Friday, January 27, 2012

Twice As Nice

"I think I'll take a moment, celebrate my age,
The ending of an era and the turning of a page,
Now its time to focus in on where I go from here,
And I'll do it better in my next thirty years."
~Tim McGraw
("My Next Thirty Years")

In the past I've not tried to hide or avoid my birthday, just not advertise it.  I have no problem being the center of attention - I'm a teacher after all - but only on my own self-imposed, red-faced terms.  Also, birthdays growing up were never huge affairs; most were low-key events involving immediate family, a card from Grandma, a nice breakfast before school, a midnight phone call from a friend.

Turning thirty must have flipped the switch.  I not only observed the passing of my third decade, I got to have two parties.  Two!

The first was beyond my control.  Most Sundays I do a movie date with some friends.  The second weekend in December, my actual birthday, was no different and I went to a cinema near my house with Kristin and Kelsi, who informed me beforehand that we would get dinner afterward.  We did, but not before taking me to a mens' clothing store, having me pick out a tie, then blindfolding me with it, and taking a taxi ride to an undisclosed location and lead to a private room full of friends!  (Side note: A gringo, riding through Cali, Colombia, in the back seat of a taxi, blindfolded surely turned a few heads; of course I couldn't see them...)

Friends at Platillos of Cali's best!

Ridiculous hats and cakes...happy surprise birthday!

The invitation to rumba!!!
My good friend and colleague, Beatriz, also turned 30 recently and we had decided back in November to do a joint celebration - this, after I said I probably wouldn't do anything special, was kind of decided for me.  We wanted to have some sort of a theme but we wanted it simple and ultimately decided on a "black & white" party.  Having parent connections to a local salsa establishment, we were able to reserve an entire end of one room, adjacent to the stage where not only the live band played, but a trio of professional salsa performers did an exhibition and a mariachi group serenaded the crowd.

With Rob and Daniel
Black & White party people!

Dancing salsa, merengue, and a bit of reggaeton until almost three in the morning surrounded by friends who have become my "Colombian family" reminds me how incredibly blessed this experience of living here these past four and a half years have been.  The first thirty years were fantastic; I can't wait to see what God has in store for my next thirty!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Between the Lines

One more bonus Argentina post...

Imagine yourself at an international airport in the midst of the holiday season.  Actually imagine that you are there the day before Christmas Eve.  Now picture yourself getting to the checkin counter, seeing a line and following it as it snakes through the airport in an unending serpentine line of people and bags.  Stranger things have happened, I'll admit.  But imagine this infinite single file row of humanity standing calmly, without any sign of anxiety or agitation.  Not possible, right?  I think the rest of the world can learn something from the good people of Buenos Aires:

Saturday, January 21, 2012

What's New, Buenos Aires?!?

Part VI of VI
How predictable to title the final Argentina post on the beautiful capital city with a lyric from "Evita," right?  Sorry to say, but it works.  Everything seems new in Buenos Aires.  A mere ten years after major riots rocked this metropolis following the country's serious economic collapse, the city has lifted itself up, regained its footing, and begun anew.

Every barrio of this historic city carries its own unique history, flavor, and life unto itself.  In the week we stayed here, we spent about a day in each neighborhood, seeing the sites, taking in the atmosphere, and taking advantage of each and every coffee shop we could find.

San Telmo
La Casa Mínima
(The Narrowest House)
One of the oldest of Buenos Aires' barrios, this is where the rich lived until the early 1870's when an epidemic of Yellow Fever hit, causing a mass exodus of the area, allowing for mostly Italian immigrants to move in, thus turning many of the large aristocratic homes into tenement buildings.  Many of these structures still remain today - including the house we rented - thus making this neighborhood popular with tourists and hostels alike.

Other than strolling the cobblestone streets and popping in and out of used bookstores, antique shops, and gelato counters, San Telmo is famous for its weekly San Pedro Telmo street fair.  Beginning in the tiny Plaza Dorrego and running all the way up historic Defensa Street to Plaza de Mayo in the neighborhood of Microcentro, the fair boasts an unending supply of antiques and art.  Need a new turn of the century seltzer bottle?  You've come to right place!

