Monday, December 31, 2007

Bariloche -- the Swiss Alps of Argentina

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1-2: Scenes between Puerto Montt to the border, 3-4: Andre at the Chile-Argentine border, 5-6 Views coming into Bariloche, 7. Jean and me on Mara's balcony, 8. Another view from Mara's balcony. The "tree" is a cell phone tower, 9. Bariloche train station where I sprinkled some of Maya's ashes, 10-13. The views leaving Bariloche the next day.

Dec. 26-27, 2007: I don’t know if anybody else ever called Bariloche “the Swiss Alps of Argentina,” but they should. Andre and I didn’t mind the 6-hour bus ride (plus 2 hours at the border) from Puerto Montt, Chile because it was so spectacular -- probably some of the most breathtaking of our entire trip. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Heidi and her grandpa get on the bus.

There were lakes and rivers everywhere, snow-capped mountains, lush green vegetation, clear blue sunny skies. Around every bend was another calendar shot just waiting for me to snap. I actually wish the bus could have gone slower, especially when we caught only a glimpse of Salto de los Novios: Lovers’ Falls.

Bariloche slopes uphill from the lake and is covered with little German-style houses, complete with pointy roofs and gingerbread trim. It’s a big ski resort in the winter months (June, July, August). Jean, our friend from Santa Cruz, has been studying Spanish and doing volunteer work planting trees. She reserved the basement apartment for Andre and me at Mara’s house where she’s been staying. It was wonderful to have such a lovely host, spacious room, awesome view and delicious parrilla (grilled meats) all waiting for us.

Jean was anxious for us to arrive because she’d been without a camera for two weeks, ever since her backpack – complete with iBook and camera -- was stolen at the Buenos Aires bus station when she turned her back on her stuff for a minute to check the bus schedule. Since most electronic equipment is twice the price down here, we offered to sell her Andre’s Canon Powershot. The next day, our friend Hubert met us in Buenos Aires, new camera in hand. I love when things work out like that.

Dinner at Mara’s, as in most Buenos Aires households and restaurants, begins at 10 p.m. Who ever thought of that idea? You end up going to sleep well past midnight, with a big heavy meal sitting like a lump in your stomach. And since it was our only chance to get to know the charming Mara and her daughters, we probably stayed up even later. Turns out she raised four kids by herself by renting out rooms in her gorgeous house. She also likes to travel, so she has a friend who can take over when she leaves the country. She especially liked my stories about traveling with Oma when she was in her 80s.

Well, Jean will have to tell you all about Bariloche because she spent a few weeks there, hiked 35 miles in one weekend, sampled their famous chocolates, and tasted many delicious meals in Mara’s kitchen. Andre and I barely had 24 hours there before we began a 19-hour bus ride to Buenos Aires. Another painless and scenic journey. After all these marathon bus rides in South America, I doubt Andre will ever complain about the six-hour jaunt between Port-au-Prince and Santo Domingo again.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Christmas in Puerto Montt, Dec. 21-25, 2007

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. Santa and his reindeer eating empanadas in front of the Chilean flag, 2. my cousin Zack and his Chilean girlfriend Soraya, 3. Andre, Soraya and Zack on the beach, 4. Zack practicing yoga, 5. the view from Zack's guest house, 6. Soraya serves up her lasagna, 7-10. ChiloƩ, 11. Kayaking on Christmas Day, 12-14. Christmas dinner overlooking Puerto Montt, 15. Sunset at Zack's property.

How happy I was to spot my cousin Zack and his girlfriend Soraya outside the baggage claim area. After four flights, I was ready to be driven home.

Meeting Soraya was like knowing her all my life. I’d first seem photos of her with Zack and the goats on their property in Puerto Montt in December 2005 when Maya and I visited his folks in DC. Then, during Jason and Jessica’s wedding in Puerto Rico in August 200, Zack asked me to email her some photos. That’s how our long-distance friendship began.

Last December I’d hoped to visit them with Maya, but flights to Chile were well over a thousand dollars -- too much for a couple of weeks. Lucky I didn’t buy tickets, since we ended up canceling our plans to San Diego as well because of Maya’s diagnosis. I’m sad that Maya never got to know Soraya or Puerto Montt.

After seven years, Zack’s done with South America. He and Soraya are moving to New Zealand early next year. He’s looking for an eco-topia. Zack says New Zealand is it. I’ll have to visit them in a few years to see for myself.

Zack owns about 20 acres of beautiful, wild land, with two houses that he designed and built. Andre and I had a house all to ourselves. The views from the cathedral windows were heavenly. Far from city noises, the sky fills with stars, and birds and frogs are the only ones to break the silence. It makes me wish I lived out in the country. But then I remember how social I am and how much I hate to drive. It’s not that easy to get into town from Zack’s.

I can’t tell you how impressed I was with Soraya. Even though she’s 24 years younger than Zack, they seem to be a perfect match. She’s also a fabulous cook. Her delicious, healthy vegetarian meals even convinced Andre the carnivore. She bakes her own bread and keeps wooden bowls supplied with fresh fruit, nuts and dates at all times. Her veggie lasagna featured chopped up calamari, topped with goat’s milk cheese. Yummy!

