Monday, March 31, 2008

Crying, Vomiting, Cursing, and Shaking My Head

Yesterday, I went to the bus station here in Buenos Aires to head off for Santiago, Chile. The station is in Retiro—a neighborhood of BA—and I went there early to wait for departure at 6:00 P.M.

I needed to check the Internet to get the address of the hostel in Santiago so that finding it upon arrival would be quick and easy, but before going into the Cybercafe at the bus station, I figured I would sit down and check my laptop to see if I could tap into some WiFi. I sat down on the right end of a row of chairs with my backpack on the floor to my left and my photo bag and some other random junk in the chair to my left.

I quickly discovered that I wasn't going to get WiFi, so I packed up my laptop and put it in with the pile of things in the chair next to me. Just then, some guy tapped me on my right shoulder and pointed to a few wadded up two-peso bills on the floor directly to my right. I shrugged my shoulders, but then leaned over and picked them up. I looked around to see if I could see their true owner, but no one appeared to have lost any money, so I opened up the bills, carefully folded them up making sure they were all aligned the same, and added them to the small wad of cash in my pocket.

Just then, I heard some guy over my right shoulder saying something. I couldn't understand him, so I stood up and walked over to him. Eventually, I heard something about being careful with my bags. At that instant, a pit materialized out of nowhere in my stomach. I quickly walked over to where I had been seated and looked at the seat next to mine—the one in which I had put various and sundry items, including my camera bag.

My camera bag was gone. I quickly looked under the seat. Maybe it had fallen or I had put it on the floor. Nothing. I asked the man if that other guy had taken my bag. He said yes. I asked where he went. He said he had gone down the stairs. Down the stairs? Yes.

As I ran toward the stairs, I asked the people who were sitting in that area—a mom, her kids, and maybe some other people—to watch my things. I ran down the wide flight of stairs as fast as I could. After getting to the bottom, I looked both directions. Nothing. I ran ahead, out to the curb. There was a couple standing there. I told them a thief had taken my green bag and asked if they had seen him. Nothing.

If I felt panic when I realized my bag was gone, it was really starting to sink in now. A seven-thousand dollar camera that I can't replace, VISA cards, my passport—gone. Hand on forehead, fingers in hair, curse words flowing, head shaking. Utter disbelief. This can't be happening.

Just then I realized that I had left the rest of my stuff upstairs—with a bunch of other thieves for all I knew. I ran back up the stairs, to be met at the top by a police officer. He started asking me questions. I told him a thief took my green bag and that it had a very expensive camera, my passport, my VISA cards, and more. Then I told him I still had things over by the seats. Thankfully, they were still there—including my laptop.

He kept asking me questions. He asked for a description of the thief. I didn't know. I told him there was another guy that saw. If the other guy saw, why didn't he yell out? I'll never know. At this moment, I realized that a description of the thief was irrelevant. I would never see my bag again. Over eight-thousand dollars in equipment and money, gone. Passport, gone. VISA cards, gone.

Hand still on my forehead, curse words still flowing. Feeling sick. Utter disbelief. Oh, shit! My hard drive was in there, too! Over eleven-thousand photos!

After I threw my big pack on my back and picked up my laptop, the police officer calmly walked me down to the police office. There were two other couples who had already been robbed and were filling out police reports.

As I sat there waiting my turn, still cursing, shaking my head, and feeling sick, I looked out the front door, seeing where I could go in case I needed to throw up. I was in shock. I couldn't believe what had just happened.

The couple from Ireland had actually been robbed the day before but refused to file the report until the police brought in a translator. It was good having an English speaker there. After the translator took my information and printed me a copy of the report for insurance and passport purposes, a police officer, the translator, the Irish couple, and I all went upstairs and got in a small police car.

They dropped me off at the intersection of Avenue de Mayo and 9 de Julio, just a block or so from the hostel I had been living in, then pulled away to drop the Irish couple off. Thankfully, the hostel is going to give me my old room back and won't require payment ahead of time.

That was all yesterday.

Today I went to the U.S. Embassy to get a new passport. I arrived around 9:30 and walked out the door at 2:30 with a temporary passport. It's good for one year. The folks at the embassy were great. They were sympathetic and kind.

