Category Archives: Argentina

75%

 

My first night in Mumbai, I woke, startled, at dawn by the echoed sounds of prayer calls. My preconceptions associated those throaty songs with fears and unknowns of the Middle East. I was staying in Agripada, on the 10th floor of an apartment building in a Muslim district, away from the cushioned tourist center of South Mumbai. I got myself out of bed and looked out the window. Orange lights glowed through the thick, hot tropical fog, and the city was beginning to bustle even though the sun had barely broken the horizon. I’ll always remember that anticipatory fear—a feeling that will may be hard to replicate. I thought of snowy New Hampshire: I am a long, long way from home. I felt a little bit like I was looking out over a movie set, out over a fantastical, fictional world. 

My voyage to India from Argentina, via London, had reinforced the notion I was living within the bindings of a storybook. In the back of the British Airways 747, I looked out over the snowcapped mountains of Northern Afghanistan. It was the land of Al Qaida I’d seen only on CNN, the mountainous pass that Hosseini describes crossing in The Kite Runner. The landscape was stunning: snow capped ridges were dark in shadow besides pink triangles of lights on their peaks, lit by the setting sun. A few hours later, at midnight, the plane landed in Mumbai, then taxied along the gate of an airport wall. From my perch in the plane, I could see over the wall and into the Annawadi Slum, an underground world of poverty, police brutality, conflict, and tension that I had been introduced to a few weeks before when I started Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers. There it was. Right in front of my eyes. I could even look right inside some of the corrugated metal shacks and see the life going on, as it had for decades before, and as it will for the rest of my life. 

Before I had arrived, what was in books, on television or in movies was all I knew of India. Three months ago, India existed only in my mind and it was only a small, distilled idea. It was ‘the over there’  country with more than a billion people living in crowded un-environmentally friendly cities. In the past weeks, India has become real. I’ve unlocked a box. 

My conscience has swelled with the sights, smells, sounds, stories and feelings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Islamic architecture, slums, the history of the East India Company and the British colonization, the history of the Mughal Empire, Indian traffic rules (or lack there of), new economies, labor pools, and unthinkable jobs and so much more. I’ve tapped into a country that’s as rich in culture, language and history as the entirety of Europe.  As Dr. Anurag Danda, the head of Climate Adaptation for the World Wildlife Fund, India put it to me: “People were amazed and excited when the EU happened, but hold on, we in India did that 50 years earlier. There are changes as big as national differences every 200 miles as you travel by ground across India.” 

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the vulnerability of Mumbai. Water knocks on three sides of the Manhattan-shaped island city. Every square foot of the city is used for something, and the majority of it is paved over and built up. Then 20 million people are packed in. Building projects—often without proper permits or on environmentally sensitive land—dot the cityscape, growing up, up, up to combat the demand for space and subsequent expensive rent. “Lots of development projects,” I said, nodding at the cranes and walls of glass above me while talking casually to a wise, english-speaking old man on the street. “Development suggests progress,” he replied, “Lots of building.” 

It’s not just large scale high-rise projects that make Bombay’s growth so obviously visible. Outside of the apartment I was staying in, shelters would grow daily on the sidewalks as migrants looking for opportunities in the city would drag traffic dividers from the roadways together to make three walls and cover the walls with a tarp to make a roof. Each day there would be a new conglomeration of people calling the sidewalk home. As you round the blocks, you can walk on a real-life timeline of these shelters. They change from barren walled shelters into homes, with two 5 foot floors, electricity, and re-wired cable television. 

Land in between rail lines is farmed, sidewalks become foundations for temporary homes, and the homeless find shelter within concrete breakwater structures along the coastline.  There’s an amazing resiliency to the urban poor in India. They make lives and homes for themselves in conditions that most in the Western world would give up on. 

There’s a remarkable and innovative use of the lack of space, but there’s more space than there once was. Bombay was originally seven islands. The British reclaimed the land and filled in the bays between the swamps. The lowest lying land (what was once sea) floods each year during the monsoon, sometimes with devastating consequences to the urban poor who live there. Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi, is one of those areas. 

Among the most pressing problems that Mumbai must address—navigating through the corruption of the city and national government—sea level rise doesn’t make the list, The Energy and Resource Institute’s (TERI) associate director, Dr. Anjali Parasnis told me. To her, sea level rise is a problem of plenty, left for rich countries like the Netherlands, United States or Singapore to deal with. If an earthquake or a tidal wave hits, what will Mumbai do, she said, there’s nothing we can do when disaster strikes. 