During the four days that we stayed in Puerto Montt, I worked on the article and photos on the World Juniors Championships for Racquetball Magazine, caught up on email, and wrote a few caringbridge journal entries. Zack and Soraya were very understanding and helped me out by entertaining Andre.

The four of us went out to a pebble-covered beach and learned how to clam dig from a local. We checked out some little vacation cabins that an American friend of Zack’s is building. Then we had a picnic lunch overlooking low tide at another inlet. Real estate in Puerto Montt has been going up since Zack first settled there, so he should make a nice profit on his place.

Another day we took a ferry across to ChiloĆ©, a picturesque little village where fishermen haul in seaweed to dry and sell. I was fascinated how the wooden houses all had unique styles of siding – scalloped, zigzag, stepped -- almost as if the carpenters were trying to outdo each other. Very charming.

For Christmas Day, Andre and I kayaked around Zack’s artificial pond. He cut it himself with some big machine he borrowed. Before joining a gym, Zack used to go out in the kayak every day for his workouts. This was Andre’s first time and after he learned how to avoid running into the banks and paddling in circles, we raced around the little islands. He must have cheated somehow because he even beat me a few times.

I invited everyone out for Christmas dinner. I wanted it to be someplace memorable and we found just the place, at the top of a hotel overlooking the town and bay. I think it was only seven floors high, but it felt like the top of the world. We got there in time for sunset. And bonus – the seafood dishes that we ordered were all exquisite.

The next morning we had to get up early to say goodbye and catch our bus across the Andes to Bariloche, Argentina, a mere 8 hours. I felt sad to be leaving so soon, but grateful that we made it before Zack and Soraya give up their little paradise. Then again, Soraya reminded me that we experienced the best weather of the year – just the kind of days that Zack fall in love with when he first arrived. Then there’s the rest of the year when it’s cold and gray.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Cochabamba, Bolivia

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. A friendly Indian woman in Potosi succeeded in selling me silver spoons, 2. The girls 18-and-under champs in the World Junior Racquetball Championships, 3. The Christ statue above Cochabamba is the highest and largest in South America. Sorry, Rio, 4. Finals action on the exhibition court at the Country Club Cochabamba where the tournament was held, 5. Mexico defeated the U.S. in Boys 18-and-under division, 6. Girls doubles between Ecuador and the U.S., 7. Bolivian fans turned out by the hundreds to cheer on their team.

Cochabamba, Bolivia -- Dec. 18-20, 2007

Up until we set foot in the Country Club Cochabamba, I was regretting my decision to go to Bolivia at all. It made no sense to spend so much time and money going north from Santiago, Chile, just to turn around and fly back down to Puerto Montt in southern Chile. Also, the new requirement that Americans need a $100 visa to enter Bolivia just added to my frustration.

Sucre and Potosi were not what I’d remembered -- cold and dreary. It even rained a lot when we were in Sucre, and the altitude in Potosi knocked us out. We should have done more gift shopping, but for some reason I figured we could wait for the big market in Cochabamba. As it turned out, we were so busy with the racquetball tournament, we never had a chance to go shopping. So our entire collection of souvenirs is two knit caps for Andre and a small colorful pouch for his iPod.. They were very cheap and we should have bought dozens of them. Andre wanted a tablecloth for his mother, which I thought was a great idea. She would have been the only Haitian with a Bolivian tablecloth. And since I left my warm-up jacket on a bus accidentally, I’d hoped to replace it with something beautiful and interesting.

But once we were at the racquetball tournament, it was all worth it. I went right to work, getting oriented, meeting the coaches and players from all the teams, photographing, interviewing. I’m always in my element at a racquetball tournament, and even more so if it’s an international event. I worried that Andre would be bored while I worked the better part of three days, but he was in heaven too. He got to do what I wish I could have, watch matches. He never tired of it and I’m sure his game is better because of it. Watching good players is one of the best ways to improve.

And these kids were great! They cancelled the 6-years-old-and-under and the 8-years-old-and-under divisions, as well as mixed doubles, due to the limited number of courts. Country Club Cochabamba has tennis, horseback riding, golf, swimming, internet, massage, sauna, gymnasium – all available to the tournament participants – and 8 glass-wall racquetball courts. They’re building another facility, which will have 12 courts, but it didn’t get finished in time. President Evo Morales, a fronton player himself, is one of the investors in the new club. He came to the opening ceremonies of the World Juniors Racquetball Championships on Dec. 14, a few days before we arrived. I would have loved to meet him. I heard he mingled with the racquetball players and let them take pictures. No matter what some Bolivians think of Morales, I think it’s fabulous that they finally have an indigenous president – first one since the Spanish conquest.

The hotel where all the players were staying was fully booked, so Andre and I stayed at Hostel Familiar, recommended by our taxi driver. It was nice and clean and cost $11 instead of $55. The taxi ride back and forth to the club was only $1, so it worked out just fine. It was also nice that there was Wi-Fi at the club, so I was able to do email and look up facts – like the altitude of Cochabamba, which is only 9,000 feet as compared to 14,000 in Potosi – to use in my article.

