Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Gabriel in Montevideo, Uruguay

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. Gabriel at La Rambla in Montevideo, 2. Gabriel, Andre and me near Rio de la Plata, 3. At the National Palace, 4. Puerto Carretas Shopping Mall, 5. Gabriel thrilled to find Mexican food, 6. Andre and Gabriel became fast friends, 7. An Afro-Uruguayan mural, 8. anti-Bush graffiti, 9. An example of classic architecture.

My friend Gabriel left Santa Cruz after three years, so he could continue his studies at the university in Guadalajara, Mexico, not far from his hometown of Limon. Now he's finishing up a semester abroad in Montevideo, Uruguay. Andre and I arrived in town just after exams, so Gabriel's been able to show us around. Gabriel keeps talking about how poor Uruguay is, but it's hard for me to see. Everyone looks healthy, happy and white, they dress nicely, they're out shopping and enjoying themselves. Gabriel compared car ownership to make his point. Very few students at the university in Montevideo own cars, while Gabriel was one of few in Guadalajara who doesn't. But Montevideo has an excellent bus system and I'm glad there are fewer cars. The horse carts that pick up the garbage aren't just quaint, they're quieter and ecologically superior to our trash trucks.

The Hotel Hispano where we've been staying is a 5-minute walk to Gabriel's river view apartment which he shares with three other Mexican students. Five minutes the other direction is the Ciudad Vieja, or old town. Everywhere you look are gorgeous historic buildings, as beautiful as anything in Buenos Aires, but most desperately need to be renovated. I love walking around with a local guide like Gabriel. So far we've seen the National Palace, Plaza Independencia, Rodo Park with its statue of Confusius, the Ramblas walkway along the Rio de la Plata waterfront, and the U.S. Consulate which faces the Rambla. We ate steak in the Mercado del Puerto, went to the Sunday street fair (flea market), Punto Carretas Shopping Mall, a beach-side boardwalk, a German photo show, and watched viejitos (old folks) dancing tango in the plaza.

One of the highlights for both Gabriel and Andre was Mexican food in the Plaza de Comida (food court) in the American-style Punto Carretas Shopping Mall. Andre had never tasted Mexican food before, but discovered that he's nuts for chicken fajitas. He also loves the hot sauce. The food in Haiti and Dominican Republic is somewhat spicy, but nothing like the Mexicans who put chile on top of chile, as one friend from Honduras likes to say. Here in Uruguay, they don't use spice at all. When Andre asked for something picante they handed him black pepper.

Gabriel had fajitas too and kept telling me how happy he was. He'd been to that shopping center several times before, but never noticed the Mexican restaurant. Friends had warned him back in August when he first left for Uruguay to bring his own Salsa Tapatio with him, but he regretted that he hadn't listened. When the Mexican Consulate in Montevideo wanted to celebrate Mexican Independence Day on 16 de septiembre, they purchased frozen tortillas for $4 a dozen and small cans of jalapeños for $3 each. Gabriel's Uruguayan friends who he invited to the fiesta couldn't handle the extra mild salsa that was prepared especially for them. Luckily, when a childhood friend came to visit from Limon, Mexico, he brought a big care package of Mexican sweets, canned chiles and salsas, and even smuggled in some fresh jalapeños by wrapping them in his socks at the bottom of his suitcase.

Today was consulate day. We went to the Canadian consulate, but we were told to go the one in Buenos Aires because they don't issue visas here. At the Chilean consulate we found out that Andre's friends were right and the Chilean website was wrong: Haitians don't need visas to visit Chile, which is great news. Andre needed a Bolivian visa and got it on the spot. Now all we need are yellow fever vaccinations and certificates in order to enter Bolivia and to get back into Brazil afterwards.

