Saturday, May 15, 2010

This blog is like an abandoned mattress

"No one loves meeeeee anymore!!!" sobbed the blog.

"No one lovessss meeeeeeeeeee either!!!!" sobbed the old soiled mattress even harder.

Hold tight, peeps. I'll be back.

For now, read this.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Culture Shock/ Things That Make You Go Hmmmm

I just sat down to what seems like the World's Largest Medium Cappuccino. I'm back in my hometown of Media, PA, mooching off the wi-fi at the Coffee Club, and wondering, "was a medium always so large??" It's the largest cappuccino I've seen in a long time. Actually, it's the first time I've had to specify a size in a long time. And I'm enjoying it here in the café-- in a paper cup?? With a paper sleeve? What planet am I on?!

My hometown, Media, PA (whose motto is "Everbody's Hometown!") is a cute-as-a-button town just outside Philadelphia. I was born and raised here, then fled to boarding school at age 14, Oregon at age 18, and the rest of the world after that... I generally come back about once or twice a year for a visit to my dad and niece and the few friends and family members I have left here, and I always have the same conflicting feelings-- I'm from here, and it's my hometown (ahem, and everybody's) and I love it, but I'm also a stranger here in many ways. I run into people on the street that I haven't seen since middle school, and it's just, well, WEIRD!

Anyway, what a funny place to go through my culture shock. I arrived in Philly yesterday, after an uneventful and surprisingly pleasant 15 hour journey from Buenos Aires. Unlike the trip down to Argentina, when I sat next to an obese Texan who spent a solid 6 hours lopping over his seat into mine and dissing my political opinions (which I never told him but he assumed from my appearance), this time I was seated for the first leg next to a beautiful 65 year old tango dancer from Key West, a fellow aries and firey woman who treated me to a couple bottles of wine while we chatted, and then I had the whole row to myself on the second leg of the journey. I didn't sleep more than a couple hours total the whole time, but at least it was relatively pleasant. Seeing my dad waiting for me at the airport brought a genuine smile to my face, and my reunion with my beautiful, almost-12-year-old niece, Natalia, last night made me realize all over again just how lucky I am. Since that moment I've been happily surprised to feel totally comfortable with my return, totally ready for this change, and totally open to whatever happens next. I'm not, basically, suffering, homesick, or wishing things were different. I'm just happy to be here and enjoying the moment!

But let's go backward a second-- When I finally hit American soil in Miami yesterday at 4:30am, for the first time in 15 months, I ended up spending my first moments (aka my 4 hour layover) sitting at an airport cafe drinking coffee and eating Cuban-style homefries. First things I noticed: salt AND pepper on the table (the Argentines think black pepper is too spicy, because they have wimpy palettes, and you rarely if ever see the stuff on the table), napkins that are absorbent (no more wax-coated napkins! woo hoo!), and even more mind-blowing, the waiter brought me a free glass of iced water, without me even asking! I literally almost sent it back, thinking maybe he'd confused me with someone else. But then it hit me-- no, I'm in the US, a magical land in which tap water at a restaurant is free.

Of course it's always strange and wonderful and scary all at the same time, to come back to the United States after a long time away. The infinite varieties of everything at the average grocery store, for example, are nothing short of mesmerizing, and I keep saying "Hola, que tal?" when I enter a place, and "Chau" when I leave. But my culture shock is minimal this time, because this is the 4th time I have come back to the States after a long time away, and I'm starting to figure out how it works. Plus, I know that this was the right time to come back (I can just feel it) and I'm happy to be here, and that certainly helps.

Life is a-okay: I'm well-rested (slept 12 hours last night), well-loved (the look on Natalia's face when I walked into her house to surprise her almost brought me to my knees), and well-nourished (bagels with cream cheese, chicken noodle soup, soft pretzels with spicy mustard, and dad's cooking!).

On tonight's agenda: eating my dad's shrimp scampi for dinner, followed by a sleepover with Natalia. Tomorrow: gardening with dad, and maybe a night out on the town with old Media friends. My future: unkown. And what could be cooler than that?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Back to the USA!

I am in my hotel room in Recoleta finishing up the last bit of packing, enjoying my final café doble cortado, and tying up any last loose ends before I head home. My taxi will be here in 4 hours to pick me up and take me to the airport. Unbelievable! I am going home today.