But I disagree with her point of view, respectfully of course. Sea level rise isn’t like those other disasters. It’s characterized by a slow onset. There are low-cost measures and initiatives that the city can undertake today to save money and protect human lives in the future. Climate adaptation doesn’t mean building a Dutch-style Maeslant Barrier. For example, there’s huge value to knowing what areas are susceptible to flooding and distributing that information to people who live in those areas. 

Mumbai seems to have this thrusting growth, an energy of its own. It gives off an essence that it is impossible to tame, plan, direct, or control. It’s a disheartening place in which to be environmentally conscious. Trash fills every nook and cranny; the river is an open sewer. It’s a dense and complicated system that’s described, by many I’ve met all over the country, as a jungle. 

I left the jungle and took a train down the east coast of India to Kochi, a port city in the South Indian state of Kerala.  Water tapers on the edge of the whole place; it has a Venetian aesthetic. Serendipitously, I stumbled into an artist residency there while desperately searching for a bathroom to tend to a stomach virus. Once relieved, I spoke to the young woman working there and I found myself a nice place to stay and paint for the next week. It was a good warmup for spending the next three weeks in Varanasi at Kriti Gallery. 

I vastly enjoyed spending March in Varanasi; it was great to have personal space, build a temporary nest, and make some artwork reflecting on the first two-thirds of my year.  Varanasi, although not a coastal city, has astonishing flood problems during the monsoon season. The river level rises 20 feet at its record height. You can see plastic debris and vegetation along the telephone wires overhead when walking along the riverfront. 

Varanasi is one of the holiest Hindu cities and the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. It’s a cultural marvel, unlike any other place I’ve ever known. I will never think that a place is crowded, loud, dirty, violent or hectic ever again. Herds of buffalo start traffic jams on the dusty streets, where symphonic waves of bikes, motorcycles, cycle-rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, and the occasional car mesh into one. It feels like everybody is dying in Varanasi. The public cremation fires constantly burn along the riverfront. Death isn’t hidden like it is in the rest of the world, and I felt that personally. While resident, a dear friend lost her father and my grandmother’s life ended after 104 well-lived years.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been in Kolkata.  A 76-year-old professor, Dr. Asish Ghosh, who is deemed India’s forefather of environmentalism, has taken an interest in my project and has invited me to do research out of a center he started called the Center for Environment and Development. I’ve explored the Sundarban mangrove forest, the largest of its kind in the world. The Sundarban plays a crucial role in protecting Kolkata—and Dhaka—against cyclones. It’s a buffer, a natural storm wall, that absorbs the power of hundred and fifty km/hr winds and 40 foot waves. 

In the afternoons, I go to the Maidan, the green space in the middle of the city, and play rugby with the Kolkata Jungle Crows. The Crows have started an incredibly admirable foundation to use rugby to give structure and motivation to impoverished kids. In an environment found nowhere else in the city, the very rich and the very poor interact as friends and teammates. The foundation, funded by donors in the U.K., runs camps and clinics every week in villages. It’s been a pleasure taking part in the program, if only briefly. I get the sense that it means a lot to the players to have a Westerner around who really believes that what they’re doing is important. Rugby is an incredible game. A foundation like the Jungle Crows wouldn’t work with many other sports. 

I feel like I’m doing exactly what I proposed I’d set out to do in Kolkata. It’s a good feeling. 

For all the marvel of the past three months in India, it has been an incredibly isolating place. It’s an amazing irony that in one of the most populated countries in the world, I feel most alone. I really enjoy meals alone to a book or writing down reflections and thoughts, but I’ve largely—with the exception of a few coffee or lunch meet-ups—spent the past three months without the comfort of a peer or a friend my age. I have met fantastic people and become good friends with such people two decades or older than me, but that’s different. 

It’s all part of the experience, though. I travel back to my guesthouse from Crows rugby with a big burly 33-year-old Fijian man who moved to Kolkata to work for an NGO with his wife. (Please appreciate the head-turning caused by the sight of a 23-year-old white man and a big, strong islander both clad in dusty rugby apparel as we go on the Kolkata metro during rush hour). We were chatting about my experience and my life before. You’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices for this year, he said. Yeah, but it’s worth it, I thought without hesitation.  