More good news: I was able to change our return flights from January 3 to January 11 from Sao Paulo to Santo Domingo. That means we'll have holiday time with my cousins who are visiting Gannon in Buenos Aires AND we'll be able to travel to Salvador de Bahia and Rio in Brazil before leaving South America. There wasn't even a service charge to make the changes. We'll arrive around midnight, pick up a rental car and go stay at Junior's house. Then Maya's dad Daniel will arrive from California the next day and we'll pick him up at the airport and begin our vacation together. January 16 is the first anniversary of Maya's death and it's really important that Daniel and I will be together that day. somewhere besides Santa Cruz.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Colonia, Uruguay

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. Andre and I dressed up as soldier and wife at the Tunnel Of Yesterday photo studio, 2. view of Colonia, UR from the lighthouse, 3. & 4. Uruguayan school kids visiting the lighthouse, 5. We explored the outskirts of town by bike, 6. The bullring built in 1914 and used only twice, 7. Complete grill plate, 8. Andre and drummer, 9. & 10. We enjoyed the indoor and outdoor pools at Hotel Italiano, 11. Our room at Posada Dos Pinos.

Andre and I spent 3 lovely days in Colonia, Uruguay. It's just across the Rio de la Plata (River of the Silver) from Buenos Aires, but with a population of 40,000 (compared to 13 million in B.A.) it feels worlds away. We stayed near the picturesque historic district in a fancy hotel with indoor pool, outdoor pool and gym for a special treat. On the third day we switched to a sweet little B&B for half the price. Our room in the B&B was actually larger, more charming, with lots of natural light.

We rented bicycles each day from a friendly older woman who kissed and hugged us when we bid her farewell. We pedaled along the coastal road called Las Ramblas, all the way to an abandoned Plaza de Toros. We later learned that it had opened and closed in 1914 after only two bullfights. Apparently, the builders failed to do their homework; It's forbidden to sacrifice animals in the town of Colonia. I knew I liked this place.

Like the Argentinos, the Uruguayos eat lots of beef, so Andre is happy. We tried different restaurants along the waterfront and they're all good. Uruguay is more expensive than Argentina, but still a complete grill for two with salad and French fries, was about $20. Uruguay is considered a providence of Argentina -- by the Argentines -- and in a way it's true. In both countries, everyone walks around drinking maté tea out of special wooden cups, using metal straws that are closed at the bottom except for pin holes so they don't suck up the herbs. It looks like alfalfa in hot water. I've tried it, but haven't felt the urge to drink two thermos a day as most Argentinos and Uruguayos do. Another similarity is they dance tango in both countries, although Buenos Aires is by far more famous for it.

Uruguay's population is even whiter than Argentina's -- 95%. The other 5% is mestizo or black. Everyone's been assuming we're Brazilian tourists since Andre's the only black person we've seen so far. We heard about "Candombe," a special Afro-Uruguay style of drumming. By luck, we stumbled upon a group of Candombe enthusiasts. They invited us in and gave us a demonstration and invited us to join in. They said up to 90 drummers play in the streets during Carnival, which lasts the entire month of Feb. in Uruguay.

Exploring the historic district on foot we made friends with a school group. I'm fascinated by their school uniforms -- both boys and girls wear white lab coats with big navy blue bows over their street clothes. They look like future doctors and scientists. They seem to go on lots of field trips because we saw several groups of school kids all around the historic district and picnicking on the beach. We climbed the old lighthouse for a gorgeous view of the whole town and jagged coast. One time we ran into a half dozen men with weed-wackers cutting vegetation along the river. I was surprised to learn that they work every day, doing a different section each time.

Like in Argentina, it seems like everyone smokes. I heard that the new liberal president of Uruguay made it illegal to smoke inside public buildings, which infuriated his supporters. Even with the new law we're inhaling a lot of second-hand smoke. Another controversy regarding the new president is his plan to open a paper mill on the jointly owned Rio de la Plata. Environmentalists on the Argentine side have been protesting because of the toxic waste created by paper mills. It will be interesting to see if he gets away with it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Day with my Cousin's Daughter Gannon

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. My cousin Julie's daughter Gannon with me at Tigre, AR, 2. the boat to Uruguay from Tigre, 3. Antique cars are common in Colonia, UR, 4. The historic zone of Colonia, UR.

Just in the nick of time I found out that my cousin Julie's 18-year-old daughter Gannon is staying in Buenos Aires for 3 months. She's teaching English to 5th graders and looking for an internship as well. She arrived on Tuesday, but her mom thought that Andre and I had already left Buenos Aires, and my cousin Zak in Chile was still using my hotmail address which I almost never check. Once we got that straightened out, Julie gave me Gannon's phone number and I called right away. Luckily Gannon had Monday free, so Andre and I postponed our boat trip to Uruguay to spend the day together.

