Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Argentina Desperately Needs Change!

  • The first day I arrived in Salta, Argentina, I caught a taxi to the hostel. When we arrived, I gave the driver a 10-peso bill to cover the 6-peso charge. That's about three bucks to cover a two-dollar ride. The driver couldn't make change. He ended up taking about 5 minutes to run around the block asking other people for change.
  • Just a couple days ago, I took another taxi. The fare was 3 pesos and I gave the driver two 2-peso bills. He had no coins. Specifically, lack of coins is the biggest issue, not so much lack of bills—although lack of the right bills isn't uncommon. I ended up just saying to hell with it and letting him keep the extra money. I wasn't bothered because I gave up 33¢. It's the principal of the matter that really bugs me. [In reality the fare was about 2.60 and I was going to give him 3, to include a tip. I ended up giving him 4.]
  • I am embarrassed to tell this story, but I will, for posterity. The first time I was in Buenos Aires, I stopped at a street vendor who was preparing and selling sandwiches made from barbequed meats. I ordered a couple and he sliced up some beef and some sausage and threw it onto the grill. I pulled out a 100-peso bill—or about $33. He said he didn't have change. He took out his wallet and showed me that it was empty. At this point, I felt bad for the kid—he was probably 16 years old—and so I gave him the 100-peso bill, had him write me up a receipt, and told him I'd come back another day for change. I didn't have the heart to walk away and leave him with wasted meat on the BBQ. Unfortunately, his stand wasn't close to where I was staying. I made it back another day, but a different cook was there. Apparently, several cooks share the stand. I never did make it back when the kid was there, and so I lost about $25.
  • A few days ago, at a kiosk, I wanted to buy a bottle of Coke. It cost something like $1.75 (pesos) and so I stuck my hand out with a 2-peso bill. He didn't have change, so I walked away, despite the fact that I could've just given him the extra 8¢ (U.S.).
  • Conclusion: People who run a tight ship have change. If they really try, they can have change on hand, although it takes a concerted effort. People who don't have change may just be trying to rip you off, or they may just be bad at business. From here on out, if someone doesn't have change, I will just stand there and wait for them to run themselves ragged getting proper change for me. If someone doesn't have change, I will not buy something from them. If they want extra money from a tourist, they can get it from someone else—and they will.

Blinder Than a Bat

Yesterday, I was walking down the street here in Salta, Argentina, when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man hustling along the sidewalk next to me. He had a long walking stick. It took only a moment for me to ascertain that he was blind. He seemed in an awfully big hurry for a blind guy—it had never occurred to me until that moment that blind people can't usually be in a hurry. This fellow demonstrated why.

As he hurried, almost frantically, down the sidewalk, he was thrusting his walking stick out in front of him and off to the side, at times over the edge of the tall curb—probably a foot-and-a-half down to the street. He was yelling something about "la puerta" or, the door. He was scurrying along to try and catch the bus and was asking where the door was, or that the driver keep the door open—I'm not sure exactly.

The climax of the show came next. On the sidewalk in front of him was a concrete light post. Lucky for the blind dude, there was a large metal sign—probably 3 feet wide by 4 feet tall—resting on its feet in front of the light post. He ran into the sign at a pretty good clip, but managed to stay on his feet and to continue on toward his goal.

By this point, he was next to the bus and people all around were looking uncomfortably in his direction. I saw that there was a line of people shuffling onto the bus and it was clear he would have no trouble catching his ride. I think some of the observers helped this poor fellow find the door at this stage in his race, but I can't be sure, as I never skipped a beat in my normal brisk pace.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cachí, Argentina

On the way from Salta to Cachí. Salta, Argentina is the base camp for many tours. It lies near the foothills of the Andes mountains, and you can choose from any number of day trips that lead to outlying towns. One that I chose was to Cachí (1673), a small town a few hours away, up in the mountains (just under 2,300 meters).

I was the first one picked up in the large van at about 7:15 A.M. We made only one other stop and that was to a large hotel in the town center. The guide told me we would be picking up a bunch of old ladies. We A field of cacti.had to wait about 10 minutes for them. As they began strolling out, I just knew I was in for a really boring day.