In India, the poverty and destitution have taken an emotional toll. Seeing kids sitting around a fire at night underneath a freeway.  A baby lying on a blanket on a sidewalk with no sign of parental care in sight. A featureless burned man sitting begging, shielded from the sun underneath an umbrella. A man with tumors covering every inch of his body following me home on his bicycle. These are things you can’t un-see, and at times I wish I had company to grab ahold of or to just debrief with. Before shifting gears and moving to Kolkata, I had a rejuvenating visit from my Dad, one of my top fans and friends. 

Last weekend, I had a bout of Delhi belly that I described in a blog post: “my body decided to rearrange interior decorations and put everything inside, outside in the most violent and abrupt means possible.” 

That was life changing. 

Due to the state department travel warning for Thailand, I’ve changed my itinerary, I’m avoiding Bangkok. Due to the geographical proximity of Dhaka, I inquired about a visa to Bangladesh and was offered a week to quickly visit the country that will produce millions of climate-related refugees. I’ve set up some contacts, and the visit should be a huge value-added addition to my quarter in India. After, I decided to replace Bangkok with Shanghai, the #1 most vulnerable city in the world based off all studies about population and infrastructure there. With only a month-long China visa, I’m going to purchase a round trip ticket through Singapore and maybe I can set up an arrangement in Ho Chi Minh, another delta city in a similar situation to Bangkok. 

So surprised that three reports have come and gone. 

I’m just as excited and thankful as I was on March 15th. I very much look forward to meeting you. Best, David. 

 

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50% report

Dear Watson HQ,

David Waggonner is a New Orleans-based architect who works closely with Dutch urban planners as he tries to prevent the horrors of Katrina from reoccurring in his city. About a year ago, I had a phone call with Waggonner while my application was under review and completely out of my control. Although a significant amount of time has passed, I think about that phone call often. He spoke about his work with enthusiasm. His passion for addressing the risks cities face inspired me. Writing this 50% report, a remark he made—in his soft-spoken and amiable southern drawl—came to mind: “You know, the problem with starting in the Netherlands is that it’s like eating the icing off the cake. You’re doing the best part first.”

After the Netherlands—where flood protection is built so flawlessly into the cityscape its presence goes unnoticed by the majority of Dutchmen—anywhere could be seen as a letdown. The Dutch have been managing water for 800 years; Argentina has only been a country since the end of the 19th century. There aren’t architects and planners thinking about climate adaptation; there is no flood protection infrastructure to sketch.

That does not mean that I haven’t had an important three months here. I’ve learned heaps about a new country, a new culture, and a new a city. It’s been a powerful experience. In fact, spending time here only complicated and expanded my insights on the intersection of cities and climate.  Living in Buenos Aires has reinforced the notion that there is no universal solution to these climate problems; the problems that need to be addressed are as diverse as the geography, cultures, and histories of the cities themselves.

The Netherlands is the northernmost country I’m visiting and Argentina is the southernmost. In many regards, the two countries are just about as polarized on this issue as their geographies. The Dutch have implemented projects that protect their citizens for the risk of a once in 10,000 years flood event. The government of Argentina struggles to provide vast swaths of Buenos Aires with basic amenities like light and water.

The Argentine government has neglected to upgrade the city’s faulty power grid and supply does not nearly match the demand of the growing metropolis. The city has been struggling with power outages during one of the hottest summers on record. Many Porteños spent their Christmas and New Years holidays in the dark, boiling in 40-degree (Celsius) heat. Riots have ensued as a result. I’ve listened to the negative public opinion of the city’s direction; I’ve witnessed street blockages and the riots. Buenos Aires has showed me how climate problems can be exacerbated by government mismanagement.

Government inaction not only causes hot problems, but also wet ones. When it rains, water piles up on the curbside rather than flowing through the runoff sewers. The existing system hasn’t been updated since the 1960s.

To complicate these problems, Argentina has an unstable economy, and is tapering towards a financial crisis. How can Argentine citizens plan ahead and invest in climate adaptation, how can they pay a premium for risks that are predicted to occur in the next 50 years, if they are not able to save their income from one year to the next. Inflation rates are as high as 40%. Prices change every couple weeks. There’s a feeling of instability.

