I decided not to try to do all the flying back to back. One is that spending time at home will help me recoup the money it cost me to get a new ticket; one is that the shitty days I spent trying to get out of Buenos Aires wore me down; one is that I was already watching my days in New Zealand shrink down to where I know I will not have enough time to do what I want to do, so I knnow already that I will have to go back.

So I am essentially skipping the North Island only. I am not thrilled about it, naturally, but it has its upsides. I have already had a diet coke (FANTASTIC) and Mexican food and played with the beagles. I will go to New Zealand in the next few days, and pick up my itinerary where it was supposed to be, just without going to Auckland and Rotorua.

I know this was ridiculously long, but I left out a lot, if you can believe it - trauma with the refund, the new ticket, getting to the airport a second time, and then some. It's been brutal.

But take from this a couple of things: If you ever fly in South America, avoid Aerolineas Argentina at all costs; from everything I have heard, this is absolutely indicative of their business practices. I flew LAN from Buenos Aires to Miami today (yesterday? I don't even know), and they are lovely. Fly them instead.

Once I know when I go to New Zealand, I will let y'all know so you know when you want to start reading again.

As for Aerolineas, last I heard they had scheduled the flight again. It is currently 5:30 in California; I got here just before noon. If they actually did fly when they claimed this time, then the group I was with was just picked up an hour ago to go to the airport, and the flight will leave in two hours. If they actually fly when they say they will this time, it will have been just over 2 days late. I personally would not place any money on them actually flying when they claim they will, but for the sake of the other 7 people at that scary hotel, I hope they do.

The only other funny thing, that I cannot possibly explain: As I was traveling, I was dreaming a lot more than normal, unsurprisingly. The weird thing is that I had a similar dream, with different details, three separate times. In that dream, for different reasons, I came home briefly, and always specifically between Argentina and New Zealand. Weird, no?

February 10, 2008

Favorite days

All of my favorite days in life are an odd assortment - often, what I did in them is not what makes them the best days ever, it's more a combination of mood and circumstance. It's no different whilst traveling.

So, on my last day on the continent, my favorite days from month one of my trip, in order:

1. Glacier day, El Calafate
This was hands down the best thing I've done, and I have no doubt that when the entire trip is over, it will still stand up as one of the highlights. Even standing in front of the glacier was an awe-inspiring spectacle of nature unlike anything I've seen. Walking on it was just unbelievable. Even doing the package tour had its advantages - for instance, Brian and I got to spend a lot of the glacier walk joyfully mocking the group of Frenchies with us. I mean, can you blame us - there were two families, and the fathers were both like wayward children. When one lost his hat he was wearing to the wind, he decided to GO BACK FOR IT. On his own. On the glacier. It was such fun to be incredulous at. So it really was a combination of location, activity, and mood, but it was a spectacular day.

2. Tierra del Fuego national park, Ushuaia, Argentina
It was my third full day of the trip, but the first one where I really felt like I had it together. I went for an 8k hike in the park, which was stunning; I managed to get myself to and from the park without incident, which made me feel good; when I got back, it was Saturday night in downtown Ushuaia, and the town was clogged with locals enjoying a summer evening and cruising the main drag; and I had my first (of many) steak sandwich, which was divine (as they all have been). It was a good day, but most importantly, it was the first day that I both felt like I really could do this, and that it was something I wanted to do.

3. Palermo Viejo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
This one is interesting, in that it's really a half day. The morning was good, don't get me wrong. But it was also hot and humid as hell, which left me cranky and tired when we got back to the hostel in the afternoon, and I called home, which always makes me a little sad after. So, a hot, tired, cranky, sad me is not a recipe for success - even worse when you add hungry to the mix, which I was, and getting more so. But we took a rather long bus ride ot the other side of the city to go to Palermo Viejo, and somehow, it all just fit. The weather had turned cooler and mild, the sushi hit the spot unlike anything I've had in a while, we split a bottle of excellent syrah, walking around after was both pleasant and delighfully screwball, as we were repeatedly thwarted in any attempts to find an open and existing gay bar. Not what I wouild have expected for a best day, but there it was nevertheless.