When I thought about this moment before, I always imagined I'd be incredibly stressed out, sad, worried, or filled with a lot of those sorts of emotions. But the funny thing is, although I am sad in a lot of ways that this chapter of my life is ending, I am also ready for this change and excited about it. I'm looking forward to whatever new adventure awaits me. Everyone asks me, "What are you going to do when you get home?" and believe me, I wish I had the answer. But in a way, not knowing is what makes it feel like an adventure, and is what leaves me open for finding something truly rewarding.

So chau and hasta luego, my beloved Buenos Aires and my wonderful, life-long friends I've made here in Argentina. Chau bife de lomo, tostados de jamón y queso, and facturas. Chau Quilmes, café con leche, and Malbec. Chau colectivos and monedas, chau San Telmo feria, chau long walks through Palermo. Chau to lazy Sunday mornings at El Federal, and to late nights at la Puerta Roja and Guebara. Chau all you amazing things that made my experience in Buenos Aires so unforgetable. Me gustaría poder llevarte conmigo, pero yo sé que nos veremos de nuevo algun día.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Che, boludo, mirá!

Have I mentioned that I love Buenos Aires? Or was I always too busy whining about work and other crap? Well just in case-- I love Buenos Aires! I loved the city before, but was always also dwelling on the annoyances that come with living in a new, disorganized place-- lack of money, flaky people, loneliness, blah blah blah. Well now, I have had my proverbial attitude adjustment. And though I'd be genuinely happy to be back in this city and reunited with friends no matter what, the truth is that I can credit a large part of my extreme happiness and carefree attitude to:

1) my glorious (but hopefully temporary) unemployment. I absolutely <3 free time, window shopping, and just generally not having to be anywhere, ever.
2) the fact that I am thinking in dollars. Man, when I'm not making a pathetic Argentine salary in pesos and am back to thinking like a dirty American, this city is SO CHEAP! It's funny how I never even noticed that before. LOVE IT.
3) the fact that these are my last 2 weeks of vacation before I re-enter not only the US, but also reality... and I have every intention of enjoying them!

I'm staying at Claire's house in Palermo for now which has been cozy and perfect , and I will also be crashing with some other friends over the next couple weeks. In fact, there is actually a possibility of getting to stay at my old apartment for a few days, since they appear to have an empty room, so that's kind of exciting too! I miss San Telmo so much. Wow, I missed everything, and I didn't even realize it. The city is beautiful, exciting, and full of things to do! I've already taken a couple long walks, and never seem to run out of places to explore.

I also have started going to the gym with Ali. She's not only a workout superstar (and my deep fried tour of South America needs to stop NOW if I plan on fitting into the airplane seat), but she's also a member of the nicest gym in Buenos Aires, Megatlon, and was able to finagle me a free 5 days pass. I'm on day 2 and loving it. This weekend when it expires, I plan to do some running in the gorgeous parks in Palermo. Man, I love warm weather.

I'm feeling generally positive, and just happy and excited about everything. Since when am I so darn positive?? I mean, even the idea of leaving and moving home and being broke and unemployed.. I don't know, it's so easy to see the down sides, but I've really been focusing the up sides lately. Instead of viewing my return to MA as a bad thing, I see it as an opportunity to spend some time with my family, eat and live healthier along with my parents, go back to my jewelry making and sewing and other creative projects I haven't done in a while, hopefully find an interesting job, learn some Portuguese (since I'll be living in a very Portuguese community), and developing myself in general. Maybe living outside of a city, filled with temptations and parties and drinking, isn't such a bad thing. Being outside, being with family, reading, cooking, kayaking, writing, being creative, and being relaxed all sound like pretty good substitutes.

Anyway life is good! I am going to enjoy these last 2 weeks in Buenos Aires as much as possible. As sad as I will be to leave, I am thankful to have this time now to have one last hurrah here!!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Travel superlatives

In the past 100 days I've been traveling around Peru, Colombia, and Brasil, I have had so many incredible experiences, seen a ton of unforgettable places, taken many worthwhile risks, and met endless fascinating characters. I decided to compile these "best of" lists to share with you, because of all the things I've seen and done, these are the ones that stick out the most in my memory. If you're planning to travel to any of these countries, these are not to be missed.