I am more personally affected by the black market exchange rate. The Argentine valuation of the U.S. dollar is about 150% of the official ‘pegged’ government exchange rate. I’ve had to exchange currency behind the veil of drawn blinds and within the security of double chain doors and security cameras. These concepts are so foreign to me having grown up where I did. I learned a lot from adjusting to a cash economy with numerous exchange rates for a few months. But I’ve learned more from living among people who have this tattered economy as their reality.

The level of poverty in Buenos Aires was new to me. (I’m sure extreme levels of poverty will become more exposed to me in the next six months as I enter the megacities of the east). One of my first days in South America, I saw a man sitting on the curb on the fringe of a Buenos Aires’ villa, a shantytown community squatting on Retiro station’s railroad property. He finished a plastic bottle of coke and threw it onto the street. I knew that the bottle had a good chance of flowing into the Rio de la Plata River, one of the most polluted in the world. Had this been at Bowdoin, I might have immediately confronted this man, aggravated by his action. But, being vocally crippled near a rough neighborhood, I kept my silence. Here, I was also more sympathetic.  How can someone care to be a steward of our planet, if the world hasn’t necessarily been a steward of him? I have no idea what his background was, but I knew for sure that he lived within a world of poverty and destitution that I have only really ever experienced within the binding of books. Is environmentalism only a concern of the privileged? How do we balance economic progress and environmental stewardship?

Learning a new language was one of the main themes of my past three months and one of the most rewarding parts of my experience here.

I got to Buenos Aires a couple days after I sent in my first quarter report. On the plane ride here, I sat next to a very pleasant couple from Buenos Aires. At least they seemed pleasant. I couldn’t engage in conversation, past telling them my name and proclaiming that I was ‘good!’ Standing out on the street for the first time, I remember feeling as though the world was spinning faster than it normally does. ‘Is this just a physical sensation of being tipped upside-down in the Southern Hemisphere?’ I joked to myself. I was hyperaware of signs, voices, and traffic patterns. It was all unknown and misunderstood; everything was curious. It was like being a child once again.

Being such an outsider teaches you humility that I would imagine is hard to learn elsewhere. I was raised to be capable– if not excel– in social, physical, academic arenas. When I came into Buenos Aires, I didn’t have the vocabulary to buy fruit and vegetables. The simplest everyday tasks were challenges. I tried to take on the tasks completely unabashed and eager to learn. Along the way, I gained important lessons in patience and humility, everyday was a blank page and I saw the world with a newfound attention to detail.

In my first couple weeks, I felt that it was especially important to try to rebuild (‘re’ is generous) my Spanish skills. I took classes for my first three weeks here. Now, after three months of immersion, travel and time spent living with an Argentine family, I’m proud to say that the world has stopped spinning so fast.  Earlier today, I had a conversation with a Columbian man on the 152 bus. We talked about the differences between Buenos Aires and Bogotá. I learned more than I had ever imagined by immersing myself in a new place. I wouldn’t say that I’ve reached any level of Spanish fluency, but I’m capable of asking questions, stating my opinions, and recently I’ve even been able to make some people laugh. Well—I’ve made people laugh since the first day, but recently I have a feeling they are laughing with, not at me. I know for a fact that if the October David met January David, he would greet me with a high five and a pat on the back. I’ve learned more than I had imagined and exceeded my expectations. I count that as a success.

The second theme of this second quarter was actually ‘experiencing’ the science of climate change I had only ever read about before. In Buenos Aires, I’ve lived in a heat wave. I spent sleepless nights, rolling around half-naked above my sheets in sweltering heat and dreaming of getting buried in fresh snow.

I stared down three separate tongues of the Southern Ice Field, the third largest reserve of fresh water in the world. I felt the glacial wind knock me back onto my heels. I traveled the length of the ice field. The first tongue I saw was eight hours, and 900km from the third one. All three were connected by one great spine through the Andes. I experienced the size.

I witnessed a calving event that made the rocks I was standing on rumble. The breaking ice emitted a minute-long growl, like thunder’s sound waves looming over me for an eerily long time. I looked out over the glacier expecting to see a mountain of ice tumbling into the lake, but only saw car sized-boulders rolling off the top that looked as insignificant as pebbles. Something as relatively minute as that had such sheer force. I saw the size, volume, and power of the glaciers in the flesh.