I couldn't be more impressed by Gannon. She's really grown up into a beautiful young woman, very poised and educated. She's fluent in Spanish, like practically everyone else on my mother's side of the family. My uncle was in the United Nations back in the 1970s, so my three cousins grew up in Argentina and Chile. Zak has been living in Puerto Montt, Chile for the last several years, so Andre and I hope to visit him there in a few weeks. His Chilean girlfriend Soraya and I have been writing emails and skyping for quite some time; it will be great to finally meet her. They have plans to sell their goat ranch and move to New Zealand after the new year.

Even though Gannon has only been in Buenos Aires less than a week, she gets around the city easily. She's boarding with other students far from downtown, so she volunteered to meet us at our hotel in San Telmo district. Andre and I wanted to get our boat tickets in advance, so we suggested the train ride out to El Tigre which we did last week with Jean and Ronald. Again we did lots of walking. Like me, Gannon loves to walk, not only for the exercise but also to see more. I don't know many American teens, right out of high school, who could travel to a foreign country on their own and be as self-assured as Gannon. I think she made a wise decision to postpone college for a year to travel first.

Gannon mentioned that some of her family may be coming down for the holidays. That would be a great opportunity for Andre to meet more of my family. It's only fair since I've met most of his in Haiti. But it would mean skipping Rio and Bahia, Brazil, which we'd saved for the last two weeks before our return flight from San Paulo to Santo Domingo on Jan. 3. I can't believe how quickly the time is going. Originally I thought 2-1/2 months would be a long leisurely trip, but once we got down here we realized how great the distances are.

Today we took a 2-1/2 boat ride from El Tigre to Uruguay. The first thing I noticed is prices aren't as cheap as in Argentina -- particularly here in touristy Colonia. As Andre said, this is the most beautiful colonial zone he's ever seen. So far he's been to the historic districts of Santo Domingo, Sao Paulo, Curitiba, and Buenos Aires. Colonia really is photogenic. We took some pictures at sunset tonight.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Haitian friends in Buenos Aires

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. Me with Haitian friends at a birthday party, 2. friends Mike & Trudy, with Andre and me along the Plata River.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Buenos Aires: GOAL!

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. La Boca Soccer Stadium, Buenos Aires, 2. Andre and me at the match, 3. Ronald and Jean in the crowd, 4. Andre playing racquetball with club manager Jose, 5. me in the Holocaust Museum, 6. view of El Tigre resort town, 7. Andre, Jean and Ronald at the Tigre Art Museum, 8. Jean and Chelsea in Tigre.

The Argentine soccer fans are nuts. Andre and I, along with my friend Jean and his friend Ronald, went to a big soccer match at La Boca stadium, home of Diego Maradona who I remember from the late 1980s. No one's forgotten him around here either. We got totally ripped off by this tour guide company which Jean's hostel recommended. They suckered a whole busload of unsuspecting tourists to pay $45 for the package deal. We waited on the bus for an hour, drove 1-mile drive to the stadium, waited on the bus for 45-minutes. Then they took us into a pub and served us lousy pizza and bottles of Brahma beer. Afterwards, they herded us back into the bus and drove a few more blocks. When we got into the stadium finally, we were basically abandoned, left to fight our way up the bleachers so we wouldn't be looking through the chain link and metal poles. Instead of reserved seats as I'd expected, our 14 peso tickets (Jean's said 7 pesos which is barely over $2) were for the "popular" section, which is the most dangerous -- especially since the opposing team's fans were right above and kept spitting and hacking at us. It was hard to watch the action while ducking under our jackets and keeping one eye on the balcony above. Some idiot worker must have left a bag of cement up above, which these maniacs were breaking up and throwing down on the Boca fans. Eventually they dumped the whole bag, which luckily missed killing anyone. The Boca fans weren't exactly saints either. I couldn't believe it when they started chanting about the "putos" (fags) on the opposing team. Even the little kids would yell out "Putos!" at the top of their lungs whenever a call didn't go our way. We won resoundingly, 4-0.

