Monday, May 23, 2011

Last day in Buenos Aires

Today is our last day in BA. We have a red eye flight at 9pm. I am both excited to come home to the beach and sad that our trip is ending. There are many things I am going to miss about this place. To start..the soccer culture. There is always at least three games on TV, accompanied by a announcer with a voice with so much passion and intensity you might think every game is a championship. Matt and I made it to five River games and there is nothing else like them. The dining culture...Eating out is a big part of the culture here and no matter what night of the week there is lines pouring down the street from your favorite grubbery. Cheap red wine...My wallet and I will miss it dearly, my liver will not. The city life...There is always something fun to do or unique to try and always someone who is equally interested in doing and trying with you. Spanish... For all its hardships learning a new language has by far been the most rewarding part of this trip. The mindset of fellow expatriates...Meeting a fellow expat is always a very enjoyable experience. There is no hostility or awkwardness, only a genuine interest in getting to know the other person and sharing experiences, contacts and advice. Lack of communication...Relying on cell phones with only basic features and a low credit line that gets lower with each call, sometimes you actually have to follow through with plans and not cancel the last minute with fear that you can't get ahold of the person. It honestly makes life easier and more dependable people.

I will miss you Buenos Aires! I promise I will return again with more American dollars in my pocket and  the same genuine excitement for exploring your territory!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The salt flats were quite amazing. We watched the sun come up over the mountains until we were blinded and felt the rays heat up the air. The salt goes on for miles and the only things that aren't white is the car and our bodies. The salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes thousands of years ago. Hexagon and crystal formations on the ground is caused from oxygen rising from the ground, which is up to 66 feet below the surface. There is no depth perception at the salar so if positioned the right way you can create pretty funny photos. Pictures are worth a thousand words so I will let them do the talking. 

After we visited a cemetery of one of Bolivia's oldest trains. I don't know much about trains but seeing this ancient machine and all its parts was very fun. That night we stayed at another pueblo town but this time with travelers going the other direction. After dinner we passed a flask of whisky to warm our bellies and shared stories. Two American boys warned us that they suffered bad altitude sickness. There is not much you can do to prevent it but I guess being aware eased the shock when it did hit us.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

First night in Bolivia

We got back yesterday from our trip. After a 13 hour bus ride from San Pedro we arrived in Salta at 11:30pm, just in time to enjoy a steak dinner at the local parilla next to our hotel. The next morning we got on a plane and were in BA by 2pm. We didn't have access to internet until we got to Chile but even at the hotel, the wifi had unpredictable behavior except you when you predicted it wasn't working. I was able however, to write in my journal just about every night either at dinner or cozy in my sleeping bag with the only light coming from a flash light.

The tour began at 10am on Thursday. We met our driver and guide, a five foot five Boliviano in his mid 30s named Alfredo. The tour company informed us our driver didn't speak a work of English which was nerve-racking and exciting at first and later we could not be more grateful for it because the next five days would be a a full-on Spanish class. On day three I had a dream solely in Spanish and day four I kept accidentally writing in Spanish in my journal.

Most of the first day we spent driving and stopping at scenic spots where we would take photos, stretch our legs and explore. The landscape was incredible. Each time we turned a corner or came over a hill it felt like we were entering a new country. The minerals and elements in the earth bring out hundreds of different colors, textures and shapes in the mountains. One minute we were on a windy dirt road on a cliff overlooking a green valley and hugging a enormous mountain and the next we were cruising through a dry desolate desert with nothing in front of us but road and nothing beside us but sand and llamas. In some parts, gigantic volcanos that were once active thousands of years ago, spit out rocks that have spread all across the land and are now permanent fixtures in the earth's living room. We passed by small pueblos including one that only had ten residents. The pueblo was nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains. To reach their mail box they have to climb fifty feet up a cliff. These people take a segregated and simple lifestyle to a new level.

Other sights we saw as we peered out the window of our four-by-four Toyota Landcruiser included abandoned train stations, mines extracting minerals from the earth, small cemeteries with dying flowers and llamas grazing. Besides from the pueblos there was no sign of human life or manmade objects. The nature became our bathroom.

As we approached the town where we would sleep, we stopped to chat with another tour guide car. As I eavesdropped the conversation, I picked up that the salt flats were closed due to rain and it was confirmed when Alfredo looked back at us with a discouraged look. It only rains two times a year in this part of the world and it rained two days before our arrival. Thats what you call bad timing. Our original trip had to be rerouted since we would not be going through the flats. The reason it is closed is because the middle is lower than the outside and too much water collects for the cars to go through. Fortunately the outside was dry enough for us to go 20 miles in, so we were able to see some of it.