Traveling through Patagonia was enlightening and inspiring. I traveled from Buenos Aires by bus, so was able to put a scale on the world that you can’t achieve by air travel. I was moved by the magic of traveling, staying in 10 different places in 12 nights, meeting families, shopkeepers, seeing the country outside of the capital. I felt like I was on the frontier. I was able to read more than ever before and taught myself how to juggle. After the Netherlands, which isn’t much bigger than New York City, Argentina introduced me to the wonders of travel.

Glacier spotting in Patagonia, I had an internal moral debate about my plans for January. I was accepted to paint in an artist residency in Buenos Aires, but the only caveat was that it was expensive, so much so that I would have had to be much more cautious about my budget in the second half of the year. Traveling introduced me to a bohemian way of doing things and taught me to take advantage of new acquaintances fresh opportunities that are presented ‘on the road’. Through connections, I found the owner of a ranch in San Martin de los Andes who invited me out to stay with her and paint in her barn. The opportunity turned out to be fantastic.

For two weeks, I lived with a family. It was a homestay where I learned more about the Argentine way of life than I would have staying at the artist residency, likely living in an apartment alone and working in a international setting studio space. The ranch was 30 miles removed from Internet, cell service, and groceries. It doubled as a lunchtime restaurant so the staff there was young and welcoming. It was remarkable, the food exquisite. It was certainly one of the highlights of my year and I was able to be productive painting and drawing, disciplined with my homemade artist residency.  If that stretch was the highlight of these months, yesterday I experienced a low.

Yesterday, while crossing the dauntingly wide twelve lane boulevard, 9 de Julio, I witnessed a collision between a car and a motorcycle. You usually need to cross in three segments. I was standing on a middle island when I saw a motorcycle speeding through trying to catch a yellow light before it turned red. My eyes followed the speeding bike. I saw a car illegally maneuver out of one lane into the path of the bike. Time slowed as I watched the bike collide with the driver door, ripping the handlebars off the bike and tossing the man like a ragdoll twelve feet into the air and land on his head. His sneaker flew about five lanes and slapped the tarmac as the busiest and loudest road in the city fell silent. I almost threw up as I thought I just witnessed someone die. He lay on the ground, but after a couple minutes began to shake his leg. There were masses of people around, many trying to help. Knowing I was useless I continued towards home, unsure of the outcome. That experience was shocking and rattling. It was a reminder of the unpredictability and fragility of life. It was a gruesome reminder of risks and vulnerabilities that can appear in a flash.

As in my 25% report, I’m writing to you at a point of transition. I’m starting to solidify plans for Mumbai half a world away. I’m excited for what’s yet to unfold, but I’ve also been nostalgic for the past: not only the distant past with friends and family in the U.S, but also time from earlier on this year. I’ve been ecstatic traveling, but at times also longing for stability. I assume the roller coaster of thoughts and feelings are natural, and right, and probably can only enrich my experience.

Thanks for everything.

Best wishes,

David

Hannah Bruce on Salta, Cafayate, Cachi.

This is the voice of Hannah Bruce; David’s interjections are in bold. 