My favorite San Telmo find was the inconspicuous San Telmo Market.  Despite taking up nearly an entire city block, Kristin and I literally almost could not find it the second time we went looking for it.  Inside vendors have set up fruit stalls, spice booths, and specialty antique and collectible "stores."  Having had a good portion of my pre-school years being raised in the narrow passageways and stairwells of the old mill buildings in downtown Stillwater, Minnesota, as my mother perused the selection of antique furniture for the next bookshelf or dresser to refinish, I felt strangely at home!
(I successfully unearthed a handsome two-part map of South America from the 1930's that I plan to have framed as well as a lithograph of unknown date cleanly torn from a book depicting Amazonian tribesmen catching a large snake with the label "Colombia" on it.)

Since this is a bit of a student/backpacker/artist part of town, it is impossible to deny the bohemian vibe.  In fact, you'd have to be blind since the graffiti and street art is bright, creative, and everywhere.  In fact, I've never seen a neighborhood so wholly embrace it and not be littered with crack needles and passed out bums.  We considered setting up a "graffiti tour" business; I'm sure there's a client base for that!

La Boca
Located a short walk from San Telmo in the adjacent barrio to the south, La Boca is the most dodgey of the tourist neighborhoods.  Really, there are only two reasons to end up here.  The first is to see the uber-touristy El Caminito - a wildly colored pedestrian street that now screams "tourist trap" at the top of its patchworked lungs - and the CABJ (Boca Juniors) Stadium.  The later was closed as the team is between seasons.

That's it.  Tour of La Boca, finished.  Next...

Microcentro is home to both the downtown commercial district and the stately Plaza de Mayo, the first official large plaza in Buenos Aires.  On the eastern edge of this Plaza lies the Casa Rosada, Argentina's version of the White House (although the President actually lives elsewhere).  The central balcony is the location of the famous "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" scene.  There is also a nice (air conditioned) museum located underneath the Casa Rosada devoted to the presidential history of Argentina as a republic. 

Puerto Madero
This neighborhood actually didn't exist when Buenos Aires was first founded - something we learned while visiting the aforementioned Casa Rosada Museum.  This long stretch of land spanning the distance of Microcentro and San Telmo is filled with many new and ritzy apartment high-rises, fancy hotels, and a large park that borders the sea.  Puerto Madero is also home to another of Buenos Aires' most famous symbolic landmarks, the Puente de Mujer, a pedestrian bridge spanning the barrio's canal, supposedly representing a female tango dancer.

Buenos Aires' barrio for architecture buffs does not disappoint.  Mixing styles as diverse as belle epoque and Spanish neo-colonial (you better believe I looked that up!), Congreso is home to some of the capital city's most important and impressive buildings, including its namesake, the Palacio del Congreso (House of Congress), and the Palacio de Justicia (Supreme Court Building).

Rodin's The Thinker in front of the Palacio del Congreso
(A quick Wikipedia search reveals he made several.)
Another interesting architectural edifice was that of the Palacio de las Aguas Corrientes, the home of the city's privatized water works facilities.  Toeing the line between gaudy and extravagant, the façade is a risky combination of colorful-yet-muted terracotta tiles, a castle-like fortitude, and a quasi-French flair, the building, opened in 1894, stands out from its mostly concrete neighbors like a beautifully bruised thumb nail.

The day we visited Congreso was the day we had set aside time to tour the recently reopened Teatro Colón.  The tour was little more pricey than we had anticipated but well worth it.  Built in 1908 - the theatre company was originally located in a building, now the National Bank, next to Microcentro's Casa Rosada - it is one of the most renowned opera houses in the world.  Luciano Pavarotti was known to have complimented the acoustics saying that the only flaw was that the theatre was "too perfect" and the audience can hear your slightest mistake.  Indeed, our guide informed us that the acoustics change depending on the number of people in the audience and what they are wearing. Just walking through the foyer you could see the work the three different architects put into it during its construction, creating a work of art that rivals any of the masterpieces performed on its massive stage.

The largest and most residential of Buenos Aires' downtown barrios, Palermo itself has been divided into smaller sections - Palermo Chico, Palermo SoHo, Palermo Viejo, and Palermo Hollywood to name a few.  Once known for its collections of hip shops selling clothing, accessories, and jewelry by undiscovered slash up-and-coming designers, Palermo SoHo in particular, seems to be be quickly going the way of many trendy areas that get found by the masses.  Noted for evidence: When there is a Diesel store on the corner, you're officially past your bohemian-arsty tipping point.