It took a few hours to arrive at Cachí and we stopped at a few key spots along the way, including a place where a local lady had a baby goat for the tourists to hold and be photographed with, and another where there were thousands of cacti stretching out across the desert.

We stopped for a couple nature breaks on the way up, including a nice lunch, where I ate goat meat—a first for me. Rafael, our tour guide (This was the first tour where he Our tour group.did all the talking. His mentor, however, came along for the ride, just in case of emergency, before setting Rafael loose on his own.), sat at the table with me and we had a very nice chat. He previously taught phonetics so we had a very interesting conversation about language.

We stayed in Cachí for a couple hours, free to wander around. There's the typical plaza, a nice museum with many artifacts gathered from the local area (Museo Arqueológico "Pío Pablo Díaz" Archaeological Museum), and a church. Rafael and I continued our time together while in Cachí. During lunch, he had told me how he calls his buddies "negro" (just a bit of local slang, I guess). When he talks to his American friends, he calls My lunch—goat meat.them "nigger," his English equivalent of negro. He had been to this town a few times before on previous tours. As we headed in the direction of the church, I asked him if he'd gone into it before. His reply was, "I'm not a Catholic, nigger. I'm a Mormon!" That totally cracked me up.

On the way back down, the mentor guide began to sing. It must have been a song by some Latin heartthrob (Luis Miguel?), because the ladies began to howl. Before long, they were all singing. This continued for the next hour. Dirty jokes were interspersed between the songs. Pretty fun group for a bunch of old fuddy-duddies. Still working on not making assumptions about people.

The museum in Cachí. The church in Cachí. The church in Cachí. The pulpit—lots of things in this region are made of this wood, from the Cardón cactus. On the way back to Salta from Cachí, in the foothills of the Andes.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Bad to the Bone

If you want to know how to be cool in Latin America, here are some tips (some of them apply anywhere in the world):

  • If you work at a park, wear all green (i.e., fatigues) with black army boots.
  • If you're a motorcycle cop—the kind that rides a dual-purpose bike—wear all green, army boots, and a fully equipped load-bearing vest. Never mind the fact that none of the little pouches in your vest have grenades or extra clips, or that you're carrying just a .38 Special.
  • If you work security at a supermarket, wear what appears to be a bullet-proof vest. Don't bother with a gun, of course.
  • If you're wearing a backpack, make sure to sling only one strap over your shoulder (this one is universal).
  • Wear your sweater on your back with the sleeves wrapped around your neck, like we used to do in the States about 25 years ago (that's not back, is it?).

Friday, August 15, 2008

Death Valley, Chile—er, Nevada—er...

An old church in San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro de Atacama is a small town (about 5,000) in northern Chile, just a few miles from both Bolivia and Argentina. It's in the Altiplano, a high plain in the Andes mountains, at approximately 2,400 meters. It's the largest high plateau in the world next to that in Tibet. The Atacama is also the driest desert in the world.

Most of the town's inhabitants are dedicated to tourism. Although there isn't much to see in the town itself (an old church and a nice museum), there are many tour agencies offering excursions to surrounding areas. I took a couple tours—one for a full day in a couple small 4x4s with a small group high up into the Andes and another for a half day with a large tour group to a few areas closer to the town.

Yours truly eating empanadas by candlelight, as the power had gone out. The full day tour took us very close to the Argentine border and up over 4,000 meters. We saw some salt flats and interesting rock formations not unlike what you'd see in the American Southwest. We stopped at a beautiful green lake which was partially frozen. During several of the stops we made, it was very windy and the temperatures were bitter cold. At the lake, my hands went numb after taking pictures for about 10 minutes. The altitude along with the wind make it very chilly. This tour was a bit more expensive because it was with a smaller group. It was about $85 (38,000 pesos). If you're a photographer, though, it's worth it. The stops are frequent and you have plenty of time to shoot.