We got to the town where we would stay the night. The town looked abandoned because the buildings were torn down and there wasn't a soul in sight. It only took twenty seconds to get from the front of the town to the other side where our hostel sat. A few large Bolivian ladies sat behind tables with souvenirs and clothing laid upon them. We were escorted to our room, which was in a building made of salt. In fact, everything from the ground to the bed to the tables were made of salt. There was a big room with seven twin beds and a separate room with one large bed, all laid with bright red covers. There were no other travelers staying here. It was only 5pm so there was a couple hours to waste before dinner. After settling and putting on a couple more layers of clothes, we explored the area. The town is based off salt. Small one room factories with backyards full of salt piles laid the land. Workers take the salt from the salt flats which are close by, burn it, clean it and package it.

Tea and cookies awaited us at our room when we returned. The hot water felt good on our hands and bellies. Before all the natural light left the earth, we read, wrote in our journals, ate dinner and jumped into our sleeping bags because it was just too cold to be out of them. Matt and I looked at each other all bundled up and just laughed at where we were and what was happening. Although the room and bed turned out to be quite cozy, we both woke up multiple times in the night from being anxious. The silence was eerie and the door wouldn't lock all the way. At 6:15 am we heard a knock on the door. Time to wake up and head to the salt flats for sunrise!
The bus ride from Salta, Argentina to the border of Bolivia. 

Finger rock.

Pit stop for lunch. 

Our driver, Alfredo


First night at the salt hostel.

Bathroom. There is a first for everything.

Stray dogs are everywhere in Bolivia and Chile.

Tea time. 

Getting cozy with a cold brewski and a book.

6:20 a.m.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Salta Day 1

We just got back to our hotel in Salta after a night out walking around the central plaza and indulging in a delicious steak dinner, possibly our last steak dinner for a while. It might be good for us to eat healthy this week. Tomorrow morning we have a seven hour bus to the border of Bolivia. I started a new book "Water for Elephants" on the plane and I am already enticed by the firt 50 pages. I expect the bus ride will seem shorter thanks to it.

Matt got food poisoning this past weekend while he was duck hunting. He is feeling better but he is still suffering from stomach aches. Luckily you don't need a perscription to get antibiotics so he was able to get his hands on some. I am crossing my fingers he feels better by tomorrow because once we cross the border it's going to be hard to come back.
My experience living here and trying to learn another language has lead me to one conclusion: If I have the means I want my future children to be taught a second language early on in their lives. When a seven year is teaching you how to pronounce the "z" sound in the alfabet because you forgot, you realize how even with six years of Spanish under your belt, at times you are on the same level as a second grader. Now I could blame this incompetency on three things: my own inefficiency, my parents, or the public school system where I was raised. Yes I think I should have payed more attention in my college Spanish classes but hey I got good grades and thats what mattered right? I could blame my parents but that would be unfair because private language classes for three kids and saving for college tuition was a little out of the question. To be honest I would like to blame our public school system which in turn would be a knock on the entire political agenda of our government, but when you think of the public school systems that exist which are lacking capable teachers, it easy to see why early bilingual education is put on the back burner. The more obvious explanation in my opinion is that English is such a widely spoken language that as a country we have put less stress on learning a second language.

I have met many people on this trip with unique backgrounds and nationalities including Canadian, French, Polish, South African, German, English, to name a few. Almost all of them began learning English or another language at a young age. It wasn't rare for me to share stories about travels with someone the same age as me to know five different languages. I was jealous of them. Granted, there are many people in South America who only speak Spanish. In South America and I am sure the rest of the world, the higher you go up the economical ladder the higher the number of dual-language speakers. 

I read a very interesting article in the LA Times today that claims that learning a secondary language at a young age can accelerate the child's development in their natural language. The subject of the article stemmed from a school's struggle to stay open but then decided to offer Italian, German and Spanish programs three years ago and now there is now a waiting list for children to get in.  I think people are realizing how beneficial it is to know another language and it is evident that children with their open minds and thirst for knowledge, can learn a language much faster than adults. 

Perhaps the U.S. is behind the curve in language fluency, at least compared to European countries. Maybe if we look at schools like the one I read about and after more scientific evidence is brought to the surface, more early learning schools with dual-language programs will start sprouting up across the U.S. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Chile & Bolivia!