The night before, Ronald invited us to a birthday party for one of his Haitian friends, which Jean politely declined. She had to get up early to move from the hostel into a family home, as part of a Spanish language program. Ronald and his friends are all 7th-Day Adventist missionaries. There were about 10 at the party. I was tired before we left, but came to life once I sat next to a Canadian woman named Trudy and her Haitian fiance Mike. Turns out she's 47 and he's 22. One of her kids is older than he is. They met online in June and in person two weeks ago. Tomorrow they get married, then she goes back to Canada a few days later. We definitely had a lot to talk about. Turns out, she'll be able to get Mike into her country in six months or sooner. She hasn't told her mother or one of her kids yet. She told them she was going skiing. Trudy kept raving about how nice all the Haitians are and how they don't make men like that in North America anymore. She said Mike's the sweetest man she's ever met, that he's much more interested in what's in a woman's heart rather than her physical appearance. I've been hearing the same thing from Andre, his cousin Patrick, and his friend Junior. Maybe there's something to what she's saying. Mike did seem like a great guy, very mature and very attentive. Like Andre, he speaks several languages and his English is excellent. That's good because Trudy speaks only English, not even French. I've heard there are about 180,000 Haitians in Montreal, but very few in western Canada where she's from. But Mike will probably adapt just fine. He's very friendly and self-assured and getting used to a cold climate with no fried bananas.

Today was a great day. Andre finally got his Uruguay visa. I thought we might have another delay, this time because of a protest by environmentalists outside the Uruguay embassy. It was all over the news. Argentines are furious because of the paper mill that Uruguay is putting in on the river that divides the two countries. Paper mills are extremely toxic, so they're afraid it will contaminate the water. I expected to get some good photos, but the crowd had dispersed by the time we picked up the passport in the afternoon.

We also got to play racquetball for the first time in a month. And miracle of miracles: I played right-handed! Haven't done that in 2-1/2 months. I've been babying the tendinitus I got from kick boxing. But I wrapped my elbow and iced it afterwards, It actually feels fine so far. Hope i don't regret it tomorrow. The club has lots of gym equipment, 4 squash courts and one racquetball court. It used to be 3 and 2, but they converted one of the racquetball courts to squash because it's more popular. We played an hour by ourselves, then challenged the club manager. He's basically a soccer player who also plays squash. Andre and he split games, which were very close, and I beat him 15-4, 15-4. We made plans to play again tomorrow.

We went to the Holocaust Museum, which was well done, but small compared to the incredible one in Washington, D.C. There was a college class there, getting a tour. The weird thing about Argentina is they accepted thousands of Jewish refugees after WWII AND they welcomed Nazi criminals. I see yarmulkes around the city, but haven't spotted a synagogue yet. Or Nazis. Jean and I did read a flyer about skin-head neo-nazis in El Tigre, the fairy-tale resort town we went to by train. As soon as we stepped out of the station, Jean and I both had an overwhelming feeling we were in Disneyland, with the perfectly sculpted landscaping, the nice, clean river with its steamboats and canoes, the cute bridges and cobble-stone streets.. We had great fun spotting Main Street U.S.A., Tom Sawyer Island, the Haunted Mansion, New Orleans Square, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Fantasy Land. I'm reading a book about Evita and it turns out that she and Juan Peron had their first dates in El Tigre in the 1930s. Sounds exactly the same back then.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Buenos Aires - Madres March & La Boca

PHOTO CAPTIONS: 1. Chelsea joins the Madres of the Disappeared on their weekly march, 2. Jean, Ronald, Andre and I in a Boca cafe, 3. Andre poses with a tango dancer, 4. Chelsea attempts the impossible, 5. Colorful buildings of La Boca neighborhood, 6. Evita postcard in front of La Casa Rosada, 7. Andre in his new Boca soccer jersey, 8. Ronald and Andre in front of soccer-ball theater, 9. Photos of the Boca soccer stars.