After the closing ceremonies on Dec. 20, I thought we’d go to the banquet that night. But it was already 7 p.m. and we had to get up early for our four flights down to Puerto Montt the next day (Coch – La Paz – Iquique – Santiago – Puerto Montt). So we decided to skip the banquet and pack instead. As it turned out, I must have pushed my luck too far with the mercado food and street vendors. It’s not my style, but I was up all night with Inca’s revenge, back and forth to the bathroom. I must have gotten everything out of my system because I did fine the next day on our flights.

We arrived at the airport along with everyone else from the tournament – 55 Americans, the whole Mexican team, the one Cuban player and his coach, and the Chilean team who traveled with us as far as Santiago. The American kids were sprawled out across the floor napping. After I took a picture of them all the parents whipped out their cameras and started snapping pictures too. It was exciting to catch the news report of the tournament on the taxi driver’s radio and again on the TV in the airport. I bought a dozen copies of the newspaper and passed them out. It featured four pages of color photos and article in Spanish, which most of the Americans couldn’t read.

In the end, I was so glad that we made the heroic effort to attend the World Juniors Racquetball Tournament. Final results: Mexico captured their 6th consecutive World Juniors title, followed by the U.S. and Bolivia. Go team!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Racquetball tournament online

Just a quick note from the World Juniors Racquetball Championships in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Andre and I arrived here from Sucre via a 10-hour night bus ride over the Andes. I barely slept at all, so I had an eerie view of the precarious route. Now I see why they only travel at night. Otherwise, people would be too terrified of the windy mountainous route. Lots of hairpin turns. There was no bathroom on the bus, so we had to stop every few hours, once along the roadside where a few hearty souls -- myself included -- got out in the wee hours and squatted.

If you want to watch these matches online for free (you register, but no junk mail, Pablo assured me), it's a live-cam right here at the Country Club Cochabamba until the finals on Thursday, Dec. 20. The next day Andre and I will fly to my cousin Zak's in Puerto Montt, Chile.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Arica, Chile at the Bolivian border

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1-2. Andre in front of the old customs building in Arica, 3-4. San Marco church, 5. Arica Mummy Museum - one of many sights we didn't have time to see, 6. Graduate photos.

Arica is a sweet little town at the northern border of Chile. It has a cool pedestrian zone, a nice waterfront, historic train station and customs building, a hilltop to climb, mummy museum, etc. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to see much because we spent most of the day trying to get my Bolivian visa.

At one point, it looked like we were stuck here until Monday when the banks opened. We'd been back and forth to the Bolivian consulate several times during the day. Each time they asked to come back later, always promising that I would have my visa today. First, something was locked and no one had the key. Next, there was no communication with La Paz. Then, the consular had to take a break to eat. By then, the bank had closed that we were supposed to deposit the $100 fee. In the end, La Paz said it was okay to take the money in cash, which I gratefully paid.

All this is in retaliation for expensive tourist visas to the U.S. Brazil started the trend and I paid them $100 even though friends have traveled for years to Brazil without needing a visa. The new requirement for Bolivia went into affect Dec. 1. But when Andre got his Bolivian visa at the consulate in Montevideo, the consular asked me my nationality and told me I didn't need a visa. This was late November and supposedly this change was approved in Sept. How is it that the consular in Montevideo didn't know? I wouldn't have known either if my friend Jean hadn't written it in an email. So we went right away to the Bolivian consulate in Santiago. There we were given a list of requirements and told we could get the visa in Arica at the border since we were in a hurry to get going.

Then we get here to Arica and find out I'm the first one for them to process. This consular was mad at the consular in Santiago for passing the buck to her. But I'm still mad at the first consular in Montevideo who either didn't know or pretended she didn't know.

I'm feeling really stupid for being so determined to go to Bolivia at all. It cost us two yellow fever vaccinations and certificates ($40), Andre's visa $30, my visa $100, 2 first-class 29-hour bus tickets from Santiago ($280), and 2 flights from Cochabamba, Bolivia to my cousin's house in Puerto Montt in southern Chile $1200. That's not counting our travel inside Bolivia. I'm still somehow hoping we can go to at least Potosi or Sucre on our way to Cochabamba for the World Juniors Championships. Today was opening day of the tournament and the president of Bolivia Don Evo Morales was supposed to be there. I would have loved to be there for that. How often do you have a chance to see a world leader in person?

Had I known everything I know now, I would have turned south instead of north from Santiago and gone straight to my cousin's house, maybe even checked out Patagonia where our friend Jean is in heaven right now. But no, I had to be Don Quixote and insist on doing something that everyone else said was crazy. Well, now I believe them.

Having said that, we have an 8-hour bus ride over the border into Oruro, Bolivia. Hopefully, everything's that can go wrong has already gone wrong...

29-hour bus ride to northern Chile

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. Canadian flag and Xmas lights. 2. Andre in our 1st class seats passing through the desert of Chile, 3-5. Scenery changed from coast to chaparral to desert to canyons, 6-7. crosses in memory of those who died in car accidents, 8. Canadian friends who we also rode with from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, 9. Iquique where the Canadians got out, 10. Mariano and his parents shared our compartment on bus.