In the middle of the day, I had to walk across the street to a park where there was a man who would take your passport photos for twenty pesos. He hung a small, white, canvas sheet from a tree and had you sit on an orange, plastic stool. A few minutes later you had your mugs. God bless Polaroid.

The taxi ride to get to the embassy had cost another fourteen pesos. Then, at 1:30, I had walked a few blocks away and bought a ham sandwich and a Fanta for less then six pesos—that's under two bucks. Smokin'.

About forty pesos and $100 later (I had my VISA debit card number memorized and used it to pay for the new passport), I headed out with a new passport. After getting back to the hostel, I called my bank and canceled the debit card.

On the bright side, I will have less weight and bulk to carry. Also, when someone sees a nice photo I've taken, they won't be able to say "Wow! You must have a really good camera!" It's annoying when the camera gets the credit for an excellent photo.

Hopefully, I'll have a new VISA card in a few days—FedEx willing—and I'll be on my way to Santiago. Apparently, the bus company will issue me a new ticket if I show them the police report. That's the word on the street, anyway.

In conclusion, I did cuss a lot, I did cry a little, and I'm still shaking my head, but I've avoided throwing up, although I do still feel sick if I dwell on all this too much. This is one of the worst experiences I've ever been through in my entire life. Hopefully, it makes for good reading.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Lightening my Load

ALTERNATE TITLE: A Freakin' Sweet Steak Dinner!

As those of you who have held a professional camera know, they're big and heavy. I've been getting tired of lugging this Nikon D3 around, so I got rid of it, in lieu of my Nikon D40x, a much smaller, lighter camera. Also, as those of you who know me are aware, I am a person of extremes. In this case, that means I'm going to go really light, not just a bit lighter. I got rid of more than just my Nikon D3 body. Here's the complete list of items I disposed of in search of a lighter, leaner approach to travel:

  • Nikon D3 DSLR body
  • Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 lens
  • Nikon SB-800 flash
  • iPod Nano (3rd generation)
  • Koss PortaPro headphones
  • Three lens filters (neutral density, grad ND, polarizing)
  • MicroTrack II digital audio recorder
  • Several Spanish books (grammar, verbs, dictionary, etc.)
  • 2 VISA cards
  • Passport
  • Driver's license
  • Insurance papers
  • Vaccination papers
  • Photocopy of passport (in case passport gets stolen)
  • Extra passport photos (in case passport gets stolen)
  • $300 USD
  • 400 Argentine pesos (over $130 USD)
  • Pen and paper
  • Earplugs
  • Alarm clock
  • Map of Buenos Aires
  • Map of South America
  • 3.5" USB hard drive containing approximately 11,000 photos—that's a lot of photos to be carrying around—my pack is way lighter now.

To top it all off, I couldn't see carrying my small backpack with me when I won't be carrying its contents, too, so I just offloaded the whole kit 'n' caboodle. It's good to be free of all that crap.

Someone's having one sweet steak dinner tonight! (Hint: It ain't me—I've got about $4.25 to my name, in pesos. That's about a buck forty-two USD.)