This is only part 1 of our vacation. There is more to come. But here are all of the photos. Sorry about the Ken Burns effect. I know its super annoying. 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKpp-Zl0Zc0
I land at 730AM a little disoriented after flying overnight. Argentine customs was a breeze, since I remembered (was reminded over and over) to pay my reciprocity fee (a bribe to let gringos like me [You are exceptionally gringo. No one is like you] into the country). I grab my bag, clear customs and head out to find the car that’s meant to take me to meet David, whose just made it back from Ushyia [Ushuaia. Way to sound it out, though], the southernmost part of the continent. There was some worry he wouldn’t make it in time to meet me, so ever the planner, our father booked us a room for one night at the Intercontinental as a Christmas gift/contingency plan. [This information embarrasses me]  I walk into the arrivals area in a daze [A daze? This is how to best describe it—imagine Mike Tyson’s pet tiger, for the sake of the story we will call him Leonard. Leonard has been fed filet mignon and Häagen Dazs every day for meals. But one day, an animal rights group breaks in, dodges Mike’s punches, captures Leonard and releases him into the wilderness for the first time ever. Can you imagine how scared he must have been? The fear in Hannah’s eyes was about a 1/10 of that. I was standing right there with a big grin on my face, and she walked right past me, blinded by intimidation] when I hear my name shouted through the crowd. There is David to surprise me. I almost don’t recognize him. His hair is the longest I’ve ever seen it, and he’s got a thick beard. He seems older [#foreveryoung], more mature as a result of traveling on his own for the past 5 months. We drop bags at hotel and go to exchange dollars to pesos. Quite the experience, but I’ll tell you the story in person rather than put it out on the internet [you’re fine, you’ve left the country, I’m the one who will be kidnapped]. We return to the hotel with a large roll of money [I’d call it a stack]. I quickly learn that in Argentina cash will get you twice as far as charging a credit card. With our rolls of 50 peso bills [5 USD] locked in the hotel safe, we venture out. David’s Spanish is great, although he doesn’t think so. He’s able to engage people in conversation, ask for things he needs and is able to order from a café or restaurant. I was impressed. I have my first empanada of the trip, a food that will soon become a staple in my diet for the duration of the trip. [oink] We walk from hotel to San Telmo, one of Buenos Aires’ many neighborhoods. We browse antique markets and fruit stands. We pop into a few shops to find me a hat – the summer sun is strong and I desperately want to avoid sunburn. From San Telmo, we head to La Boca, a bohemian part of the city. Restaurants and bars line the cobbled streets where tango dancers trying to make tips put on shows for tourists. All of a sudden I am tired and we take bus back to hotel for a little siesta. I’ve always loved a good nap. We eat dinner at Francesco, a fancy Peruvian restaurant (ironic, I know) with David’s friends Luchu, Maria and Paddy. [Maria and Luchu dressed up like they were going to meet the first lady. Way to be an intimidating big sister Hannabee!] We trust Luchu [She manages the daily schedule of the Argentine minister of health, so she can order food for a couple of Bruces] to order for us and all eat family style. We feast on ceviche, salmon, grouper and steak fried rice. David chooses a wine from Salta, in the NW part of the country and where we are headed on the 25th. After dinner, we cram into Patty’s VW Golf [He gave us a sweet rundown of the city. As always, it’s awesome to ride around windows down on a warm summer night, packed with music, friends and family. It was good, really good]. and grab a drink at an underground bar, Atlantic Flower Shop (Floreria Atlantico). You walk into a flower shop, tell the woman behind the register that you’d like a drink and she points you to a large refrigerator door concealing a set of stairs down to the bar. Well worth the trip if you’re ever in Buenos Aires.
December 24th – David and I have a Christmas Eve breakfast feast at intercontinental #thanksdad [I had a buffet with five courses I think #bellyache]. We almost leave all of our pesos in the hotel safe. [But someone brilliant remembered before it was too late] Not a good start. [Could have been much worse] Christmas Eve is a quiet day in BA. [good rhyme Eminem] Xmas Eve is a day for people to be with the families and isn’t the large commercial ordeal that starts at Halloween, which I am grateful for. It’s 90 degrees out, so it’s hard to remember that it actually is Christmas. Museums and stores are closed, but David and I set out to walk around the Recoleta neighborhood [Hannah’s impressions of neighborhoods: In La Boca, “this is nice, I like it!” San Telmo, “Ohhh! This is my new favorite!!” Recoleta, “I think this is where I would live” and I said, “yes, of course you would, this is the nicest, wealthiest, safest neighborhood in Buenos Aires”] and the Cemetery. The Cemetery is [an] incredible [waste of space]– a small village of intricate and ornate mausoleums and graves.  