Overall, Argentina and neighboring countries has been incredible. And I am ready for the next stop. Talk to you all in New Zealand.

diet coke: argentina

no better.

send your well wishes for improvements in countries to come!

my mom claims that diet coke in australia or new zealand basically tastes the same. but then, she drinks diet pepsi; how sane can her tastebuds be?

February 09, 2008

What I know about Argentina

Argentinians - or porteños at least, I didn't encounter the same thing in Patagonia - hate small change. If something costs 4,50 and you hand them a 5 peso note, you get a glare and "Do you have the 50 centavos?" And when I don't - because if I did, I would have given it to them - there is a huffing sigh and a "fiiiiiine" while they are forced to hand over the coin. Look, I didn't price it at 4,50. Change it if you don't want to deal with the change, idiot. But it is the complete opposite of the US, where if something costs $16 and you hand them a 20 and a 1, they try to give you back the 1, until you make them keep it and finally the cash register explains that it means you get a five back. Here, they can do rapid fire calculations in their head, to ask if you have 2,35 to give them so they can give you less change. What I don't get is where porteños GET any change if stores won't GIVE them change.

There is a very weird trend in this country towards teeshirts, in English, that don't say anything. They are subtly different from the novelty tee in the US, mainly because these shirts...are not novel. They just kind of...say. The shirts are generally one solid color, with huge letters in another solid color that says like "Comfortable Shoes" or "Put the Milk in the Fridge." They aren't quite nonsense, but they don't say anything either - we referred to them by the title of the first such shirt we saw: Gabba Gabba Hey. If I had found an actual Gabba Gabba Hey tee shirt for sale anywhere, I would have bought it. But despite their bounty on people around us, I never once saw one for sale. Maybe stores can't keep them on the shelves?

They love their drinks. I don't even mean alcohol, not exclusively. Brian and I could never seem to line up our meal times with the natives, but that didn't stop the cafes from being crowded - it's just that no one was eating. They just had tables full of glasses, bottles, cans, everything. Coffee, water, soda, beer, some mix of the above is like a CULTURE here. They go out to drink - and again, I mean regular assortments of beverages - in droves here. And judging by supermarkets, the powdered drink craze is a big deal as well. I love that Crystal Light has been shortened to just Clight. Hee.

That Fergie song, the ballad one? Is a NATIONAL OBSESSION. I've heard it at least twice a day.

Evita was not a craze made up by Andrew Lloyd Weber. I know he has led us astray before, making us falsely believe that the opera did have a phantom or, as a friend was fond of saying, that Jesus was a perfect tenor, but man. These people love their Evita. Shrines, books, posters, museums, jewelry - all Evita happy.

Surprisingly, given that 50% of the country smokes, (and apparently that number does include doctors, who also do not even advise thier patients not to smoke) Buenos Aires passed a law against smoking indoors. It includes bars, too. Very progressive for a Latin American country - hell, progressive for the US, let's be honest. Also surprising, given the national diet of cheese, beef and ice cream - diet drinks and food items are huge here. There is just as much packaging promising "light" and "no trans fats" as in the US. And yet, sadly, there is no national interest in fresh foods, really. I have had a total of one decent salad since I've been here, and the fruit is paltry and scarce. There is no reason why there isn't more, taht I can see - they grow persnickety wine just fine, we get South American produce in our winter up north, most of everything ouside Montevideo in Uruguay is agriculture - but no fruit. No veggies. I never thought I would say this, but I am gagging for an entire day of just fresh veggies.

And whole wheat! The white bread in this region? Has got to stop. That's all they eat for breakfast, in various forms (usually smeared with dulce de leche, which I will not argue with. Yum). It's really true that pallettes change - I used to eat wheat bread because I "should," but man. I would kill for a nutty loaf and some whole grains right about now.

