Monday, September 10, 2007

Tourism in list form

I realize I haven't blogged much about touristy stuff in Buenos Aires, so I thought I'd take a break from the meat talk and list my top ten favorite things about the city, because it's an amazing place, and it's so much more than chorizo. Which is high praise from me.

1) Food and wine. Come on, you knew that was coming.

2) The trees. This is sort of a weird thing to love about a city, but Buenos Aires has the most enormous, amazing trees all over the city. I've been to many cities, and never seen anything like them. They are huge, ancient-looking things that look like them belong at the heart of a mysterious forest out of some Arthurian legend. Some have these enormous, gnarled grey roots that rear out of the ground like ghosts, while others have thick, curvy branches that skim the ground and are absolutely perfect for climbing. At one point we were discussing how strange it was to come from a place like Peru, where very old remnants of ancient times are tucked away in corners, to a place like Buenos Aires, where things seem much younger. But of all the old, venerable things to have kept around your city, I think these trees are some of the best.

3) La Casa Rosada. This is the president's house in the middle of the Plaza de Mayo. It is big, beautiful and it's a lovely, dusky pink. When I lived in DC, my friend Pitt and I used to evaluate houses based on how compelling a speech made from their balcony would be, and I have to tell you that this one takes the cake so far. No wonder Evita was able to craft such a compelling and controversial persona--I'm estimating that her charisma was at least 24% balcony.

4) Big Silver Flower. Near the art museum (and just south of some of my favorite trees) there is this enormous silver sculpture of a flower that opens and closes with the sun, and is therefore beyond awesome. Seriously, science+sculpture+ public art? I ran around it every day because it made me so happy.

5) Shopping. When you eat a lot of meat, I guess you get good at doing lovely things with the remaining cow, because the leather goods in Buenos Aires are amazing. In fact, all the shopping is spectacular. Cheap, stylish, and tucked away in lovely neighborhoods like Palermo or Recoleta that are a pleasure just to walk around in.

6) Teatro Colon. This is kind of an honorable mention because I only got to see a tiny bit of it, but Buenos Aires has a spectacular theater. I think I love it more than the Met Opera house. It's currently being renovated, but I will return for an opera there. (interestingly, they also have a club that is modeled after the Sydney Opera House, but I think that setting is probably a little less inspiring when filled with grinding twenty-somethings. just a little, though).

7) San Telmo Street Fair. Buenos Aires has really good street fairs, but my favorite was the San Telmo. It is, depending on your point of view, either the coolest place to get anything you might possibly want, or the biggest warehouse of weird crap ever. I counted four booths devoted exclusively to colorful, old seltzer bottles. There are also random tango shows hiding around corners which are fun to watch.

8) Old Lady Just off the San Telmo Street Fair. I know, weirdest entry yet, but this old woman was sitting on a stool just off the main square in San Telmo with a big poster of Louis Armstrong taped in back of her, drumming crazily, singing and scatting really, really well. She had this huge grin on her face the whole time like this was the best thing in the world that anyone could ever be doing, and I saw her actually turn down money. She is absolutely on my short list of people i want to be when I am old. I just need to learn to scat, sing, and drum, and get 3000% more awesome.

9) 9 de Julio Ave. There is a 20 lane highway in the middle of Buenos Aires. It seems like a poor urban planning decision, but it's so strange that it just sort of turns the corner around unwise and heads straight back to awesome.

10) The details. Random squares of delicately painted tile, brightly colored houses in La Boca, intricately worked wrought iron balconies, beautifully kept parks, smiling restaurant owners, and friendly taxi drivers. It's the small, almost secret-feeling details that make a good city a great city, and Buenos Aires has them in spades. It is all the best parts of Paris and Barcelona, except a third of the cost. I will definitely be back.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Steak? Belt´s too tight for steak.

One of the many, many irritating things about altitude sickness is that it robs you of your appetite. Most of my trip through Peru was at a high elevation, except for a few days in Lima, so the whole time I was in Peru I barely had any appetite at all. I would force-feed myself to keep up my energy, but I was totally uninterested in food. I was also engaging in some strenuous physical activity and not sleeping very well. So by the time I left Peru I was down ten pounds from an already low weight. I was unsettlingly, weakly, bonily thin.