A Viscacha. The other tour, which was with a larger group in a small bus cost only 5,000 pesos, or about $11. The bus broke down a few times, we had to walk a ways, and we ended up arriving at our final stop for the sunset just minutes before it went down. This tour went to Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) and Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). As we were en route to Valle de la Muerte, a passenger kept comparing and contrasting this "Death Valley" with the Death Valley in The States.

Tourist: How hot does it get here?
Guide: 45º C.
Tourist: Death Valley, Nevada gets up to 47º. What's the lowest point here? Does it go down to sea level?
Jay: No, you moron. We're at a few thousand meters in the freaking Andes Mountains!!! (I didn't really say that, but I thought it)
Guide: No. We're at almost 3,000 meters.
Tourist: Well Death Valley, Nevada goes down to 300 meters below sea level.

Rock formation in the Atacama Desert. I can't tell you how hard it was to keep my mouth shut. First of all, Death Valley is in California, not Nevada. It's all the more amazing this bozo didn't know that, as he's from Las Vegas! Second, Death Valley National Park has a low point of 282 feet below sea level. Other areas of the Park extend to over 11,000 feet. Last, the temperature record for Death Valley is almost 57º C. That's 134º F. Quite a bit more than 47º!

Anyhoo, it's uncanny how similar Valle de la Muerte is to Death Valley National Park Atacama Desert.in the United States. From the rocks to the colors to the sand dunes, they're very similar. If you want to visit this kind of landscape and you're in The States, just go to California. If you're in South America, San Pedro de Atacama is worth a visit.

There are other attractions such as geysers and salt flats with flamingos, so leave at least a few days for tours. You can also rent bicycles and pedal your way around if you want to save a few bucks, but there will be a lot you'll miss on bike. The bike is good only for some things that are close to the town.

Atacama Desert. Another thing I thought was amazing: 70% of the tourists who visit San Pedro de Atacama are Europeans. Of those, 40% are French!

The hostel I stayed in was Hostel Sonchek. It's a nice, peaceful place to relax. The facilities are good and the prices are low. Although there's no Internet, there's an Internet cafe next door (with WiFi). They don't appear to have a Web site, so you'll just have to Google them.

A lake in the Atacama Desert. Another interesting tidbit about the town: they lose power regularly. About 30 Km away are gas generators. I don't know what the issue is, but power went out about 4 times while I was there over a 3-day period.

As far as weather goes, while I was in San Pedro de Atacama, in the sun I would sweat—and would have burned if I had stayed in the sun for a few hours without sun block—and in the shade I would get cold. So, you should have a variety of clothing, both for hot and for cold.

Moonrise over the Andes. Typical Latin America—garbage wherever you look.  A volcano in the Andes Mountains. Ice formations caused by high and constant winds. Lake in the Andes. As water is blown out of the lake, it freezes onto the shoreline. Lake in the Andes. Gal from Brazil with Nikon D2Xs in the background.

Monday, August 11, 2008

La Serena, Chile

Little girl playing in the Pacific Ocean. La Serena is about seven hours north of Valparaíso, by bus. I left Valparaíso Saturday night at 10:30 and got to La Serena at the butt-crack of dawn. I had e-mailed a hostel ahead of time for a reservation. This is definitely my recommendation, if possible. Use www.hostels.com or www.hostelworld.com to reserve a place for your next destination. Unfortunately, upon showing up in La Serena and getting dropped of by the taxi at the hostel (who took off immediately), I found out they were full. The Web sites clearly don't always reflect reality. Thankfully, another taxi pulled up right then and knew of another place that did, in reality, have a room. And even better, it was just a stone's throw from the bus station, so it would be easy to get my next ticket.

A beautiful street in La Serena, Chile. I tried to get the lady at the hostel to book me for a tour the next day, but she didn't know if there would be enough people. She said she'd let me know that evening, and if I couldn't get on that tour, there was another one I could go on. I was in my room from about 7:00 P.M. that day until 9:00 A.M. the next and never heard a peep. I felt far down under the weather and so didn't have the motivation to pursue it myself. So, I just tooled around town a bit and also swung by the bus station to bump up my ticket from 10:30 P.M. the next day to 4:30, a few hours earlier. If I wasn't going to go on a tour, I might as well get a head start on San Pablo de Atacama.