February 08, 2008

Yo solo

Brian left me tonight, back to the other New York, the one in wintertime. It was so lovely to have him here. I hadn't really connected how difficult solo travel would be for me. In general, I am a rather contendly solo person. I like living alone, some of my favorite Friday nights are ones I get to spend by myself. Not only have I never been a person who has trouble going to a movie or eating in a restaurant alone, I don't even really GET the trouble with it.

When I set out, and even now on the road, I get a lot of incredulous raised eyebrows at the fact that I am doing this travel "alone?!" when for me, there was never another way to do it. I am not married or in a relationship, I don't have any friends who wanted to chuck life completely for a chunk of a year - so when I decided to travel, it was a given that it would be alone. And I didn't think anything of it.

The problem is the personal space. I have no problem spending down time in front of a tv or a movie - that is what I love. But I don't get to spend my downtime like that, living hostel to hostel, so in essence, I don't get downtime. I spend a lot if time doing amazing things, but I spend a lot of it sort of killing time, too, until the stores or museums open or the bus leaves.

Traveling with someone else made the time go by faster, and it made it more pleasant along the way. I had someone to crack jokes with and eat with and to suggest things that he wanted to do, and it was overall more fun that way.

Plus, it helped that it was one of my best friends, the most ridiculously easygoing person ever, and someone I don't get to see that often since he lives on the other side of the country. Also, the Spanish skillz. So I was very sad to see him go.

I am back to killing time - I leave Buenos Aires in 2 days, and I don't have a lot on the agenda until then. Some laundry, a movie, what have you.

Safe travels, Bri. Thanks for coming down to visit. And I hope it is not too disorienting to wake up in Uruguay, spend the day in Buenos Aires, go to sleep, and wake up in Chicago. In order to go to New York.

I miss you.

February 07, 2008

Like the Weather

From the start of my trip, I have had abnormally good weather - the warmth in Patagonia might have been a bit much for my own personal preferences, but it was also the nicest consistent weather most people had seen in years, so I have decided not to bitch and moan.

So of course it would come to pass that the day we decide to go and do something strictly outdoorsy, the weather doesn't cooperate. We were going to go to a beach today, either in town or take the bus to Punta del Este (it's the Hamptons to BA's New York), but instead it was humid, chilly, overcast, and windy as all get out. It was hardly a no good very bad day, but it was also not exactly beach bunny weather.

So, no beach. It did give me the chance to explore Montevideo more fully, which I am glad about. Yesterday it was too hot and humid to do more than a perfunctory look around in the afternoon, and in the evening, everything was closed (and it wasn't much cooler, let's be honest). It's a pretty charming little town, though fairly mellow.
They are on an earlier schedule than Argentina - shops were closing at 5 or 6 instead of 8 or 9, and apparently they don't do dinner at 10pm, considering Brian and I were literally the only ones at the restaurant last night when we left at 10:30. There are also language differences - even though I don't speak Spanish, I could pick up that they call soda something different (refresca instead of gaseosa), and there were more words on menus and signs that even Brian didn't recognize - we suspect that it's the heavy Brazilian Portuguese influence that gives it a certain different flair.

Also, these people are OBSESSED with their mate. (Mate, pronounced mah-tay, is a tea that everyone here drinks. There are these traditional mate cups, that look almost like hollowed out coconut shells, and that gets filled to the brim with this strong, bitter tea leaves. Hot water from a thermos is added, and then it is drunk through a silver spoon-straw. Not kidding on that one.) Anyhow, in Argentina and Chile, sure, people drank mate. Here, there is basically NO ONE without a mate cup in one hand and a thermos tucked under their arm. This of course raises questions: Brian wonders if everyone has mild burns on their underarm from the thermos tuck; I wonder if the thermos is a traditional child-to-adult rite of passage gift; I also wonder if the pain of having to carry the cup, straw, tea and thermos is actually worth it - cant you put the tea in the thermos and drink from there, save a few steps? But regardless, it's how they roll over there.

I got to poke around more craft marts, and see a few more of the sights. Also, the wind was fierce enough to do some spectacular things to the water in (normally calm) river.