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Tidbits from Buenos Aires

  • Walked from my hostel over to the school housing this morning around 11:00 to say goodbye to Carolina, one of the brazileñas. The school housing is an old building with five floors, four of which have rooms. It's one block from where I'm staying and a few blocks from school.
  • After that, I walked to the bus terminal and bought a ticket to Santiago, Chile, for tomorrow at 6:00 P.M. I splurged for the luxury accommodations in which the seat folds down into a bed. I won't be paying for a hostel or hotel, so it's still a good deal, at 260 pesos, or less than $90 USD.
  • Then I grabbed some lunch at the local version of Denny's—it was full of locals and the food was on par with Denny's. The price was tolerable (just). I was starving, so I won't lose any sleep over it. Unfortunately, I was in a Coke-free zone. I don't like Pepsi, so I just had a Mirinda, an orange pop.
  • Having gotten some fuel in my system, I walked over to a place that Lucía, one of my teachers, had recommended, Puerto Madero. It's basically a giant shopping area with lots of restaurants, all of which surrounds a waterway and marinas. It's a really nice area.
  • Next, I began walking towards a section of Avenue Corrientes, another spot Lucía had recommended I visit. Being really tired, I hopped a subte a couple stops to get me to Corrientes y 9 de Julio, home of the Obelisco, a tall Washington-Monument-like mound of blocks, pretty much right in the middle of the enormous main drag in downtown (sorry, Cheryl) Buenos Aires. Desperate for a Coke or some ice cream, I bopped right on into McDonald's to get a McFlurry. Lo and behold, Thais and Marina had just gotten back from taking Carolina to the airport and were about to order lunch in this very McDonald's, so we hung out for a few minutes and ate. Then they went back to the school housing to sleep and I headed West on Av. Corrientes.
  • One goal I had was to mail the stack of DVDs I've been burning of my images, but I didn't have the energy to find a FedEx. I should've looked them up on the Internet. I also should've done it a couple days ago. I'll try to mail them from Santiago. This section of Corrientes—just west of 9 de Julio—is pretty cool. There are lots of bookstores, music stores, theaters, etc. Makes me wish I were going to be here longer.
  • That's today—now for other stuff.
  • A couple observations of style here in Buenos Aires: I've seen at least a couple guys wearing their sweaters on their backs with the sleeves tied around their neck. Remember the '80s? I also see people with their headphone wires running down their shirt and into their pocket. That seams a little excessive, unless it's just to keep the wires from snagging on stuff or people. I'm guessing it's more to look cool.
  • There are approximately three black people who live in Buenos Aires.
  • Just about any person from the U.S. could walk down the street here and no one would know you were a foreigner.
  • I continue to be impressed with the fact that all the people I meet from Norway and Sweden are fluent in English—very impressive. Interestingly, the "conservatives" in those countries are still more liberal than the liberals in the U.S. We're still okay.
  • A bunch of the students have been sick with colds—I've had one, too. Congestion and coughing. A few students got food poisoning from somewhere.
  • The room next to mine in the hostel is cursed. Since I've been staying here, there have been three different groups of people who have stayed there. Without exception, they are not capable of talking to each other without yelling. For some reason, it usually happens at about 3:00 in the morning.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Taking the Train to Tigre

Edson, prolific picture taker Toward the end of of my first week of language school, another student approached me with a question (don't remember what it was) and we ended up chatting for about ten minutes—all in Spanish, somehow. That pretty much defines the time Edson Pires and I spent together—nothin' but Spanish. He was insistent on it. We became good friends quickly and spent a fair amount of time together over the following eight or nine days. And we only ever spoke in Spanish. It was difficult and frustrating at times, but we managed.

An ad at one of the train stations en route to Tigre Edson is employed by TAM airlines of Brazil and lives in São Paulo. He's working towards become an airline attendant, but must have a degree of fluency in Spanish first. He plans on being at the necessary level within about three months.

A few days after we met, Edson and I went to Tigre, a popular tourist destination on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. It's about 18 miles north and takes less than an hour to get there from the train station in Retiro, one of the city's barrios. As usual on a train, there are all kinds of interesting things to see out the window, both outbound and headed home, so the trip went quickly.

I hadn't had breakfast, so I was hungry. The first thing we did was look for a place to eat. As usual, the obvious and easy places to get to were for tourists and were accordingly expensive. We found a small, inconspicuous place, got a couple sandwiches, some chips, and a couple pops for a few bucks—just what we were looking for.

After that, we wanted to see the town a bit, so we began wandering around. The first thing that jumped out at us was an area with a few old planes, almost all of U.S. origin. I believe they were used by the Argentine Navy. Right next door to these planes was the Navy Museum. If you like ships, planes, war stuff, models, guns, or technology—i.e., if you're a guy—you have to go to this place. Go to Tigre if this is the only thing you do there. It's a bit expensive, but it's worth it. If my recollection serves me, In front of the train station the guy at the front desk pried two pesos out of our cold, dead hands. That's about 67¢. I would allow a couple hours. This place is sweet. Highly recommended.

Next, we went on a boat ride. Tigre is located on the Paraná River which empties out into the Rio de la Plata, the large river flowing between Buenos Aires and Montevideo and emptying out into the Atlantic Ocean. The boat ride was quite nice and not a bad price at 14 pesos, or less than five bucks. There's a ton of traffic on this river, both commercial and—what's the opposite of commercial? Uh, there were people in their own boats cruising around for fun. There were also folks in row boats doing what one does in a row boat—work.

A boy racing the train as it pulls out of the station If you like amusement parks, there's one here and it looks quite decent. It had a roller coaster that goes upside down, and other similarly exciting rides. We were told that an all-inclusive entry fee is fifty pesos. No bad.