A typical Latin American plaza. If you have the time and feel so inclined, La Serena is probably worth a stop. It's a nice little town and has a few nice historic churches along with the common avenue which is open to foot traffic only. I also found a nice little restaurant which had good food for a good price.

After my second lunch in this little joint, I stopped of at a small plaza to work my way towards completion of my current tome—Sailing Alone Around the World, by Joshua Slocum. Sitting next to me on the bench was an older guy, probably in his sixties, wearing a black leather jacket, brown leather slip-on shoes, and dark trousers, zipper to the bottom. He had a bag of what Little girl collecting shells on the beach. appeared to be garbage—myriad paper items. Maybe he's into recycling. He was reading a dirty newspaper, presumably today's edition, since that's usually how it works, but based on appearances, it could have been lying in the dirt for days. After he finished catching up with current events, he pulled out a piece of scrap paper from his collection, rolled it up tightly until it was about the size of a cigarette. He proceeded to take his homemade Q-Tip and clean the wax from his ear. The beauty of his Q-Tip was its reusability. With a normal Q-Tip, once you shove it in your ear and run it around a bit, that's all she wrote. With this chap's variety, you simply remove it from your ear and brush the muck off of it, then go back for more. Based on my observations, it's good Monumental La Serena lighthouse. for at least three cleanings. I'm going to guess that this chap doubled that, still having one ear to go. In the middle of all this, he stomped his feet, presumably to scare away the pigeons. He repeated the stomping when I got up to leave, although there were no pigeons that time.

La Serena, a nice little town, growing fast, and with tours that are supposed to be great. Worth a visit if you're traveling between Valparaíso and Calama or San Pablo de Atacama.

Little girl playing in the Pacific Ocean.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Valparaíso—Rio Jr.

Toward the West side of Valparaíso. One of the first things that struck me upon arriving in Valparaíso, Chile, is its close resemblance to Rio, at least in some obvious ways. It's set on the ocean, its houses climb up the nearby hillsides, the poorer people have the best views, and their neighborhoods are also the most dangerous. Of course, it's much smaller—about the size of Tacoma, or a couple hundred thousand—and is a little mellower (than Rio, at least) in every respect.

Moving up the hillside, it gets poorer. Most visitors spend a couple days here, but if you have time, you could probably stretch it almost to a week. First tip: when you arrive, don't take a taxi to your lodging. They're a major rip off. Figure about $12 vs. $1 for a collectivo. Don't ask me how I know this—just take my word for it. In Chile, a collectivo is basically a taxi with a fixed route, and they're cheap (in Argentina, a collectivo is what they call their city buses). The buses in Valparaíso are also cheap and a good way to get around the city. They stop all over creation, not just at predefined stops, as in most cities.

The subway connecting Valparaíso with Viña del Mar.The Yellow House is a nice place to stay and they'll take care of you. It's a Bed & Breakfast and probably not the cheapest place, but I recommend it. Martin, the owner, who is from Australia and who married a Chilena, works with a guy named Michael, who is from Germany and who also married a Chilena. Michael is a guide and he is excellent. His prices are great and he knows his stuff. He'll tell you all kinds of history and interesting facts—stuff you won't otherwise learn. He does a walking tour of the city and also a tour in which he takes you, in his car, to wineries, a fishing village, Pablo Neruda's house, etc. Highly recommended!

Old guy in Valparaíso. Unfortunately, something he told me disappointed me. The city is very colorful, but it got colorful starting only in around 1992, when an American moved here and began to influence the city's direction. I was hoping the color went way back, but alas, it's a modern invention.

I also took the quite-nice electric train to the nearby tourist destination of Viña del Mar. It's basically a smaller city that butts up against Valparaíso—it's roughly in the same bay. Many locals from Santiago—just 120 kilometers to the East—come here for the weekend. If you have extra time, it's worth a half-day visit. Put it at the bottom of your list, though, if you have limited time.