Some of the other more popular reasons to visit Palermo are the abundant and immaculate parks (which we did not see) and the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (which we did).  MALBA is a small but renowned museum exhibiting one floor of works by famous Latin American artists; the museum has works by Colombian Francisco Botero and Mexicans Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, among others.  There was also a phenomenal exhibit featuring the life works of Venezuelan Carlos Cruz-Díez.

The neighborhood where the rich residents of San Telmo evacuated to after the aforementioned Yellow Fever epidemic still holds its upper-class shine well.  Filled with beautiful mansions, a nice oceanside drive, many small parks and walking paths, the barrio is a great place to pass the day.

We started our self-guided tour with a stop to see the famous Floralis Genérica, an enormous statue of a flower that physically opens and closes at the beginning and end of each day.  A short walk across the street was another art museum, the Museo National de Belles Artes, which, compared to MALBA, featured a much more comprehensive and worldly collection of pieces by the likes of Monet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Rodin, as well as some famous Argentine painters such as Cándido López and Prilidiano Pueyrredón.

One of Recoleta's most popular attractions, however, is the Recoleta Cemetery.  This above-ground "city of the dead" seems like a morbid tourist stop, however, the graves and mausoleums are works of art unto themselves, some the size of small houses.  While many notable Argentines are buried here, including many famous artists and ex-Presidents, the largest draw is the modest tomb holding the body of Eva Perón.  You would be hard-pressed to find a visitor who did not stoop down to take a picture of the small, ground-level plaque which declares her name.

Of all the places we visited in Argentina, it is a safe bet that I took more pictures during the brief time we were in the cemetery, than at any other single location throughout the trip; everywhere you turned was a new angle, shadow, statue, juxtaposition, or irony to capture on film.

Buenos Aires won me over easily.  This is truly one of the world's great cities.  Historic and modern, stylish and revered, classic and gritty, Buenos Aires wears it all well and with pride.

The entire Argentina crew after the El Querandí tango show.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Desert Roads, Take Me Home

Part V of VI
El Transito winery
If I were to return to Argentina’s wine region and only visit one place, or advise anyone on a trip to this part of the country, it would be to go to Cafayate.  I would then stay awhile.

Cafayate is a quiet town located in the southern part of the Salta province.  Many tourists stop here for the afternoon on day trips from the city of Salta or just passing through.  The thing about Cafayate is that it is located in the stunningly beautiful Calchaquines Valley, surrounded by gently majestic sandy-brown and cobalt-hued mountains, clear skies (it is sunny 340 days a year), and the contagious ease of small town life.

We were fortunate enough to ride in the front of the bus on the 3 hour ride through the Quebrada Canyon from Salta to Cafayate.  Normally we all passed bus time reading or napping, but the closer we got to our destination, the more magnificent the scenery; it seemed rude to concentrate on anything else!

Through the Quebrada: Rob & Kristin take it all in

The Grape is Made of Wine

Another plus of visiting Cafayate if you want to learn about wine and wine production is that there are not only a large handful of vineyards within town limits – Mendoza’s were all a bikeable distance into the countryside – or right outside, but it is also home to the notable El Museo de la Vid y el Vino (Wine and Vine Museum).

"A man from the vineyards spoke, in agony... Before dying
he revealed his secret: The grape is made of wine.
And I thought, 'If the grape is made of wine, perhaps we
are the words that tell what we are.'"
~Eduardo Galeano

While I was mostly in awe over the intensity, attention to detail, and rigorous schedule a grape farmer must possess, I also walked away with a few other “did you knows?” including:
  • The first vineyards in Chile and Argentina were started by Jesuit priests as a way to have a supply of wine for church services’ communions.
  • Wine should be stored on its side so that the cork is in contact with both the wine itself and the air outside the bottle.  Its chemistry.
  • Speaking of corks, the longer it is, the better quality the wine is (usually).
  • Of the world’s productive wine-producing regions, Argentina has all of those located at the highest elevations.  (Malbec and Cabernet grape varieties, among other lesser known ones like Torrantes and Bonarda,  have become famous here because they grow best in such conditions.)
  • The larger the vessel, the longer the wine will maintain its intended flavor.  So, therefore, mini-bar bottles of wine are risky.