Ah, Buenos Aires -- The Paris of Latin America. Yes, I remember Paris being dirty, but all this dog poop? After only two days I shouldn't be comparing the two cities, but somehow Paris seems so much more romantic and charming. Buenos Aires has beautiful Parisian architecture, outdoor cafes, omnipresent tango, incredibly posh antique stores, professional street musicians, but...when I look around at the people's faces and how they dress, I feel I'm in Southern California., San Jose, or New Jersey. Maybe hanging out in the Bohemian San Telmo district prevents me from seeing the "Porteros" (residents of Buenos Aires) as extremely fashionable and sophisticated. In fact, I saw a girl right off the streets of Santa Cruz with blonde dread locks, loose purple pants under an India-print skirt, a hand-knitted sweater and sandals. I felt right at home, but somehow cheated for having traveled so far.

After having said all that, it's been a thrilling two days. The highlight for me was 3:00 on Thursday at the Plaza de Mayo. That's when the Madres de los Desaparecidos (Mothers of the Disappeared) circle the obelisk in front of the Casa Rosada (remember Madonna singing from the balcony of the Pink House in the movie Evita?) carrying political banners and wearing their trademarked white kerchiefs, embroidered with the names of their missing children. They've been doing this for 30 years, so now they mothers are mostly in their 70s or older, but just as strong as always. You would have thought this was breaking news the way people like me were photographing and videotaping them, and crowding around their table to buy buttons, books, and DVDs. Andre and I purchased lots of buttons as gifts and a DVD which tells the political history of Argentina and the story of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. I had no idea that some of them had been arrested, beaten and disappeared too.

The Florida pedestrian zone reminded us of the one in Sao Paulo, which means great for street entertainment, people watching, and shopping. Andre bought a CD of a musician who plays Andean instruments to mostly American tunes. My favorite tracks are Sounds of Silence and Don't Cry For Me, Argentina. Andre also enjoyed an older, chubby guy with wire-framed glasses who played Proud Mary, Stuck in Lodi Again, and some other song by Creedance Clearwater Revival. Again, I had to remind myself that I'm in Latin America.

Yesterday we were joined by two friends, Jean and Ronald. Andre hadn't seen Ronald since moving to Dominican Republic 4 years ago. They've been friends since childhood and had a great time catching up on friends and family back in Haiti. Ronald has been living in Buenos Aires for 7 months as a missionary and already speaks Spanish fluently. He guesses there are about 100 Haitians in Buenos Aires. That's more than I would have guessed, especially since you hardly see any blacks at all in this city, mostly newly immigrated Africans. Jean and I have met a few times over the years in Santa Cruz, but mostly we know each other through common friends. So we made a nice little foursome as we walked over to La Boca neighborhood. Jean had read in her guide book that it was kind of a dodgy area so she hadn't wanted to go alone. With two Haitian bodyguards, we had nothing to worry about, although people kept reminding us to put our cameras away.

Jean's just beginning a 7-month journey, perfecting her Spanish with home stays in Buenos Aires and Bariloche. Turns out she's 3 months younger than me, and Ronald is 8 months younger than Andre. So we did get a few looks throughout the day, two 50-year-old white women from Santa Cruz with two 30-year Haitian guys. Andre was thrilled to be chatting in his native Creole again with his good friend. Jean and Ronald also seemed to find lots to talk about, practicing their Spanish. Ronald was very attentive and charming, even after I informed Andre that Jean's a lesbian, although she admitted that even she can't help admiring the Argentine men with their pony tails, beards, and Latin lover looks.

The route along the way to La Boca was pretty nondescript lower-class, but once we got there I realized what all the fuss is about. The heart of the neighborhood consists of two colorful blocks, originally settled by Italian immigrants. We bought many postcards; my favorite is a compilation of brightly painted doors. La Boca is kind of vaudevillian in character, almost like a street circus. We got invited to pose for pictures with the tango dancers -- for a price of course. Everyone applauded afterwards (probably for our bravery). I'm afraid we looked more foolish than sexy, even though tango is all about sexy. I keep trying to imagine Reyna Lingemann's parents, former Bonnie Doon hippies, now in their 60s, coming to Buenos Aires every year for tango competitions. I'll have to remember to email Reyna and ask for some tips from her folks. When I couldn't get one of the tango poses right, an extremely gay guy stepped in and showed me how. He leapt into the male dancers arms and pursed his lips, but Andre failed to snap the picture. Luckily I'd given Jean my video camera and she got it.