Apparently, there's also an interesting fruit market, but we didn't go. We were satisfied with the few hours we spent walking around and seeing a few of the highlights. If you want to spend a full day on this trip, you should be able to hit all the high points.

That's your travel brochure for Tigre, Argentina.

An old train passenger Young train passengers The train station at Tigre Self portrait, sort of   

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Aprendiendo Español

Learning Spanish has been a challenge. For the most part, I have felt like I don't understand much and can't say much. The teachers, however, have been excellent. They speak almost entirely in Spanish during class. They use English words only when they can't explain the meaning of a word or concept in Spanish, either because the students are being slow or because there's no similar word in both languages to help the students make the connection.

There is also some conversation that goes on between students during class if one student knows the word and can help communicate it to the others. On occasion, the teacher isn't able to relay the idea and the students aren't following, so out comes the dictionary. I recall one specific instance when the teacher wrote the word for blackboard on the board, and we were trying to figure out if it actually meant blackboard or whiteboard. Another of the students said "What's the word for dry erase board?" We all cracked up. I was laughing pretty hard.

Although the teachers tend to enunciate clearly and speak a bit slowly for the sake of the students, most people on the street don't and I usually start out a conversation with a blank look on my face. Sometimes, I end up being able to converse some. My teeny, tiny vocabulary doesn't help matters any. So, I bought a few packs of fichas—flash cards—and am compiling a big list of vocab and expressions. We've also gone over pronouns, some past tenses, and a variety of expressions and common sentence structures.

Although I feel like I still completely suck at Spanish (because I do), I suspect I will just slowly improve until I'm chatting away with the natives. It sure is frustrating and humiliating, though. There's no doubt I could use a good dose of humility (any of my friends reading this will be nodding their heads), so this is all probably for the best. By the time I get to Nicaragua, my good friends the Mingos can give me their analysis of my newly gained languages skills. Muchas gracias to my teachers here in Buenos Aires for their skill and patience.

My time in COINED is done (I'm adding this last paragraph on Sunday morning), but I will be starting private lessons outside the school tomorrow. I'll be traveling to the apartment of the teacher each day for the duration of the week and will have those lessons for a couple hours a day. I also just moved out of the "host family's home" this morning and am now sitting on my bed in Avenue Hostel typing and posting a few blog entries. I will be here for one week—then onward and westward.

There May Not Be a Free Meal, But There Almost Is

The other day, a bunch of us—the brazilians and I—went to the big shopping mall, Shopping Abesto, of which I wrote previously. It's in Balvanera, one of 48 barrios, or neighborhoods, in Buenos Aires. For reasons with which I won't bore you, we got separated and never did end up reconnecting.

I was with Thais (pronounced tie-éesh), who is from Belém, Brazil, and we eventually got hungry. I figured the mall food might be on the expensive and ordinary side, so I suggested we head down the road a few blocks to see what was there. After walking in a random direction for only a block or two, we spied a restaurant across the street.

Long story short, between two meals, we had: a steak, some chicken, two salads, a heap o' rice, and two bottles of pop—the 650ml variety, which is a pretty good size. I was tempted to make you do the math, but I'm a nice guy, so I'll do it for you. I was so blown away that I kept the receipt. As you can see, the bill, which, when we asked for it, was created on the fly by out waiter with pen and scratch paper, has the numbers on it. Divide by three and you get just over nine dollars. Let me try to relay the full impact of the situation.

Less than $10 for a steak, two pieces of chicken, tons of flavored rice, two salads, and two bottles of pop. Can you say barrato? That's freakin' sweet!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

My Life In Buenos Aires, Argentina

Lady in subway station knitting It's tired and I'm late, so this is not going to be fancy. There will be no story, no wittiness, no jokes, and no double meanings. I'm simply gong to tell you what I've been up to here. No mas.

When I was in Montevideo, Uruguay, I met another traveler who said he had been to language school in Buenos Aires and recommended it. I figured it might be a good idea to kick start my language skills with some formal training, so I called one of the schools he mentioned—COINED—and signed up for two weeks. I wanted the greatest impact from my time here, so I signed up for the immersive program. That includes four hours of classroom instruction per day (class size of one handful) and one hour of private instruction, also per day, of course. The school also arranged for me to stay Lucía helping Kelly from Portlandwith a "host family." I'm not one to throw quotes around willy-nilly, so they are there for a reason. I will inform you as to that reason shortly.