Desert Fruits
If Argentina as a whole is famous for steak, Cafayate and the surrounding region are famous for their tasty empanadas.  We had read this somewhere prior to our visit so we saved extra room each day to sample as many kinds as we could.  My favorite, though I can happily claim that I never had a bad one, was filled with goat meat, cheese, and spinach.  I may have had three.

ice cream!
Rob and I also discovered a quaint little bakery down the road from our hostel that specialized in an Argentine favorite, the alfajor (say: al-fah-hor).  These exist in Colombia but consist of two wafer-thin crust-like cookies separated by a layer of dulce de leche (like arequipe or caramel) and are generally the size of a checker piece.  The Argentine variety is like a mini cake, with a generous layer of dulce de leche sandwiched between thick and generally spongy cookies, all covered in chocolate.  (Think of a Hostess brand Zebra Cake and imagine it five thousand times better.)  By the end of our short stay in Cafayate, the proprietor of the bakery knew us on site.

Beautiful Disaster
Our second day in Cafayate ended with the words “I may have done some foolish things today.”  While we all committed to renting bicycles for the day, my four travel companions decided to backtrack to the road through the Quebrada we came in on the day before and visit some of the spectacular canyon formations.  They hopped on a tour bus leaving town and were dropped off about 50 km later to begin the rolling journey back.

I, on the other hand, opted to visit an ancient archeological site known as Quilmes, named for the indigenous people who resided there back around the time the Incas were conquering South America.  The Quilmes are the only known population to have not been conquered, while remaining within Inca territory; the Incas just never found them!
The open road: so little traffic on the road I had plenty of time to set
up this self timed shot.  A blessing here, a curse later...

The lady at our hostel told me the ride would be “around 50 km round trip” and “very flat.”  After confirming this understanding with her again, and having the hostel janitor nodding in agreement behind her, I headed out with my two bottles of water, confident in the day ahead!  57 km later I arrived at Quilmes, convinced that this was not a matter of “lost in translation,” but sabotage.)

The site was what you would expect from an archeological site in the desert this old.  Hip-high walls of tightly packed rocks climbing a mild slope for a clear vantage point of the valley nicely summarizes the layout of what remains. 

My legs were already a little weak as I left the ruins at Quilmes; 57 km is a long way to bike after not having ridden since last summer.  About 20 km later, sun beating down, I realized this needed to end.  There are essentially two blink-and-you-miss-them towns along the way, open roads with few passing vehicles, and lots of hot, dry, sunny desert.  I stocked up on water at the first of the two towns and pushed on, literally. 

After about an hour of walking my bike up rises and coasting down declines, waving at passing vehicles (only non-cars since I had a bike), and thinking about how badly burned my exposed leg would be later, a nice farmer and his wife pulled their pick-up over on the side of the road and offered me a ride. 
What successful hitch-hiking looks like.

A little over six hours later I stumbled back into our hostel only to find the rest of my cohorts had also recently returned.  It turned out we had some similar experiences: Kelsi’s chain broke 2km into their day and she had to hail a passing La Posada tour van; Rob got behind Kristin and Narissa when his bike malfunctioned and ended up walking 25km.  Rob and I both learned that single male gringos with bikes on  the side of the road make people more inclined to wave but not stop.

Despite all this, pretty bad burn on my left leg and backs of my hands included, Cafayate won all of us over!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Beautiful Day

Cable car to the top of Cerro San Bernardo
overlooking the city of Salta
Part IV of VI
Next stop along our tour of Northwestern Argentina was the province of Salta (and a bit of the neighboring Jujuy).  Although the pleasant city of Salta, known to locals as "Salta la linda" (Salta the beautiful), has its share of sites and charms, it has found its calling mostly as a jumping-off point for travelers in this recently-discovered tourist area.  And much to see there is!

After close to 20 hours on an overnight Christmas Day bus we were ready for some activity.  Fortunately for the road-weary traveler, Salta has a large hill, complete with walking paths and stairs, to get the blood flowing back through the extremities!  From the Cerro San Bernardo we were able to take in the city and scope out some of the sites from above.  Salta has, among several intriguing cathedrals and a basilica, a beautiful European-esque central plaza replete with restaurants, gelato shops, cafés, and an abundance of places to sit and take it all in.