By then, Andre was getting tired and thinking about a nap back at our once-glorious Victoria Hotel. I had to twist his arm to go to the Museo de la Pasion Boquense, the Museum of Boca Passion, a fancy name for a soccer museum. The four of us have reservations for Sunday's match at La Boca stadium, complete with beer and pizza (anyone want mine?), but I knew Andre would really enjoy the soccer museum -- and of course he did. He and Ronald went crazy taking pictures of the wall of photos and names of every Boca player ever. Then were soccer jerseys and balls, life-size photos of the biggest starts like Diego Maradona, before he got fat and arrested on drug charges. We saw a movie-in-the-round inside a soccer ball-shaped theater. Andre and Ronald took pictures of each other in front of the trophy cases, as proud as if they'd earned them themselves. Of course, Andre had to add Boca's #10 Juan Roman Riquelme jersey to his ever-growing collection of soccer shirts.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Iguazu Falls

I haven't had a chance to write ever since we got to Argentina. We've been too busy looking at one of the world's wonders, the Iguazu Falls, from every possible angle. The highlight was a helicopter ride -- Andre's first, my second. About 12 years ago, my German family (I lived with them as a summer exchange student in 1974) treated me to a ride over the Grand Canyon with them. So it was my turn to treat someone. Andre was so thrilled, which made it worth the price. I paid $150 -- as much as my friends Antonia and Nena, tourist police in Santo Domingo, earn in a whole month -- for a 15-minute ride, but definitely an unforgettable experience.

We spent two full days on the Argentine, hiking all over, up and day and around, and a few hours on the Brazilian side, mostly getting the overall view of how enormous they are. I sprinkled some of Maya's ashes into the falls.. We took an eco raft trip and the famous boat ride under the falls. Just in the last year or two they started providing water-tight bags to put your cameras and other things into because when you get completely drenched. Luckily it was a hot sunny day and we dried quickly. We also enjoyed seeing lots of coaties, something like a raccoon, and 2-foot long iguanas.

Like the guidebook says, Iguazu Falls is wider than Victoria, higher than Niagara, and more beautiful than both. There are 275 cascades in all, making it the world's largest. Not far away is the world's largest dam, Itaipu, which we saw today. 17 years in the making, it was a bi-national billions of dollar project between Paraguay and Brazil. This one hydroelectric plant supplies all the power to 95% of homes in Paraguay and 25% of the homes in Brazil. The facts and figures were impressive, but looking at it was nowhere near as awesome as the falls. We took so many photos and video I haven't had time to organize and edit yet, so I'll just attach a few now and do more later.

We're staying in a great little youth hostel called Peter Pan for $20 a night for a private room, really clean and nice, great movies on the TV in English with Spanish subtitles, breakfast and a pool. We've made friends with folks from Belgium, England, Germany, Argentina, Sweden, and France. A couple of people are even older than me! It's such a relief to be in a more affordable country. Andre had a huge 400 gram steak with a heap of mashed potatoes for $7. I'm enjoying the meat and veggie empanadas, only 50 cents each. We've been leaving 25% tips ($3) and feeling very generous.

Tomorrow we take a 17-hour bus ride to Buenos Aires. We splurged and got the seats that go completely flat. I'm pretty sure I can sleep like that. I barely dozed off on our last night bus from Curitiba, Brazil. You think you're saving time and money by sleeping on the bus, but since I usually can't sleep on the bus I end up feeling lousy when we get to our destination and Andre crashes out got most of the day. I'm not a napper. Whenever the sun is up, so am I.

Speaking of which, I should get some sleep tonight since tomorrow we travel. Andre has a childhood friend living in Buenos Aires who he's anxious to see. He hasn't spoken Creole except in quick phone conversations with bad connections in the past 3 weeks. By the way, all of his family and friends survived the recent cyclones in Dominican Republic and Haiti. I'm going to hook up with a friend of a friend who arrived in Buenos Aires a few days ago and will stay a month, studying Spanish. Maybe Andre and I could even separate for a few days and actually miss each other for a change. This 24/7 stuff is not always easy.