My schedule has gone like so: get up at around 8:00, shower, get dressed, walk about five minutes to the subway (Jose Hernandez station), hop on, sweat, become a temporary sardine, exit the subway about ten stops later—twenty minutes, or so—after it arrives at the downtown station (9 de Julio), walk about ten minutes to Waiting for the next trainthe school, take a class with a few other students for four hours, take an hour lunch (maybe) and then take a one-hour private class.

Without exception, my teachers have been excellent. I had one teacher for the first week's primary class—Lucía—and another this past week—Patricio. I had one teacher for the first week's private class—Melina—and three more this week—Marcela, Ciro, and Leticia—all different, but excellent.

The school has issues with scheduling which have made a lot of students upset. This weekend is Santa Semana—a big holiday here—and we're losing a day of instruction this week and and the students Patricio and my second week of classwho are at the school next week will miss a day, as the holiday goes from Friday through Monday. Scheduling is one of the most complex problems in Computer  Science, but there does exist software for it which does a reasonable job of solving it. I don't know how the school does things, but it ain't working so well. A few students who scheduled and paid for the regular instruction and private instruction never even got the private class last week. There was also a lot of confusion amongst the students and teachers about how the holidays would be handled. As it turns out, we paid for five days of classes and got only four days of instruction.

The subway line I take to school-Linea D There are also events that the school organizes so the students can see the city and get to know the culture a bit. They need to be more proactive, as I never even heard about the events or knew who was going or when. Apparently, the guy who used to take care of these events was fired some time back. I think that was a mistake.

The teachers are even fed up with things. Some of them are teaching privately on their own time. If any of you needs a good private Spanish teacher in Buenos Aires, let me know and I can give you some names. These folks are excellent teachers and they love what they do.

People dashing for the train I just finished my last day of class today. There is so much that I had forgotten since high school and college. I feel horribly inadequate. I feel like I don't understand much and can't say much. This next week, I will be taking private classes outside the school. I'm thinking I'll do a couple hours a day.

Now for the "host family." I was expecting to sit down to dinner each night with a family of four and talk about the kids' school, life in Buenos Aires, and Latin American The subway pulling inculture. I was also expecting good meals, as I've been paying extra to receive  breakfast and dinner. Well, it's a single lady who's not around much and who just wants to earn an extra buck. The food she provides is total crap. Very disappointing.

The exception to the general lousiness of the living situation is one of the other students staying here. Her name is Sanne and she's from Stockholm, Sweden. She's a sweetheart. She studied for five weeks at COINED and is now volunteering at a house for troubled or disadvantaged girls for several months. We've done a few things Inside a subway cararound town and had several really good conversations about language, culture, and various and sundry other topics of interest.

This next week, I'll be staying in a hostel called Avenue Hostel very near the school. The benefit of that location is that I'll be downtown. That will make it very easy to see some sights that I've missed so far. Also, I can get together more easily with some good friends I've made at school—mostly Brazilians (there are tons of them at the school). I will take a different subway line to my teacher's apartment for private Spanish lessons than I've been taking thus far. It's apparently an historical line, so that should be interesting.

Tomorrow, my good friend, Edson—a brazileño, of course—and I will be bumming My brazilian friendsaround town. I'll report on that, if I have anything of interest to say. In the evening, I'll be going to some sort of  show with a couple brazileñas. Saturday, no plans, yet. Sunday, the brazileñas and I will be going to a futbol game—that's the plan, anyway. We need to figure out if we can get tickets. The game in question is Velez v. River. Stay tuned.

I will check out of this apartment Sunday morning, move directly to the hostel, stay there for one week, then head for Santiago, Chile. After that, Patagonia and Chile for a month, or so.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Let's Talk About the Weather

Rio de la Plata I'm a little rusty at this whole blog thing, so I'm going to start easy to get the carbon burned off the pistons. An old trick I learned is to pour some oil down the carburetor followed by some water. I guess the oil loosens the carbon, then the water rinses it out. I actually tried that on our '65 Dodge Coronet. I don't know if it cleaned any carbon out of the engine, but it sure as heck made a freakin' sweet white cloud of smoke. The thing was monstrous. The neighbors must have wondered if our house was on fire.