A hillside in Valparaíso. I went to a Tango class here, too, at La Piedra Feliz, on Thursday. It was very nice. Led by an older guy, it lasted two hours, and started out with a bunch of exercises that were meant to help develop the right style of movement for Tango. I really enjoyed that part. Then came the "normal" dancing. I have to admit that Tango is still almost a complete mystery to me. It's difficult for me to know when to start dancing (based on listening to the music) and I hardly know what to do when I One of many abandoned buildings in Valparaíso.start. I'll try to be patient and hope that it will come. I'm learning bits and pieces with each class, but putting it into practice is coming very slowly—kind of like the Spanish! I guess it comes down to time and practice—and patience.

Unfortunately, I was sick the whole time I was here. I got a cold in Mendoza and carried it with me through five days in Valparaíso, on into La Serena (about 7 hours by bus to the north), and all the way up to San Pablo de Atacama (another 16 hours north by bus). I'm on the mend, but still feel sick.

Some beautiful graffiti in Valparaíso. Valparaíso at night. Self portrait at a nearby winery.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Goodbye Mendoza, Hello Valparaíso

Overlooking the bay in Valparaíso. I went to bed around 2:00 A.M. on Monday, a few hours after buying a bus ticket online for Valparaíso, Chile. Unfortunately, the bus left at 8:30 A.M. that morning, so I didn't get too much sleep. I woke up around 6:30, showered, had a taxi run me to an ATM—time was short—and then take me back to the hostel, where I paid for my five nights. I had packed most of my stuff the night before and so was pretty much ready to go. The taxi waited outside for me. Within five minutes, I was gone.

Upon arriving at the bus station, I went to the Locutorio—Internet café, basically—and printed out my bus ticket with only about 15 minutes to spare. Once on the bus, I fired up my laptop and responded to a couple e-mails from Nadia, then put on my headphones and my sleeping mask. A couple hours later, I woke up, not sure if it was nighttime. Then I took my mask off. Blinded by the sun, it was 10:30 A.M. as we headed into the Andes.

At first, there were just traces of snow on the hills above us, but as we neared the summit, the snow came down to the road and its depth consistently increased. Eventually, it intruded onto the surface of the road. The winds increased and the visibility decreased. I knew we'd be heading down precarious hairpin turns on the far side and was moderately concerned for my life.

Reading Sailing Alone Around the World in Valparaíso. At the summit, we arrived at customs. After probably an hour going through the Argentine line, the Chilean line, and having our bags scanned, we were off. The driver proceeded with care, for which I was grateful. I put the music and mask back on, and caught some more Z's. I had caught a cold back in Mendoza a few days earlier and so needed some rest.

About eight hours after setting out, we arrived at the Pacific Ocean and one of Chile's most important sea ports. I took a taxi to a little bed & breakfast called The Yellow House Bed & Breakfast, at which I had made a reservation back in Mendoza after buying my bus ticket the night before after midnight.

Martin, an Australian who came here as part of his job in the petroleum industry, met me at the door and showed me to my room. Martin ended up sticking around here in Chile after meeting his wife—Lissette—who is a Chilena. Upon my meeting her a few hours later, she and I chatted for probably 30 or 40 minutes about Spanish grammar. She's a teacher and we had quite a nice time. We both love grammar!

One of many dogs in Valparaíso. I slept really well, something that hadn't occurred for the past few nights. It was very quiet and when I finally decided to get up at about 8:30 (9:30 to my body), Martin had breakfast waiting for me. He and I ended up chatting for probably over an hour. We got into some politics and I learned some interesting things. I had made a comment about the 40% export tax imposed on farmers in Argentina and that got the ball rolling.

The basic idea is this. The Argentine government imposed price caps some time ago on the petroleum, farming, and cattle industries. Despite inflation, these industries cannot raise their prices. How does one stay in business under these circumstances? Well, these business people did what any business person would do. They looked for a way to grow their business—they decided to export. The government didn't like being circumvented apparently, so they imposed a 40% export tax. The comment that I had made was that I had seen their president on TV begging the farmers to go back to work—they've been striking. My question to her is, who in their right mind would want to work just to give their money to someone else? If you want them to go back to work, quit taking all their money!