Fortunately, I came to the best eating city I have ever been to in my life. Hark to the legends about meat, wine, empanadas, dulce de leche and everything else they say about Buenos Aires, because I have never been so happily stuffed in my life. First, the steak. It is as buttery, tender and lovely as they all say. I don´t know what they put in those pampas grasses, but I suspect wizardry of some sort. My first bite of steak in a restaurant in Buenos Aires was the Argentinian equivalent of my first glimpse of Machu Picchu--a fantastic revelation of deliciousness.

Steak is the main event, and it was my exclusive focus for the first few days, when I had precious little stomach room and had to triage for tastiness. But as my stomach stretched out a little, I was able to experience even more of the wonders of Buenos Aires. Chorizo? Plump, sizzling, fatty and amazing. They grill/broil a first course of provolone cheese with oil and herbs that is like biting into soft, pillowy, fatty luxury. The store sells ham flavored potato chips whose salty tang has stolen my heart. They also sell huge cardbord tins of dulce de leche, the rich, mild nearly-caramel-but-less-of-an-edge substance that makes everything taste heavenly. Honestly, why are you still reading this? Go to the gym for 3 straight weeks, skinny down, and then head to BA for the gustatory ride of your life. You can afford it, because I don´t think I paid more thank 30 dollars (including some of the best wine you have ever had in your life) for any given meal. And now I have my ten pounds back!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

the city of the dead and other stories

Sorry about the long delay in blog entries. As soon as I got to Buenos Aires I moved into an apartment with five good friends, so a lot of my time has been spent doing things that are objectively uninteresting to outsiders like dance contests and massive cheese eating marathons, but are the stuff of which fantastic friend vacations are made. I purposefully divided my vacation into two halves. The first was physically active, extrodinarily memorable, but often exhausting touristy stuff, while the second was a long vacation in a big city with a group of friends, ideal for resting and gaining back some of the weight I shed at altitude. I´m really pleased with how both halves have gone, but the second is much less ideal for blogging than the first.

But we have managed to do some classic touristy things. We´re staying in the Recolleta neighborhood so on the first day I managed to stumble to the famous cemetery there which is just down the block from us. It is strange and striking and not really like any other cemetery I have ever been to. There is no green space. Instead, it is all row upon row of mausoleums, perched next to each other like regular buildings on ordinary city blocks. I am not used to mausoleums I guess--I expected them to be all inaccessible, pyramid-like tomby stone but these are almost like little apartments. Windows, stairs, doors perfectly hung on hinges, like tiny little one bedrooms for people who have no intention of ever exiting. Several of the taller ones that peek out over the walls of the cemetery even have little round windows for better views of the street.There´s something charmingly stubborn and also creepy about a place that refuses to abaondon the strict conventions of living when confronted with death.

We also managed to see a poilitical demonstration against the city bank (seems like par for the course in currency-nervous Argentina) and the weekly march of the mothers of the disappeared. During the dirty war, the Argentinian government routinely kidnapped and killed dissentors. The mothers of people who were kidnapped still gather regularly to march and demand to know what happened to their children. I saw the march just after I had visited the cemetery, and it was such a striking contrast between people who take all the trappings of life with them and physically refuse to disappear, and people who just vanish one day without a trace, so thoroughly that their mothers must spend their remaining days asking for an accounting.

But it´s not all tourism and political strations. In fact, it´s mostly meat, which I will write about next time, because I plan to wax rhapsodic about it for many, many paragraphs.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Greatest hits of tourism part II

After we did the lion's share of our hike, we headed to Machu Picchu. I have wanted to see it since I was knee high, and it was the thing that made me originally plan this trip, so needless to say I was prepared to be blown away. But I was so much MORE blown away than I originally expected to be that it was ridiculous. Anna wrote earlier in her blog that the greatest hits of tourism are greatest hits for a reason, and I have to second her, because Machu Picchu? Zow.

We got up at 5am to head up the road so that we all could have the chance to climb the much higher rock nearby that overlooks Machu Picchu, and also so that we could beat the crowds there. Obviously our hike had led us through clouds by this time, but there's something about the fog and clouds that drift through the round, green mountains boardering Machu Picchu that makes you feel like you're travelling into a story. They've built up a whole tourist infrastructure around the ruins that is initially annoying--you go down a narrow little passage and you get bothered by people telling you to check your bags and show your ID and thisandthat. But the second you round the corner, you find yourself practically smacked in the face by this enormous complex of wonderfully-preserved ruins that cascades down the mountainside into a gorge. It's completely breathtaking. Each one of us, individually, said "oh my god" out loud when we rounded the corner. One member of our party speculated that if you had a tape recorder at that exact spot, you would hear the same phrase, in many different languages, thousands of times a day. Utterly amazing.