One side of Salta's Plaza 20 de Febrero
The following day we boarded a large La Posada van for a tour of some natural wonders in the neighboring Jujuy province.  After passing through a mountain pass where, local legand says a "bear with a man's face" called an ucumar lurks around looking for "virgin women to rape and make babies with," and eventually topping out at 4,170 meters above sea level, we arrived at our first destination.

The Salinas Grandes are naturally formed salt flats high in the mountains near the border of Bolivia.  They were formed when mineral-rich mountain run-off mixed with volcanic lava and the water evaporated, leaving a visually uninterupted flat expanse of land rich in minerals, including the blindingly white salt deposits.  While it was impressive to see, it was most fun to play with perspective through photography, something not easy to do believably on uneven terrain.

Salinas Grandes

"It's a beautiful day 
Sky falls, you feel like 
It's a beautiful day
Don't let it get away."

Somos cinco

Put me down!
Rob and I play with perspective.

Next up was the tiny time-trapped town of Purnamarca and the "hill of seven colors." This dusty little adobe bricked pueblo sits at the base of a whimsical hillside that looks as if a painter had run out of the traditional earthen tones and had to resort to others on their pallet.  This result is actually due to some shift in geologic layers, the minerals they each contain, and oxidation amounts of said layers.  (I very well could have gotten that all completely incorrect, but it sounds believable, right?!?)

The "hill of seven colors" towering over Purnamarca.

Purnamarca doorway
After a nice lunch - llama burger optional - we headed back toward Salta.  Despite the fact that about three quarters of the day was spent in the tour van, the stunning scenery along the way made it pass by quickly.  I had thought I had never seen mountains so spectacular in my life.  Little did I know that that would only be until the next day when we left for the under-spoken wine town of Cafayate at the southernmost end of the Salta province...

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Wine 'em & Dine 'em

Part III of VI

Visit your local grocer and you will find that the majority of Argentine wines come from Mendoza.  Ergo, it was decided that the beginning of our semi-self-guided wine tour should begin here.  Note that the city of Mendoza is located in the province of the same name; the later is usually what appears on the wine bottle’s label.  Nevertheless, there is an abundance of wineries located in and around the city of Mendoza, conveniently accessible by bicycle.

Our first day in Mendoza we took an intracity bus to the town of Maipu.  (Not to worry: a significant number of jokes and puns showcasing our immense immaturity were dolled out during this portion of the trip.)  In one afternoon we were able to visit and do tastings at three “bodegas” including the traditional Familia de Tommaso vineyard which has been around since 1869, the boutiquey and trendy Mevi, and the modern Tempus Alba.  We unfortunately ran out of time and missed a visit to one of the largest vineyards of a some widely distributed wines, Trapiche

Tempus Alba vineyards
But this was no “pub-crawl” on wheels!  On each tour we were given samples and told the distinct differences in how the grapes were turned into wine.  For example, if a bottle is marked as a “reserve” wine it is what winemakers called “oaked,” meaning it was aged in a wooden barrel.  By contrast, “young wines” are aged in stainless-steel barrels.  In either case the wine is never aged for more than 18 months.  The amount of time in the aging process and the type of container has an enormous affect on the flavor of the wine, as well as the type of grape.

While most of the grapes grown in the Mendoza region are malbecs or cabernets, there are several lesser-known varieties including the bonarda, which we were able to sample during the Mevi tour.  We learned later that the Mendoza region is the highest wine-growing region in the world, which explains why different regions – France, California, Australia, Spain, etc. – are famous for different types of wines.

Back in the city of Mendoza we found a laid back city with many small plazas and one large, gorgeous park.  The Parque General San Martín (a lot of stuff named after this guy, by the way) needs to get a nomination for “Best Potentially Gaudy & Overdone Landscaping in the Grecian Style That Somehow Isn’t” Award.  After wandering through the city as it closed down for Christmas Eve, we ended up in this vast, over-stylized, rose-filled park and did what you do in beautiful parks: lay down and stare at the sky.  The sky with the sun and the clouds that bring us delicious wine-producing grapes!

Wandering the streets of Mendoza

Rob & me practicing "proper" wine-tasting etiquette at
the historical Familia de Tommaso winery.

Tree-lined country road outside of Maipu.

"We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine."  ~Eduardo Galeano

Biking through Maipu! (C'mon, you know you wanna giggle at that.)

Narissa & Kelsi in Parque General San Martín