Local schoolgirls enjoying their city. Moreover, the Argentine government cut natural gas supplies to Chile, apparently as punishment to the petroleum companies who refuse to do research regarding potential sites for obtaining gas. These companies are already operating at a loss due to the government-imposed price caps. Why would they spend more of their own limited money for this purpose? Now, Chile is pursuing alternative sources of natural gas. They are currently constructing a deliquification plant, so they can purchase liquified natural gas from abroad.

It is not uncommon for folks down here to ask me what I think of George Bush. Most of them think he is stupid. I guess it depends with whom you compare him. Regardless, the government of one's country does not necessarily reflect the people of that country, and I love many of the people in Latin America.

The next subject that came up was General Augusto Pinochet. In decades past, Chile had had to contend with violent leftist terrorists and communist leader Salvador Allende. When General Pinochet took office, he made literally a thousand new laws concerning the keeping of the peace and the health and growth of the One of the ascensors (funiculars) Valparaíso.economy. He also killed a bunch of communist bastards. The state of the country improved drastically under his rule. When he was voted out more than a decade-and-a-half later, he left without fuss. The current government has abolished many of the laws put into place by Pinochet, but the country continues to thrive thanks to the foundation he laid. He ruled with an iron fist and he no doubt did bad things, but the improvements that came to this country under his rule cannot be debated.

Last night, I went to the bathroom before going to bed. There is approximately a 2-inch step into the bathroom. I didn't see it. I kicked it. I think I broke the big toe on my right foot. It hurt—a lot. Thankfully, it doesn't hurt if I don't move it. Unfortunately, it does hurt when I try to walk. Not sure if I'll be able to go dancing this week.

Today, after sleeping in and having a leisurely breakfast, I walked a couple hundred meters up the nearby hill to a lookout over the city. I found a nice spot in the sun and read for about two-and-a-half hours. I'm re-reading the book Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum, a wonderful adventure written by the first man to sail solo around the world. It was an amazing trip of over three years. He was an incredible sailor and a great writer. I aim to finish it while here and leave it behind here at the B&B. Then I'll continue on with the rather large book I began in Buenos Aires, The Path Between the Seas, about the construction of the Panama Canal.

A local girl in Valparaíso.The weather today was rather perfect. I would describe it as being comparable to a perfect Spring day in the Pacific Northwest. As I read, there were many distractions. There were the beeping and clanging noises of a busy seaport, containers being moved about, loaded onto ships, and cranes swinging round. There were passing students, apparently on their lunch break—or maybe they just get out earlier here than we're accustomed to in the States.

There was one particular pair of student lovebirds about ten meters from me. At first, they were kissing and hugging. Then out came the apples. Yes, the apples. The male of the pair made particularly loud smacking sounds as he ate. I normally have trouble concentrating, even without mouth noises. One of the things I hate most in all of the world is mouth noises. Yes, mouth noises. These make concentrating even harder for me to grasp than usual. Unfortunately, eating is a particularly healthy breeding ground for mouth noises and they were emanating profusely from his mouth. I'm guessing apples are very rare and very expensive down here, because he proceed to eat every last conceivable speck of meat from this apple. Not even all of the core was remaining when he was done. It was the longest apple-eating session in history, I am quite certain. When he was finished, his girlfriend proceeded to pick bits of apple from his teeth, and he proceeded to pick his nose. Not long after, they left. I continued to read and enjoy this almost-perfect day. I do believe I got some color back in my skin this afternoon.

Local girls in Valparaíso.Also while reading, I made a new friend. There are a number of dogs running around the city, like in most places in Latin America. I petted one for a bit, and she liked it. She put her head up against my chest and wanted more. As I was seated on the ground, she reared up on my back at one point and was getting a bit playful. I chased her away, but she came back later. What can I say. I'm likeable. She ended up sleeping for a bit with a friend on the warm ground next to me for a while, as I continued to read.