So it was a day of playing at the ruins! We took the tour, and then some of us went to climb the enormous rock next to Machu Picchu, while the more height-phobic among us (myself included) ventured off to explore more ruins and find the old Inca Bridge. A day well-spent. I can't wait to post photos.

After that, we headed back to Cusco, where I took what was easily one of the top 5 showers of my life. When we talked about what we were going to do after the hike was over, we were all completely convinced that we would go out and drunkenly celebrate our victory over nature, distance, altitude and cold. But it turns out that a few days of not sleeping combined with dry air and altitude sickness make for a pretty poor celebration. We all had a few beers with dinner, started complaining that we were dehydrated, and sheepishly agreed to call it a night. WOOOO!

We've been in Puno for the past few days on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca borders both Peru and Bolivia and is the largest lake in South America. It is so large that it actually has a number of islands inhabited by different cultures that have been there for years. We have had endless troubles in Puno--Dan and I both got sick and I have had to do furious battle with Lan Peru to get the to give me my tickets to Buenos Aires, but I did manage to go on an island sightseeing tour today. I didn't have much time, so I chose the most interesting, bizarre set of islands that the lake has to offer. About a half hour from Puno there are a series of islands that are actually man-made. That's right! The inhabitants, the Uros, actually constructed the islands themselves out of a variety of reed, supposedly to escape from the iron hand of the Incas. Not only are the islands themselves made of the reed, but everything on the island is made of it--the houses, the huge boats they use, the furniture... they use the reed to cook, as medicine, as housing, and they also eat it. I am nominating it for the most versatile plant of all time. Stepping on the islands is a little disconcerting--they definitely sink a bit underfoot. It's sort of like walking on loose hay, if the hay were floating on a huge, chilly lake. But people have lived there for eons, so who am I to stick my nose up at it? After the village we visited gave us a presentation on local culture, the local girls dragged me (again, the tallest and whitest person in the group) off and basically made me their doll. They dressed me up, they braided my hair, they gave me different was crazy. Another set of pictures which I'm promising to upload when I come across a computer that will actually work with my camera.

Friday, August 24, 2007

¨They have killed a sheep for you!¨

We finished our four day hike yesterday and went back to Cusco, land of showers, toilets and temperatures above freezing. All hail Cusco!

Our hike was absolutely amazing. We hike the Lares trail, a trail that winds through mountains past tons of tiny Andean villages and ends with a trip to Machu Picchu. There were lots of things that made the hike an incredible experience. We were just traipsing through the Andes--it was so serene, and we had incredible views of snow-capped glaciers and long, uninterrupted stretches of tundra and mountains. Sometimes we would round the corner and see a gorgeous, icy blue glacial lake just stretched out in front of us. We got so used to just seeing llamas, alpacas, donkeys, wild horses, sheep and stray dogs chilling in the wilderness that by the second day we thought nothing of it. It´s a major tourist trail, so as we trekked, children would come running from all the tiny villages that dot the Andes to stare at us. Seriously, they are engineering some sort of uber-cute race high up in the Andes, and when it finally reaches American we will be doomed. We will be completely powerless against them, and all our domestic babies and our puppies and kittens will go ignored. Our guide Felix had told us to buy lots of little toys and candies for the kids, so we were prepared, but we weren´t prepared for their ability to quickly hide the gifts we gave them in the sleeves of their ponchos, thus provoking intense and violent arguments among them concerning who was double-dipping in the gullible tourist pool.

But it wasn´t all children and llamas. The trail was actually incredibly difficult--probably the most physically challenging thing I´ve ever done in my life. I´m a fast hiker and a good camper, but I was completely unprepared to hike at that altitude, and camp in the cold temperatures we experienced. I don´t think I got more than an hour of sleep each night because it was so cold I would just shake uncontrollably in my sleeping bag all night. I was wearing everything I owned, and my sleeping bag was great, but all for naught. The trail itself was also really challenging. I was afraid there would be a lot of steep climbs and hoisting myself up rocks. The terrain wasn´t like that, but the altitude was such a problem for me that the steepness of the passes left me completely breathless very often. We had to stop practically every ten minutes because we were sucking wind. Not what I´m used to.