Key: (Peru-P, Colombia-C, Brasil-B)

P: I'm torn between Máncora, a pretty and lively surfing and party town, and Huanchaco, whose beach isn't as pretty, but whose locals are so cool and whose nightly beach bonfires so fun that they make up for it.
C: Hands down, Cabo San Juan, located in Parque Nacional Tayrona. Tan by day, swing in your hammock by night.
B: Despite being overrun by Israelis, the island of Morro de Sao Paulo just might be the most beautiful place I've ever been.

P: Ceviche! Obviously. It's even better than you thought it would be.
C: Oh its a tie between the refreshing fresh juice smoothies (made from maracuya, lulo, or mango) or the delicious arepas, filled with cheese or meat and smothered in butter
B: Acai bowls-- frozen acai berry sorbet, topped with fresh fruit, honey and granola.

P: It's not easy to decide, because Peru has a lot of really gross foods, in my opinion. But the top choice is definitely cuy, guinnea pig, the plate of food that smiles at your creepily while you eat it. Runner up is anticucho, grilled beef heart on a stick, with a potato on the end. It actually tastes okay-- I'd choose it over cuy any day, to be fair.
C: Hormigas culonas, aka toasted ants. They are a super popular snack food in Bucaramanga, but I really can't figure out why. Careful, they are believed to be an aphrodisiac!
B: In Salvador de Bahia, try the typical Afro-Brasilian street food acarajé. It's made with a deep fried dough made of black eyed peas, which is then stuffed with unidentifiable vegetable and/or meat goos, and topped off with whole shrimps still with their shells and feet and faces. Maybe you'll love it, but I hated it.

P: The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Everyone says that the alternate trails are just as good, and maybe they are. Buuuut I doubt it. Splurge on the real one if you can! Those were 4 of the most fun, challenging, and rewarding days of my life.
C: Trek to the Ciudad Perdida. You will sweat like a beast, but the scenery is unbeatable, the local culture is so interesting and worth learning about, and arriving at the city itself is a total high.
B: Wellll... I didn't really do any. But if I had it to do over, I would take a boat tour through the Amazonian jungle! I hear the trips are absolutely amazing.

P: Cusco!
C: Bogotá!
B: Rio de Janeiro!! Though Sao Paulo is great too... just a tad more expensive.

P: Cusco. It's a magical city. Explore it together.
C: Cartagena! The only city I wished I had a boyfriend in, because it's practically constructed for holding hands and walking around.
B: Rio de Janeiro. Because then your big strong man can hopefully protect you from getting beat up and robbed. (Tasteless joke?)

P: Huanchaco. The locals are very friendly beach bums! Too bad Peruvians are so short.
C: Santa Marta. Hang on the beach and you'll be scooped right up. Usually not in a creepy way.
B: Everywhere, especially during Carnaval. All those caipirinhas and all that heat make things quite flirtatious!

P: Huevón! A funny way to call someone an idiot. It's kind of like Argentina's boludo.
C: Chévere! Or... bacano! (both mean ¨cool¨)
B: Legal! (Pronounced "legau"'-- means ¨cool¨). Also, beleza! (means anything from ¨right on¨ to ¨hello¨)

P: Peru is a country full of native people and ancient ruins, and I probably barely scratched the surface. A good starting point, though, is in the outskirts of Cusco. Start by hiking into the surrounding hills for an afternoon, and get lost. Even better, venture by bus to the spiritually-rich Sacred Valley to visit the many old villages and archeological ruins.
C: Learn about the Wayuu culture in La Guajira by venturing off the beaten path into the desert. Head first to the capitalof Riohacha and then to Uribia to see the daily indigenous market. Then find a guide and make your way to Cabo de la Vela, a remote fishing village way out in the desert. (Get one of the gorgeous handwoven mochilas!) If possible, try visiting a rancheria, a traditional Wayuu community.
B: Head to Salvador de Bahia, the center of Afro-Brazilian culture, and experience some of the country's best music, dancing, and food! Just be careful-- this beautiful colonial city is one of the country's poorest and most dangerous. Hold on to your wallet, and go anyway.