While I am pretty much feeling like the two and a half days here was enough, I am still glad we came - it was good to get out of BA for a couple of days, and the poached pear dessert alone was worth the trip.

diet coke: uruguay

Because I am not only fair and unbaised, but also deeply scientifically minded (...I think I can hear my dad's snort of derision from here), I wanted to do a real, valid, side-by-side comparison. As the comments previously mentioned, the real best of the best for diet coke is housed in the big fast food chains (McDonald's and Burger King) and at 7-11. These are places where the syrup-to-water ratio is favoriable and the best mix. I'm not saying I won't gladly go other places, but if I have one of these options before me and all other things are equal, that's where I would head.

So, to compare truly equally, my Uruguayan option was from the local McDonald's. See, apples to apples. Like to like. Awesome to pure evil, as it turns out.

It's no better from their fountain than from a Chilean 20-ouncer.

I had Brian, a die-hard Pepsi fan, try some, to see if my analysis was correct. Coke and Pepsi are much sweeter, in a different way, than diet, and this Coca Light was way way sweeter (in a sweetener way) than regular. I am assuming this is to accomodate the sweet tooth of the locals?

I don't know. Whatever it is, the medium of delivery was SO not the issue.

February 06, 2008

i'm ok, uruguay

I first clearly need to apologize for the title, but it was the first thing that came to mind this morning when it was painfully early (still dark!) and we were en route to the ferry stop.

We are now in Montevideo, Uruguay for a couple of days. Don't let the maps, guidebooks, or the fact that it is the capital and by far the biggest place in Uruguay - this place is tiny. I am personally falling victim to the heat, as today it was about 94 with 80% humidity, and now, at 10:37, I am literally dripping sweat as I type. Sexy! But it's a charming city, far more Latin American and European than BsAs. The Rio de la Plata here is also an unremarkable green, as opposed to Buenos Aires Brown, which is a step up.

Today we mostly just wandered about - the hardest thing was getting cash. Cambios are EVERYWHERE, but the only ATMs (I found 3 total) had a line of at least 20 people. But it was all made better by dinner - fantastic steak, great asparagus that had the added bonus of a parmesan sauce that went divine on the aforementioned steak, and a dessert that was out of this world - pears poached in tannat wine with cinnamon ice cream. A dinner like that does a lot to improve a mindset, despite the raging heat.

I think we are going to find a beach tomorrow. It's time to bust out the swimsuit. Plus, we were planning on tryng to go to a winery, but as a Calafornia girl, I can tell you that these places are really only barely equipped for visitors, so lying on the sand and people-watching it is.

February 05, 2008

easy day

The only thing on the agenda this morning was a visit to the nature preserve on the edge of town. It didn't seem far away, but the map does not take into account the frillion degrees it was outside, so the walk there was very long indeed. And while the preserve was gorgeous, it was not quite th"lovely spot for a picnic" it was touted to be - there is no grass, really. We managed to find a spot, and then moved to a bench for a while, where we were, no joke, menaced by a swarm of bees. We also brushed nature in the form of this random huge iguana that was there for no discernable reason.

The reserve was really lovely (in the shade) and fortunately, the walk back was capped off by a visit to Freddo for ice cream (it was RIGHT on the WAY). The neighborhood we were in, Puerto Madero, was really hip and ritzy - Battery Park City, in keeping with the metaphor. We may go back there for lunch, if we feel like having a power meal amongst the glass-walled lofts and the dikes of the city's old port.

Tonight it was back to Palermo Vieo for a little shopping - it was the most successful shp we've had, plus we had tapas for dinner. All in all, a good cap toa week in BA.

kickin' it up, Buenos Aires style

Still rocking it in Buenos Aires, and we are settling into a routine now. In the mornings, we grab the traditional porteño breakfast of coffee or tea with three littel croissants - do not ask me why this is tradition, but this is breakfast everywhere in this city. Then we do part one of our day - for instance, yesterday, brian and I were mighty tourists. We went to Plaza de Mayo, Plaza San Martin, Teatro Colon, and the Obelisco, all the major "monuments" in a city not really known for its brick-and-mortar tourist attractions. We did a bit of shopping, and then had our requisite afternoon ice cream.