When I got up to leave after having sat for a couple hours, I could barely walk, my toe hurt so bad. I hobbled homeward.

I stopped by a nice, but expensive, restaurant on the way back to the B&B. It had a great view overlooking the city. It was a nice way to end a relaxing afternoon.

Upon returning to the B&B, I found my bed remade and a fresh set of towels for me, along with a new bar of soap and a new packet of shampoo. This place is classy and Martin and Lissette really look after you. Unfortunately, they keep it pretty cold, at least in the winter. When I mentioned this to Martin, he immediately proceeded to provide me with a space heater for my room, the heat waves of which I am enjoying at this very moment. There are also multiple WiFi routers in the 4-story house, so connectivity is not an issue.

Well, that's the state of things now. Tomorrow, I'll be going on a guided walking tour of the city. I'll keep you posted on how that goes, and on the condition of my big toe.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

How Goes the Dancing?

I'm sure you've all been dying to know how the dancing has been going. I danced for almost two months in Buenos Aires, went to at least four different schools, and had at least seven different teachers. I learned some good patterns and got some good experience. I'm still not at the point where I can dance a long song without repeating moves, but I've come a long way. I also took a couple Tango classes in Buenos Aires with León and Nadia.

The plan is now to dance in every place I visit that has dancing. In Córdoba, I failed. Between lack of time and energy, I didn't go. Bruno wore me out. At least that's my excuse.

Here in Mendoza, I did better. I went to a Tango class with professors Julio & Daniela at a milonga (tango bar) called El Tango & El Vino (info@almacendetango.com). The class was excellent, and cost 16 pesos, or just over $5. It lasted one hour and was on Saturday at 4:00 P.M.

This morning at 12:30, I showed up at La Dolfina, a restaurant conveniently located just a ten-minute walk from the hostel where I'm staying (which, by the way, is quite decent). When I got there, I was told the dance was upstairs, so I headed up. There were only a couple people there. In standard introverted fashion, I found a seat by myself. For the next half-hour or so, the sound guys set up their system. Probably a little after 1:00 A.M., the music started. No one was dancing, and there were still hardly any people present. I was still alone, and the only person who had communicated with me was the waiter who asked if I wanted something to drink.

Eventually, things picked up. For the first little while, there were only a few couples dancing, but before too terribly long, the floor had probably a half dozen couples and the seating area nearby was pretty full. In typical fashion, I just sat there, still terrified to ask anyone to dance, despite the fact that I had developed a modicum of dance skills. After probably over an hour—and just before I was about to pack up and go home in frustration and defeat—a guy came over and asked if I was alone. I said yes. He invited me over to his table where he was hanging out with several friends. Where there is dancing, there are a lot of friends. They hang out every week together and the atmosphere is very nice. That's been my experience.

I said sure. In my mind I was thinking "Great. Now I'm going to be stuck not dancing while hanging out with strangers and not knowing what they're saying to me." I wasn't in the best state of mind. Oscar introduced me to his friends, both guys and girls. We all said hello and kissed each other on the cheek. In typical fashion, they offered to share their beer with me. Couldn't hurt, I figured. Maybe the magic of beer would once again bring me through.

Long story short, I did a lot more sitting, and a bit of dancing. I danced with probably the best follower I've ever danced with. I had been watching her and she was pretty awesome. She was the primary target on my radar. I warmed up with two other girls and finally asked her. Over the course of the song, I pulled out every trick I know. Not knowing a lot of tricks, I had to repeat a few, but it went pretty well. Knowing that she was a fantastic follower going into it, I knew that how things turned out was up to me. The fact that she did pretty much everything I asked was very encouraging. It meant I was doing a pretty good job of communicating.

I was impressed by the level of dancing here. At La Salsera in Buenos Aires, there were tons of classes and therefore a lot of dancers who were learning. Almost without exception, the dancers this evening in this club here in Mendoza were fantastic—guys and girls. Everyone was very musical. There were very few dancers throughout the evening who didn't know exactly when the musical phrase began. They had the combination of musicality, technicality, and moves. And most of the ladies were incredible followers. I was impressed.