The absolute, bar none highlight of our trip had to be the hair cutting ceremony. On the third day, the trail led us very close to our cook Ricardo^s house. As we were passing it at about 10 am our guide, Felix, took us into the enclosure of Ricardo^s house where his yard was and told us they all had a surprise for us. Today was Ricardo^s son´s hair-cutting ceremony (sort of an Andean baptism) and we were all invited! Then Felix turned to us and said ¨This is a very special honor and a very special day. They have killed a sheep for you!¨And sure enough, we looked down into the yard and there was a freshly butchered sheep which two women were in the middle stages of cleaning. I think all of us experienced a moment of total bewilderment (and anxiety) as we watched them shovel the organs out of the sheep, wrap the meat in newspapers, put it into hot coals along with a huge load of potatoes and then bury it in dirt and hay for an hour. But when an Andean villager invites you into his home and kills a sheep for you? You put aside your squeamishness, sit down, and wait for lunch, because it´s awesome.

So we all sat down in his yard to await our feast. For about an hour we drank a local drink prepared for the hair cutting ceremony, and each drank out of one beer (apparently a custom, although i think it was just their way of loosening us up) until the actual ceremony. In the ceremony we each cut off some of the child Gydo´s hair and gave him some cash, making us each apparently honorary godparents. People, I have an Andean godchild! Then the sheep was brought out. They started us out easy with some potatoes, which were pretty tasty. Then they ripped all the sheep meat off the bone and served it to us and I have to tell you, freshly killed sheep cooked in paper underground? Kind of great! We all ate some, someone went on a beer run, and then...Andean dance party. That´s right. They put on music and got us all to get up and dance with them. It was awesome. By the way, it was only about noon at this point. Then we all decided to visit a local school where we were MOBBED by children and gave away the remainder of our presents. By then we were all tipsy and late, so we actually had to be driven in a station wagon to the next point of departure on our hike.

Dan is bugging me to go to dinner, so Machu Picchu will have to wait until tomorrow, but here´s a preview: breathtaking.

By the way, I´m hoping to load some photos tomorrow so you can all finally see the wonderful things I´ve seen, and hopefully get some shots of me shaking it in the Andes.

Monday, August 20, 2007

On my way to where the air is...weak

On our last night in Lima, we had delicious ceviche and discovered I am an AMAZING first time gambler (seriously, we won more than 100 dollars on tables that were mostly denominated in sols. At a 3 to 1 sols to dollars ratio, that´s impressive). A good showing, but we were all glad to leave Lima behind. While I am very grateful to the city for so effectively standing up to earthquake, it was so gray and rainy there the whole time. We were definitely ready for blue skies.

Which we got as soon as we arrived in Cusco! We were prepared to be impressed by even the faintest hint of sun after Lima, but Cusco really is objectively beautiful. It´s small but bustling, the people are beautiful and there are inspiring hints of Incan civilization hidden away in little corners of the city. Plus the children are beyond adorable. We all agree that this is the cutest population of children we have ever encountered. They´re so keenly aware of their own cuteness, that they charge you to take photos of them. It´s sort of uncomfortable just standing around taking photos of other people´s children in another country and then sheepishly handing them money, but we all eventually succumbed. Add to this the bevy of dogs playfully bounding through the street and lovely, warm days and you have my perfect vacation city.

Actually, you would have to add one more thing to make it my perfect city: oxygen. Cusco is at a high altitude and you really feel the lack of oxygen. All of us have little pinching headaches and I now pant with the effort required to climb a tiny hill. I feel like my lungs are being fed the atmospheric equivalent of the orphan gruel in Oliver Twist--just barely enough to keep them going. But we get better every day, and it certainly didn´t stop us from touring our little hearts out. On the first day we took a bus into the mountains above the city and saw lots of Incan ruins, including that giant stone panther that the Incans erected to tell other armies to not even bother. And seriously, if I were an invading army and I came up over a mountain only to discover that the civilization I was planning to invade had enough spare manpower to build a huge stone panther that can only be seen in its full glory from thousands of feet above? I´d retreat but quick. It was amazing and fully awe inspiring.

Cusco is also great because the people are really friendly. Once they get done trying to sell stuff to you, they´re happy to sit and chat about America and where you come from, what your life is like and how it compares to yours. My Spanish has gotten much, much better just from being here two days. Yesterday I talked to a twelve year old boy for a half an hour--I taught him how to advertise his shoeshine business in English and he gave me a refresher course on the past tense. When I see him in the street now we wave hello. Great city!