Interesting tidbit is that Argentinians, especially porteños (people who live in BsAs) have a ginormous weet tooth. The McDonald's and Burger Kings here all have a separate counter, that is always mobbed, that sells just their array of desserts. Brian and I, however, are sticking with the Freddo ice cream. I am not a huge ice gream fan, but my god - this stuff makes a convert out of me.

Anyhow, then it's siesta time. We come back to the (air conditioned) hostel, read, do some internet or crossword puzzles, maybe nap a little.

In the evening, we find dinner. We are trying very, very hard to be like natives, but with only dubious success - Argentines eat dinner at about 10, and we are too gringo to last that long. Last night was our latest venture, but even so it was about 9:30. However, we added a bit of spice by hitting up a tango show. It was this old school cabaraet, totally touristy, and totally awesome. The dancers were incredible, the food was really good, and the singers were charming.

We finally found our gay bar last night, too, and i love that they had fresh peach frozen daqueris, which was a relief in the 1000 degree weather. There were not, however, hardly any other people there. Apparently, for a town with multiple "Gay Buenos Aires" maps, the capital of the first Latin American country to legalize gay marriange, has a really pitiful gay scene. Tragic.

It was out most touristy day, to be sure, but it also felt in the groove of the whole Buenos Aires Scene.

February 03, 2008

New Aires

I don't know how I didn't notice before, but instantly, upon walking around with Brian on Friday, all I could think was how much Buenos Aires is exactly like New York. I know I've mentioned how places remind me of others throughout Argentina and Chile, but BsAs is...almost exactly New York. It's uncanny. Everywhere we go, Brian and I know the area because they ahve a neighborhood like it in Manhattan.

So far, we've done a bunch of the sights. On Saturday, we went to Recoleta, which is posh and leafy and lovely, and went to the cemetery there. It was really elaborate, these tombs, but also vaguely run down because a lot of these people were buries hundreds of years ago - no more family to maintain the mausoleums. It will also never be creepy to see these locked tomb doors with stairways going dow, cause we KNOW what they are going down to. We did see Evita's grave, though, which was surprisingly anticlimactic. Then we went to the fine arts museum, and saw all kinds of paintings from all kinds of time and just generally enjoyed the air conditioning (it was hot hot hot and HUMID as all get out).

Then last night we went to Palermo Viejo, the SoHo of BsAs. I was craving something non-Argentinian to eat, so we got sushi. Was it the best sushi I've ever had? Far cry from that. But it was fresh and tasty, and not fried beef or ham, so I was in heaven. It tasted fantastic, and we polished off a bottle of wine, so it was an excellent night.

Palermo Viejo is pretty much the best neighborhood I've seen here, though today we went to San Telmo, which comes close. It's the West Village, and on Sundays they have this massive market/antiques fair that brings hoardes of people and street performers, so we wandered the cobbled streets and enjoyed. So it is a good place too - lucky, since our hostel is in San Telmo - but I think we'l be back to Palermo before the trip is out.

Other highlights include the complete absence of gay bars in this town. Brian dutifully wrote down dozens on his map, and we have so far tried to go to 8 of them. But apparently, the names and addresses came from Ye Olde Map of Closed Bars, because every single one is not there, or doesn't look like it was ever there. We found one, but it was a scary stairway that Brian said led to hamster cage shavings (I said it looked like the place I would surely die), and then one other we got to, but we arrived before they opened. At midnight. We will keep trying, though, dammit. I will not ruin Brian's streak of international gay bar tours.

All was not lost, though. Last night on the way back, we wandered into San Telmo's Carnivale celebration, which evidently involves a lot of spray foam. It was pretty cool to see the celebration, but I will tell you: never take a hit of spray foam to the open eye. It's not good eye health practice.

But I would like to make a mention of the one, awesome, spectacular thing about this city, and that is the ice cream. A serious sweet tooth and all the best of an Italian tradition makes ice cream a way of life here, and thank god for it. It was gorgeous weather today - still sunny and hot, but breezy and not humid - so the ice cream tastes to die for. The banana split-flavored ice cream was the best we've had yet.