We have three weeks left in Buenos Aires. We are going on a trip this coming Wednesday. Matt and I have spent a good amount of time in Buenos Aires so I don't feel guilty spending the last week or so exploring a different country.  We originally were going to visit a friend of Matts in Santiago, Chile but could not find a time when he could host. We decided to scratch going to Santiago all together and did a little more research on where would be best for our very last trip. I was not keen on going to a big city. I was more interested in going on a adventure trip. So next question was where to go? As I rested my fingers on the keyboard pondering what city to type into google search, I realized how little I knew about the countries comprising South America. Living here has made me much more aware of the politics and geography in South America.

After twenty minutes of poking around the internet and discussing with Matt where our friends have gone, we decided Chile would be a really cool place to go.  It didn't take long to find San Pedro de Atacama, a small town in Northern Chile. San Pedro is not the final destination, just a stepping stone to get to the surrounding landscapes. San Pedro is in the Atacama Desert which is just west of the Andes Mountains and is the driest place in the world! The mountainous terrain is composed mainly of salt, sand and lava and has been described as being on a different planet. In my research I was bombarded with information on tour adventures starting in San Pedro and ending in Salar de Uyuni, another place I had never heard of. Three cups of tea later, I had the fundamental pieces of my trip together. We were going to to start in Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat in Bolivia and ending at  San Pedro de Atacama, the world's driest place in Chile. Not exactly your dress up, dine, sleep on a soft bed and go to a museum the next day-type of trip. However, its one of those unique places that not many people have seen, and it is a paradise for photographers. 

The journey begins in Salta, a city two hours from Buenos Argentina by plane. We will stay the night there and spend the next day taking numerous buses to Tupiza in Bolivia, the town where the five day tour starts. Our trip itinerary includes many stops along the way including a salt processing plant, volcanic islands, a pre-inca cemetery, geysers and lagoons. I am not exactly sure what sort of wildlife lives in these parts but I am sure we will see some very interesting things. When choosing our tour program we had the option of a group tour or private tour. We opted for private after reading enough horror stories about overpacked cars and passengers getting altitude sickness and delaying the tour. We have the liberty of choosing how long we want to stay in each place, and we get to ask as many questions as we like! On the last day we are going to be dropped off in San Pedro.  We are going to spend two nights and three days in San Pedro and then head back to Salta where we will fly back to BA. 

Most of the hotels in San Pedro offer packages with tours included. If we didn't want to go with a tour company, we could rent a car and explore the area on our own but its not recommended. The roads are unpaved and can be very dangerous if you get lost. Some of the activities include mountain biking, sand boarding, horseback riding and hiking. I imagine after our five day tour we will be exhausted and if that happens we can choose something with less physical activity such as hot spring swimming, star gazing and picnics. No matter what we decide to do, the views of the mountains and terrain are said to be enough to take your breath away. Of course, with the high altitude we are going to be breathless most of the time. Altitude is very common because our bodies simply are not used to it. Symptoms include headache, fatigue, stomach ache, dizziness, and sleep disturbance. With the right precautions, there are ways to avoid it. The trick is to ease your way into it  by ascending slowly so body can naturally adjust. Another suggestion is to chew coca leaves or drink coca tea, although I haven't read any accounts that prove it actually works- its more just for fun! 

Stay tuned! I will try and find the energy and the internet to blog during the trip. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

It is very windy on the 31st floor. Today is quite a gloomy day and it is sprinkling. My soccer game got cancelled again today, for the fourth time in a month and a half. I have come to the conclusion that whenever it rains everything is susceptible to change. People cancel their plans and stay indoors, events are postponed, businesses close, taxi drivers take the day off, simply put you never know if the plans you had before are going to work out. I think this is a very Porteno attitude to put things off because of the rain.  Two weeks ago it was lightly sprinkling with the sun shining brightly and I got a call from my teammate informing me their was no game. During my first few months here I was working for a concert event planning company every Wednesday and it got cancelled a few times due to rain but that day lost was never made up. In the states, work continues and meetings take place even with bad weather. A work day lost means money lost. This is not the mentality of Portenos who have a much more lax attitude towards working, generally speaking.

Holidays here work a little differently as well. The day before and the day after holidays are subject to uncertainty. This is just observation but when I see bustling restaurants, crowds of people hanging in the park, and the running path full of runners and rollerbladers, I can only assume that if a holiday is on a Thursday so is Friday. Of course, I am not in the professional working world so the rules could be more defined there.