Tomorrow I leave for my four day trek up even greater heights. I am super excited and, yes, a little nervous. Let´s hope the Andes stay nice and calm and warmish for a while, because I don´t need capricious weather to add to my thin air woes.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Life in capital letters

Now that we´ve recovered from our fears that we would be subject to ruin, theft, and packs of wild dogs roaming the street in Lima, travelling companion Dan and I are trying to plan ahead for the remaining legs of our trip in Peru and actually see some of the city. Both efforts, however, are made more difficult by our new nemisis, earthquake.

First of all, it is incredibly hard to get any actually reliable news about what is going on in Peru because the international news media is far more interested in repeatedly hitting us on the head with exclamations and horrors than offering any useful information. While I agree that yes, it is newsworthy that DEAD BODIES LITTER THE STREETS IN PERU or LOOTING AND RIOTING RUNS RAMPANT ON PAN AMERICAN HIGHWAY, perhaps it might be more helpful to offer us specific information about places to avoid, or places that have been rendered dangerous or seismically unsound by recent developments? Anyone? No such luck, though--reporters seem to be so busy luxuriating in the pathos that they can´t be bothered to shoehorn in a nice, simple rundown of the places where everything is still business as usual and the places we should give a wide bearth. Fortuantely, word of mouth from other tourists is much more reliable. Yesterday we met some Hawaiian tourists who were in Cusco during the quake and they told us the city is fine, so we´re headed there tomorrow morning. So next time I write, don´t be surprised if I have altitude sickness!

Sightseeing is also made difficult by earthquake. Yesterday I took a taxi to the Museo de la Nacion in central Lima, eager for an afternoon of Peruvian history and culture. Unfortunately, earthquake busted some of the windows so it was closed. Earthquake! There were actually a lot of locals roaming around inside, so I considered sneaking in under the guise of going to the bathroom. I ultimately abandoned this plan, though, because I don´t exactly blend in here. I don´t know what I was expecting, but the combination of my blinding whiteness and extreme height (I have not yet seen any woman who is as tall as I am, and only a few men) makes me really stick out. All the guidebooks say you should try to look like a local by walking purposefully and not looking at maps or taking photos, but when you sort of resemble a slim, hairless abominable snowman plowing through the crowd I think the jig is up, touristwise. So I just left the museum, and spent the rest of the afternoon walking around town with Dan. We went to a place called Narky´s, which could only be described as ¨Peruvian Benigans¨ to sample Peru´s signature drink, the pisco sour. I´m not saying anything against pisco, but when I run my own country, one of the qualities I´m going to look for in a national drink is ¨does not contain egg white.¨ The pisco sour falls far short of this requirement, unfortunately. Still, it got me tipsy enough that I managed to lose my gloves, adding them to the list of items I leave behind in Peru (which also includes my copy of Marco Polo´s Travels and some skin off my left ankle).

We have managed to do a few touristy things. Yesterday Dan and I stumbled upon the Parque del Amor. It´s this pretty, Gaudi-esque mosaic park on a cliff above the sea with all these different pick up lines and thoughts about love scattered around on tiles. Dan took note of some lines he might be able to use on Peruvian women and I made a note to watch for any Peruvian men who tell me my eyes have the depth of the sea. I demand that any potential suitors have enough game not to have to resort to taking pickup lines from local benches! Then we met up with the rest of our hiking group and went to an indigenous dance performance in a nearby neighborhood. It was good fun, except at some point the MC caught on that we weren´t from around here (how did he know?!) and demanded that we come up and participate in a big group dance. Dan and I enthusiastically bounded onstage, only to be subject to what seemed to be about 20 minutes of vigorous aerobics and possibly a game of London Bridge. We got a big cheer from the crowd when we told them we were from NYC, though, so that was nice. Then we all went out for some karaoke. I am determined to perfect one Spanish karaoke song during my time here, so we´ll see how that goes.

Today Dan and I blearily made our way to a local monestary that was rumored to have amazing catacombs. I had ambitions of matching Anna, catacomb for catacomb, but when we got down there, Dan and I both simultaneously realized that the combination of recent seismic activity plus confined underground space full of bones equals terror. I barely held it together, and sort of maybe shoved a few teens out of the way as I rushed to exit.

It´s our last night in Lima, which is okay because while I´m grateful to Lima for not succumbing to earthquake, it´s the grayest city I have every been in. And keep in mind that I lived in Chicago for four years and England for one, so that´s saying something. Bring on Cusco and its rich supply of ruins, so that I may be enchanted by them, and then possibly trip over them!