Now onto the weather. Although my travels from around Iguazu Falls through Colonia, Uruguay were cloudy with some sprinkles mixed in, the weather here in Buenos Aires has been gorgeous, bordering on the hot. The skies have been virtually cloudless—lots of blue out there—and there hasn't been a drop of rain.

Interestingly, the weather is much worse in the subway—at least for those of us who prefer the optimum Washington days, which means around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. When you descend into the subte, the temperature goes up by around 10 or 15 degrees. This morning when I went to Spanish class, there wasn't even standing room in the car I was in—or probably any of the others. It gets a bit toasty in there. From what I've heard, it's not any fun when it's closer to three digits upstairs.

Okay. Although I didn't pour any oil or water onto my laptop, I do believe the carbon is gone. More to come.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

We Reap What We Sow

I probably should've posted this a while back, but better late than never.

Back in Rio on one of the nights I went Salsa dancing, I danced with a local gal who was nice and patient with me. She spoke some English and so we chatted for a bit after the dance. She said there was a nice BBQ restaurant near where I was staying, so the plan was to meet there for lunch on Sunday.

I gave her my card with my contact info so she could send me an e-mail and we could make arrangements. I never heard from her.

I found out later that she had actually used my card. She had gone home and read a bit of my blog. Specifically, she read my post entitled My Drug Habit. Apparently, she decided that she didn't want to associate with someone who did drugs. I almost started crying when I heard this, as I was laughing so hard.

Little did I know that a witty post would cost me a good BBQ lunch. That'll teach me to be funny.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Watch Out for the Drips

I moved into my host home this morning. I'll be staying here for fourteen days, the duration of my language classes.

So as to make sure to make a timely arrival for my first day of class in the morning, I wanted to travel the route to the school, so, after dropping my bags at the apartment and taking a nap, I purchased a good map of the city at a magazine stand, walked the few blocks to the subway station, bought a subway pass for ten trips, and hopped on board to travel the route downtown and track down the school. After arriving at the appropriate stop—about twenty minutes after departure—I walked the few blocks to the school and located it with no problem.

Hungry, I headed back toward the main avenue to find a place to eat. While walking along a side street in the direction of the main thoroughfare, I walked precisely underneath a leaky air conditioning unit some floors up. Unbeknownst to me, it dripped cooling fluid on my head, my camera bag, and my shirt—I thought I had merely be assaulted by a few water droplets. Thankfully, a helpful couple—a man and woman in their 40s, I would say—were nearby and gladly pointed out the green goo all over me. They had a few napkins and a bottle of water handy and helped dab the ickiness off of me. What a kind gesture. I thanked them and made a beeline for food.

In a moment of weakness, I walked right into a McDonald's. After a wait of about five minutes, I placed my order and reached into the front left pocket of my shorts—where I keep my money—only to find over 150 pesos absent. All my cash, gone. That's over $50USD. I turned around, bewildered, and walked out, heading back to the subway. No money, no VISA—that's in my backpack at the apartment—and no way to buy lunch. I'll go home, shower, get some cash from an ATM, and buy dinner.

Welcome to Buenos Aires, sucker.