Mid morning, there was a contest for the best dressed guy. Lots of laughing, shouting, cheering, and fun. More dancing followed.

I got back to the hostel at 6:00 A.M., a record for my trip.

I have a lot to learn and maybe before I get home, I'll conquer whatever underlying issue of fear I have. I don't know. Meantime, I'll keep trying. Valparaíso is my next target and I'm already scoping out their Salsa joints. God bless the Internet.

Adventures with Bruno

Bruno and me, 10 floors up, downtown Mendoza. While in Córdoba, I met a guy named Bruno—twenty-seven—who is from Río Cuarto, just South of Córdoba, but who currently lives in Río Gallegos, way down South in Patagonia—I actually passed through there twice on my way to and from Ushuaia.

Bruno is tall and energetic, and my personal tour guide. We have spent every day together for more than a week, with the exception of the two-day period when we came to Mendoza, as we traveled separately—he swung by Río Cuarto on the way.

Thermals in Cacheuta, Argentina. It has been a tiring 10 days. My small legs and I trying to keep up with Bruno all day every day has been tough. Every day we have gone some place interesting. He has traveled these parts extensively and knows places that I would have trouble finding. He also knows how to get good deals and how to get around efficiently.

As an example, he took me to a Catholic church in Córdoba. It was full of people and I assume they were having mass. I wouldn't have personally known if I were allowed take any photos there, let alone wander all over, including up above the platform Thermals in Cacheuta, Argentina. overlooking the main area, and also onto a small platform above the priest, with a stellar view over the entire congregation.

We also visited Che Guevara's house in Alta Gracia and spent another day in a wonderful little spot called Tanti, where there is a beautiful rocky area with a stream flowing through it. It appeared to be a very popular spot with local tourists—three big tour buses pulled in while we were there.

In Mendoza, we went to a small mountain town called Cacheuta where there are "thermals." It's a nice little resort with pools of hot water set in a beautiful spot in the Andes mountains. True to form, Bruno told them I was a photographer—true The zoo in Mendoza. enough—and that we were doing a story on the area (as a part time job, he writes for a small paper, while his full time job is in the petroleum industry). We got in free. Although we didn't get into the pools, it was a relaxing and beautiful setting.

Yesterday, we rented bikes and rode around town a bit. The main point of interest to which we pedaled was the zoo here in Mendoza. Again, he told them we were doing a story on the zoo and they waved us on through.

Rolling a joint in Mendoza. Bruno normally has a tobacco cigarette in his mouth, but not infrequently it will be of the marijuana variety. In fact we spent probably an hour the other day walking around Mendoza trying to find a supplier, as he had exhausted his supply. After obtaining the goods, we sat down on a bench along the street while he constructed his joint.

Those of you who know me know that I don't know anything about food and don't cook much. Not so with Bruno. He likes to spend time in the kitchen and he likes his Bruno, cooking dinner. asados—that's the Spanish word for BBQ. We've had probably four of them. I chip in with the cash and we go to the market, coming home with a crate full of food and firewood. Then he goes to work.

In Córdoba, a supermarket supplied the goods, but the market here in Mendoza is different. It's a market with many different vendors—it's not a single company. Talk about a meat market! They're not shy about displaying the animals. The market has everything you need, from meat to vegetables to spices. Bruno knows what he's looking for and if he doesn't like the price or the quality, he lets them know.

Buying dinner in the market. Life with Bruno has been an adventure. I can't say I'll mind the extra rest I'll get when we part ways, but I've experienced the area in a way I wouldn't have without him. And I'm sure more than a week of speaking almost nothing but Spanish hasn't hurt either. So, my hat goes off to my guide and my friend, Bruno.

The market in Mendoza. Bruno, preparing dinner. Bruno, feeding chocolate to the monkey. The zoo in Mendoza. Relaxing at the zoo in Mendoza. Mama and baby. The zoo in Mendoza. Yawning or angry? The zoo in Mendoza. Mom is hungry. The zoo in Mendoza.