Also: gotta love siesta. I think I will take advantage of it now...

February 02, 2008

patagonia wrap up

Patagonia topped the list of what I wanted to see on this trip, and in some ways I am glad, and in some ways, knowing waht I know now, it might have been different.

The country there is unlike anything else I have ever seen. Bits of it may have reminded me of the familiar here and there, but all in all it was different and new. even though I don't speak Spanish, that was not my largest hurdle. The hardest part is that am not a rural girl. I would not be at all surprised if my extended family, say, who speak even less of the language, but who understand the language of camping and hiking, might have had an easier time with trekking, no phones, gravel roads.

One thing I will miss is the blue - Patagonia knows how to do blue. The mountain lakes are this amazing turquoise every bit as bright and light as the tropics, but bafflingly opaque. It looks fake. The sun sets so late that the sky turns from brigh summer aqua to this deep midnight with dozens of shades in between all evening long. The channels, lakes, and sounds all have about 23 different blues within them.

One thing I will not miss is the damn insect population. I don't know what in El Calafate found me so damn tasty, but I was eaten ALIVE y'all. Seriously, I have about 25 (no exaggeration) bites on each arm, more on my legs, feet, and middle. I am an itchy mess, and the dry air (meaning dry skin) of the warm & windy south was not helping. Here is hoping the humid BsAs climate will kill the bugs and let my red blotchy skin clear up.

One thing I learned is that the guidebooks are pushing it for Patagonia. For trekkers, it would probably be possible to spend endless time in each place and see something new every day. For me, not so much. You know how, when you are looking to go somewhere, and the guidebook gives you four thigns you want to do, each is about a 1/2 day output, you alot a minimum of 3 days there, right? You know that things take longer, or you will need a nap, or you want to spend another day poking into shops or at a cafe? This does not hold true for Patagonia. If you find one day's worth of stuff there, plan one day. No more. If you didn't see anything you were dying to do, but are there anyway, there is no ned for the 1-day buffer, because you are in Punta Arenas, and there is nothing to it. There is no more to the towns that the guidebooks have found, trust me.

Overall, I was much more taken with Argentine Patagonia that Chilean. I found the sights better in general, and it was a bit more touristy, but that also meant more paved roads, cafes, and services - fair trade off, for my money. I also had the benefit of creepy good weather - wind came in the late afternoons, but mostly it was sunny and perfect for the entire two weeks. On the last night in Calafate, Brian and I watched an impressive storm roll in, but even the rain lasted about an hour (Calafate gets very little precipitation).

Patagonia was very much worth it - the postcard, surreal beauty alone was priceless. I want to go to Antarctica some day, so I will be back, but that trip will be different to be sure.

Oh! I cannot believe I almost forgot. Patagonia is hilarously trapped in a time warp, in a completely awesome way. Graffiti is for Nirvana, I saw a kid sporting, with pride, a Guns N Roses tee straight out of the Appetite for Destruction era. In the shops, they sell tons of Simpsons gear - like the shirt of Bart as the naked baby in the pool from that Nirvana album? Mean regularly wear mullets - or, even better, rat tails. The hostel I was at had a huge movie collection, on tape, that was like exactly my movie collection from when I went to college, so I watched the South Park movie and the first Scream. It was a surreal mid-90s place to be, everyone.

February 01, 2008

what's new, buenos aires?

Back to Buenos Aires, back to where it all began. I will post some closing thoughts on Patagonia (my first region done, if not entire country) a little later, but for now I am going out to explore the city.

Perhaps not the BEST thing about this city, but close up there, is the free highspeed internet in the hostel. 's like a breath of fresh air. So while I am not completely caught up ( I will do the mass upload of the photos later, in the next day or so), the blog is hereby up to date. I went all the way back to Torres del Paine and added photos, and there are other new entries in there as well, so scroll down. I should be updating regular for some time now.

I admint, I have missed the city, even if it is one where I am rendered mute by my lack of Spanish skillz.