Weather, Internet, and Miscellany

  • Contrary to popular belief—or at least the hope that I had—it's not always sunny in Latin America.
    • When I was in Rio de Janeiro, it was generally nice, but did rain some. It was plenty warm, though. I was informed, however, that this summer it cooler than usual. Yikes! I'm glad for that, as mid '80s is plenty warm for me. The Amazon is going to melt me.
    • Iguazu Falls was very nice the day I went to the falls—warm and sunny. The next day was cloudy. I was going to take the helicopter over the falls on that day, but nixed that idea, since I'm not going to pay a bunch of money to get photos with bad lighting.
    • In Uruguay, it was generally cloudy. It rained a bit and was humid.
    • Buenos Aires continues that trend. It's been mostly cloudy with intermittent rain. As I sit in my room on the bed typing away on my laptop, I'm enjoying the AC and seeing the rain out the window. I bought some grub earlier at a small supermarket a few doors down from the hostel, so I'm livin' large. Food, laptop, Internet, music on the iPod, comfort, and watching the rain outside. Can't beat it.
  • Youth hostels and hotels in Latin America.
    • So far, the accommodations have been pretty good. I've paid between about $10 and $25 a night for both hotels and hostels with one night in a hotel for $35.
    • In Uruguay, there are very few hostels in the less popular cities, but the hotels in those cities are pretty cheap.
    • Every hostel I've stayed at so far has had at least on PC with Internet and a wireless router with a cable modem.
    • In some small cities, you may not find a Internet Cafe or WiFi anywhere. In big cities, you can wander around a bit and find unsecured WiFi within a short distance. There are tons of Internet Cafes in Buenos Aires.
  • Piercings seem very popular in Montevideo and Buenos Aires, especially in the mouth.
  • Went to the Abasto shopping mall today in Buenos Aires. It was sweet. Built in the early 20th century as a food market, it's now a multi-story shopping center. Very cool architecture and pretty darn big. It's got all the latest stores and products and a gigantic food court.
  • People carry everything—including the kitchen sink—on their mopeds down here. Some people have racks mounted to both the front and back of the scooter, everyone carries items between their legs resting on the frame, from a briefcase to large packages and boxes, and I've seen anywhere from just the driver to husband/wife/dog or a dad and three children on one moped...none wearing a helmet.
  • Electronics are expensive down here. In Rio de Janeiro, a DSLR that costs $500 in the States might cost $1,500. Import taxes are the main culprit. I saw a Sony A700 here in Buenos Aires for over $2,000 that sells for less than $1,400 back home.
  • The vast majority of streets down here are one-way. Not sure why. They are also cobblestone—many, but not all.
  • Many sidewalks are covered in tiles measuring about six inches square. Sometimes they come loose and water works its way underneath. As you're walking down the sidewalk, you step on the loose one. As your other foot passes by the first foot, water squirts out from under the first tile all over your foot. It's extremely annoying.
  • It's 10:00 A.M. on Sunday, March 9th. I'm going to grab a bite of breakfast downstairs (still at the hostel), then pack, check out, and get a taxi over to the home of my new family. The weather is perfect today.

Friday, March 7, 2008

My First Day in Buenos Aires

My first day in Buenos Aires was a rather productive one.

I walked by an electric appliance repair shop yesterday, made a mental note of its location, and went there today to see if he could fix my headphones.

My headphones are the Koss PortaPro—the best portable headphones ever made, at a smokin' price—and the connection on the plug went bad a couple weeks ago. If I were back in the states, here's what would happen. I would send my old PortaPros to Koss and they would send me a brand new pair for free. Along with the new headphones, they would send a bill asking that I send them money for shipping. They are an amazing company. Here, however, that ain't gonna happen. The guy at the repair shop didn't have a mini plug as he fixes things like vacuum cleaners and blenders, so he sent me a few blocks away to an electronics parts shop where I bought a 1/8" mini plug for one peso—about 35¢. Then I went back to him where he soldered the new plug to the headphone wire for ten pesos—around three bucks.

Next, I went to a computer shop—JAV Microsystems—where one of their techs, Lucas, got the wireless on my laptop working. This is a great shop. They're friendly, sharp, and have all the latest stuff. If you need a server, PC, or components like motherboards, switches, routers, or just a mouse, they've got it.

Next, I went to Banco Piano and got my leftover Uruguayan Pesos changed for Argentine Pesos. While banks in Uruguay are open from 1:00 P.M. to around 5 or 6:00 P.M., banks in Argentina are open from 10:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. Seems like all the banks' hours in Latin America are wacky.

Last, I got registered for language school. Sunday, I'll be moving in with a local family here in Buenos Aires and will stay with them for fourteen days—that was arranged by the language school. I will attend class each weekday for the next two weeks from 8:00 A.M. to noon. Then I'll have a one-hour private class each day. On top of that, there are a couple cultural activities each week. Staying with the local family will be icing on the cake.

I also had a great little lunch at one of the gazillion little restaurants here in Buenos Aires. There are so many stores of every type here, it's silly. My lunch consisted of a sandwich called bondiola de cerdo, basically a sub with pork, and a Coke, for just under ten pesos, or just over three bucks. Good food at a good price.

It's been a very productive day. I can't tell you how important this laptop is to my travels—and without Internet access, I feel like a fish out of water. If I weren't connected, you wouldn't be reading this and I wouldn't be uploading new photos right now!