P: Other than the obvious Machu Picchu, try heading to Tucume Pyramids in the Lambayeque Valley (outside Chiclayo) and climbing up to the highest viewpoint overlooking the adobe pyramids, built by the Sican people around 1100 AD. If you're lucky, it will just be you, alone with your thoughts... and a few vultures.
C: Take a drive from Manizales to Pereira in the Zona Cafetera, for stunning views of the coffee and banana trees growing in the mountains.
B: Visit Christ the Redeemer, the massive Jesus statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro. Not only is the statue itself impressively massive, but you'll enjoy outstanding views of the entire city, beach, and beyond.

If I think of more, I will add them. And if YOU, dear blog reader, think of a category you'd like me to add, leave it for me in a comment and I will do my best!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Cordoba, and my empanada reunion

As it turns out, the city of Cordoba is great, and the surrounding mountain towns are even better! It's been a blast exploring with Claire, being together again after so much time, and getting back into the Argentine groove (albeit, with a cordobes accent). I am also thankful for being reunited with (possibly in this order):

1. empanadas de carne (chau, vegetarianism)
2. piropos and the strange tipos that tirar them
3. the word boludo

The 22 hour bus ride from Iguazu to Cordoba actally wasn't so bad, because I splurged on a cama class seat on the bus, which is essentially an enormous leather chair that goes all the way back. Plus, it came with a delicious mystery meat dinner and coffee and a slightly stale medialuna for breakfast... practically perfect! Besides, I was too doped up on dramamine (should I start buying their stock??) to care whether or not I had been sleeping for 5 hours or 22 hours or 100. I slept almost the entire time... basically, I'm Rip Van Winkle with less facial hair.

Sundays in the city of Cordoba, I can assure you, are worth skipping, as the city essentially shuts down. Claire and I were still happy because we had both each other and approximately a million things to catch up on, so the day passed quickly, despite the closed store fronts and quiet streets. We're back now, and looking forward to a day of mid-week city exploration tomorrow, followed by a mate and asado reunion with my cordobes Scout friends I met in Machu Picchu! Can't wait.

(Here's an actual picture of the asado! Because I'm a late picture poster.)

We spent Monday and Tuesday exploring some of the surrounding areas. First we headed to the adorable Villa General Belgrano, a 1.5 hours bus ride from Cordoba (on a bus called Lep, which I would not stop serenading with "to the lep! to the lep!" because not only am I a Beyonce fan, but I am also my father's daughter and never miss a chance for a terrible joke), and home of Oktoberfest and about 10 microbreweries. Needless to say, it was a tiny little slice of small town paradise, and Claire and I had a perfect afternoon strolling the kitschy-but-still-cute streets, popping into shops, sampling some beers, dipping our toes in the river, and climbing 98 stairs of a tower for a nice city view. I would love to get back there someday for their famous Oktoberfest, which I hear is a great one.

We then took another bus about 20 minutes to the nearby Santa Rosa, where we planned to explore and spend the night. The town is also cute, though without half the character and charm of the first. Though we're sure they receive tourism, the spectacle of two redheads walking down the street with backpacks drew a lot of stares, and made for an interesting walk to the tourist office. Turns out, we really should have booked something in advance, and we ended up in a kind of even-when-its-clean-its-dirty type hotel room with a monster truck parked outside (couldn't make that up if I tried) and the smell of mold wafting lazily through the air. No matter, we had dinner, wandered a bit, and got some sleep. Sadly, in the morning, after putting on our bathing suits and planning to head to the river for a dip, it got really cold and started to rain, so we ended up in a cafe drinking coffee and scheming.

We eventually headed to our final destination, La Cumbrecita, another highly recommended town of dirt roads and a no-cars-allowed policy. The plan was to climb Cerro Wank (Wank Hill), or at least take our picture next to the sign (because the name RULES) but we arrived and it was raining torrentially by that point. We tried exploring, but although the town looked adorable, it was really not a rainy day spot, and we heard it would be raining for a couple days, most likely. We ended up enjoying some lunch and beers and heading back to Cordoba early. Though admitedly it is a total bummer that we didn't get to explore the hiking trails as planned, it honestly but still a great little getaway out of the city for us girls, and was not at all time lost.