I Have Given Up

I have finally given up. I tried and tried and tried to avoid eating at McDonald's, but I have finally quit trying. I now go to McDonald's with some regularity to get my McFlurry. There was also a very nice ice cream joint in Colonia, Uruguay—think 31 Flavors—and I went there several times. Gotta have my ice cream fix!

Thursday, March 6, 2008


I just arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, today, along with Roxie and Charlotte, the identical twins from Australia. We stayed together, along with Alex from D.C., in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay for a couple nights. Now, Alex is headed back to Montevideo, then back to the States.

I was hoping to go to Tacuarembó, Uruguay, for the gaucho festival, but everything was booked—no place to stay. Coming here earlier than planned will be fine. It will give me time to arrange for language school, which I will attend for either one week or two weeks.

Here's a quick summary of my last week-and-a-half. I left Iguazu Falls and entered Uruguay from the northern end, at Artigas. From there, I traveled to Salto, then Paysandú, Montevideo, and finally Colonia, staying a few days in each of those cities.

Today, I traveled from Colonia to Buenos Aires, via a high-speed ferry. The ferry is a tunnel-hull design, holds over 400 people and a number of cars, is about seventy meters long, and has four 5,400 kW diesel engines. I'm not sure how fast it goes, but it makes the trip in less than an hour. On board, there was singing, clapping, and whistling—continued from in the terminal in Colonia—because of a soccer game on TV.

I'm staying in a hostel called El Candil. It is excellent. If you need a place to stay in Buenos Aires, I recommend it. The bathrooms are big and seemingly never occupied. The staff is very nice and helpful. Breakfast is included. Accommodations are nice.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Uruguayan Cuisine

  • I have determined my favorite restaurant in Paysandú, Restaurant Artemio...right across the street from Plaza Constitucion. Just had a steak topped with a cheese sauce and onions with some lovely—don't worry, that's as sing-songy as my food reviews get—rice on the side. All that and a bottle of Coke for about nine bucks.
  • Hamburgers here are a bit different than those back home. Besides the usual toppings, they have a layer of egg—basically a simple omelet—and may also have a slice of ham. Pretty darn good. I think I'll start making my own burgers this way in the future. A burger (we're talking a good one), fries, and a bottle of Coke go for about $4.50.
  • I'm getting into the habit of finding the closest bakery each morning. These are common and the pastries are outstanding—baked fresh each day. As with the aforementioned items, they are cheap. This morning, I bought four small pastries for about 70¢.
  • My first night in Montevideo, I went to a nice sit-down restaurant recommended by both my taxi driver and the hotel staff. Had a couple Cokes, fries, and a good steak. Paid $20. Not worth it. Good steak, but not that good.
  • Went to a big Sunday market called Tristan Nevarra in Montevideo. Had a sweet hamburger and Coke for $2—the best deal on my trip so far.
  • The tostada is a staple here—basically a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The CT-70 Lives!

For those of you missing the Honda CT-70, fret no more. Just come to Latin America. Motorcycles based on that engine design are all over the place. It must have been a good design. There are actual Honda C-70s and C-90s, and an occasional Suzuki, Yamaha, and Kawasaki, but most bikes are ones you've never heard of—probably Chinese. There's the Winner, Baccio, Tys, and my favorites, the Yusuki and Yumbo.

In Rio de Janeiro, there's a helmet law, but everyone ignores it. I think there's a helmet law in Uruguay, too, but it's unclear. In Salto, everyone wears a helmet, in Paysaydú, no one.

If you want to get around in the quickest way possible, a bike is the ticket. Traffic can be crawling on the freeway, and the bikes just keep zipping right along, right between the rows of cars.

People are serious riders down here. When it rains, they just pull out their rain suit and off they go. It's stowed under the seat or in a bag for quick access. For many people, I suspect the bike is their only set of wheels, so taking the car is not an option. Others who aren't prepared—or don't care—just get wet.

Some of the bikes are 4-strokes, some 2-strokes. Many of the 2-strokes sounds just like model airplanes or chainsaws. I suspect they're only 50ccs. They're the kind you pedal to get going—typical mopeds. I've seen hardly any bikes bigger than 125-150ccs—nothing like in the States where the smallest bike you typically see is 500-650ccs. I guess it comes down to economy and need.