Should be in Rosario by Thursday and Buenos Aires by Saturday! Can't wait for some more sweeet reunions.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Iguazu Falls, take 2

I have been lugging around Lonely Planet´s 18-pound, half-rate guidebook, South America on a Shoestring, for over 3 months now. Though most days I only use it for weight training and/or imaginary target practice (seriously-- invest in Rough Guide or Time Out, but not this poorly-researched and rarely-updated junk), it does have the occasional gem. And even though I hate to do it, I am now willing to admit that this flowery snippet about Iguazu Falls, which I originally squawked at, is downright accurate:

"People who doubt the theory that 'negative ions generated by waterfalls make people happier' mights have to reconsider after visiting the Iguazu Falls. Moods just seem to improve the closer you get, until eventually people degenerate into giggling, shrieking messes...and this is grown men we are talking about."

CORRECT. I, for one, was a giggling, shrieking mess all morning long, as I finished up day two of the "Erica Does Iguazu" extravaganza.

After yesterday´s tour of both the Garganta del Diablo and the Circuito Superior, I decided to spend today visiting the Circuito Inferior and to take a boat ride under the falls. I headed over this morning with a girl I met in my hostel. (Hostel note: My hostel, called Hostel Inn, is easily one of the most attractice hostels I have ever seen, and from the outside it feels like a manicured resort with an enormous pool. But don´t be totally fooled; cheap luxury has its price. Both the food and service suck, and I have yet to find one functioning lightbulb on the entire first floor.) It was nice to finally have some company while wandering around. She hadn´t been to the falls yet, so we planned to spend the morning together and then she´d continue on while I went off to catch my bus. Over breakfast this morning I said to her, ¨I think the parts I did yesterday were probably the best parts, so I hope today is worth it. I mean, I can´t imagine seeing views that are any better than the ones I saw yesterday.¨ And now I am eating my words! Could it be that today´s were better? Or at least equally as good? How can you compare one paradise to another?

We entered the park around 9:00am this morning and headed down the stairs to the Lower Circuit... and there ahead was a view of the Salto San Miguel portion of the falls, an enormous cascading wonderland in the distance, shrouded with misty rainbows. MORE RAINBOWS! They are everywhere you turn, blooming out of each and every river and fall. I walked along, diligently taking the requisite 5 million photographs, and after a short while realized that each shot just got better and better... until the metal bridge we were walking along finally pointed us to a view more spectacular than any I have ever seen. In the distance was a horseshoe of falls so large I couldn´t believe my eyes. I snapped photos in amazement, still wondering which was better, the exciting day 1, or the equisite day 2. And that´s when it happened. I headed to the end of the path, and it dead-ended into something so fantastic I think I literally let out my first real shriek of the day-- towering above me, DIRECTLY above me, were the enormous Salto Bosseti and Salto Dos Hermanas, two massive waterfalls. The bridge (kudos to the engineers, btw) was built in such a way that you can walk nearly under the falls and get soaking wet. They loom so far above you that it is just unreal. I don´t know if I´ve ever smiled so wide in my life!!! I stood there for a long time enjoying the mist on my face, feeling completely alive.

Officially blissed out, we then headed further down the stairs for an overpriced-but-worth-it boat ride. We put on our fashion-forward life preservers and piled onto the inflatable boat with about 15 others and went jetting forward into the falls. First they bring you close to the falls so you can snap pictures. Then they tell everyone to hide their valuables (they gave each of us a super special waterproof bag for our belongings) and then they steer the boat full speed ahead under the falls, soaking us to the bone! What a rush! I was drenched, could barely open my eyes from all the water pouring down on me, and we all just screamed and laughed and enjoyed the bath. As Lonely Planet alluded, it´s impossible not to be happy with the energy of 10 billion negative ions seeping into your pores.

I look ridiculous here, so enjoy this photo at my expense:

and this one:

I´m back at the hostel, still smiling ear to ear, and planning to jump into the pool before I start my eternal bus ride to Córdoba this afternoon. I am so, so happy I came to Iguazu. I originally didn´t plan to come, as I figured I´d seen enough waterfalls in my life. But this is so much more than just a waterfall. Iguazu deserves a spot on the NEW New 7 wonders of the world list. My opinion matters, because I´ve now seen 4 of the 7 winners! (I know, brag brag.) But seriously, come on, Rio de Janeiro´s massive Jesus statue Christ the Redeemer beat out Iguazu? Yawn. Were the voters drunk?!