I had to snag a look at Eva Perons grave. I’m such a tourist. Many of the tombs are very intricate complete with stone and marble cravings and detailed wrought iron gates. David’s favorite is one made of wood with a corrugated tin roof. It doesn’t fit in at all among the splendor, but it is clearly meaningful to the owner of the plot. [or could just be the landscaper’s shed] Sweaty [speak for yourself, please] and tired, David and I caved and sat on a shaded patio at a Starbucks [this is so embarrassing] to cool off. David was thrilled about the chance to indulge in an iced coffee after a month of travelling in Patagonia [trudat]. Feeling recovered, we continued to walk towards the Japanese Gardens, which were closed for the holiday. Tired of walking and disappointed the gardens weren’t open we hopped in a cab and headed to the Palermo barrio, the soho of Argentina. Cute boutiques, restaurants and cafés line tree-shaded streets. We find a place for lunch – gazpacho and split a salad. On the way home, we stop to pick up a pint of ice cream from Freddo, David’s [Argentina’s] favorite ice cream shop, and a popular chain in Buneos Aires. We drop the pint in the freezer of the apartment one of David’s friends has let us crash in while he’s home in the States. Thanks Misha! [Thanks buddy!] Since everything is closed, we decided to cook dinner at home. We rush over to the Disco, the local grocery store before it closed to get food to make our Christmas Eve feast. [I didn’t check the expiration date of any of the food I got. Rookie move.] We (David) spent the evening cooking, planning our adventures in Salta, looking at photos from David’s month in Patagonia (newly added to my bucket list of places to see) and enjoying some wine. David cooks chicken, grilled eggplant and large bell peppers with egg inside. David has brought back glacial melt water to drink, which of course I’m skeptical of #citykid. [she looked at it as if there was a cockroach giving birth inside] We open some stocking presents from our parents and watch Despicable Me 2. It’s bad [But the minions crushed it] so we give up half way.  I’m happy to be with David over Christmas. [heart warming] I would have hated for him to be alone over the holidays. And this wasn’t exactly a sacrifice on my part to be away from home. We both head to bed feeling quite ill. [My stomach was performing the opera] Food poisoning had to happen at some point.  Argentine eggs aren’t refrigerated at the store, but we ate them anyway. Or maybe it was the chicken… [Benjamin Bruce and I were chatting via Face Time when the food poisoning made itself known—a bonding moment for all!]
December 25th  – Off to Salta!  After little sleep we are up early to catch our flight. We down some coffee and a bite of granola, lock up the apartment and we are on our way backpacks in tow. Argentine airports are like bus stations. Security is lackadaisical at best.  You don’t need to remove liquids from your bags or your shoes. [What liquids were you carrying in your shoes, Bee?] No one checks your ID. The flight is delayed. Typical. We post up for a nap on the floor. The flight gets delayed again. We grab a bottle of wine from a Cafeteria by the gate and indulge in some snacks the ‘rents sent over from the States. Thanks for the beef jerky, mom. We play cards to pass the time. David is [so good he seems like] a cheater! [#cantlose] The gate attendant admits the airline he works for is crap. I appreciated the honesty, but not sure his airline would. [I started chatting with the agent responsible for our flight, and share my story about my 26-hour delay two days ago. He laughs about the lack of organization of Aerolineas, suggesting that a toddler could run the airline more effectively then assures me his dimwitted airline will get us to Salta at some point today].  It’s 1:30PM and our flight is finally ready to leave. It’s a two-hour flight and I sleep [‘sleep’ also known as ‘fear-filled body shutdown’] for most of it. The plane comes down for a landing with mountains on either side. It’s a beautiful view of the Andes, but of course all I can think about it the plane going down in the mountains and David and I will never be seen again. Irrational. We share a cab into Salta with two Canadians. Rule #1: always look for backpacks when traveling in a foreign country. It usually signals people on a budget, who are happy to help make life cheaper for you. We arrive in central Salta and find the hostel. David has booked a place he heard about from people he met in Patagonia. We are sharing a quad with two young French men. Co-ed hostel accommodations are new to me, but I try to take it all in stride. At $7/ night, [$6] who can complain? I came to Argentina to experience how David has been travelling, and while I would love to be in a nice hotel [#bratty], it would completely defeat the purpose of my trip. David and I drop our bags and walked to Plaza 9 de Julio. It’s Christmas Day so very little is open and no one is around. We grab a beer and some lunch on the square. We try a local beer, Salta Negra, that quickly becomes a favorite. [Riquísimo!] We also share a milonesa, a thin slice of steak that’s breaded with cheese and ham on top. Can’t go wrong. We continue to walk around and explore town. We visit a few of the local churches and then walk back to the hostel to read and nap. At 9 we venture out for dinner – Argentineans eat late. Salta has come back to life by now and stores, bars and restaurants are opening. We sit down for dinner at a spot clearly designed to entice tourists. Music is playing and a couple dances around the tables in traditional dress. David and I share empanadas humanitas and tamales. We stop for some soft serve on the way back to the hostel. I’m embarrassed to admit it was from McDonalds. [Never! They serve soft serve dulche de leche ice cream. I’d eat it for breakfast it’s so good.] 

December 26th  – We grab coffee con leche [fine spanglish] and medialunas, like croissants, but better, for breakfast and walk to the town square to pick up a rental car from Hertz. It’s manual. David has driven manual before, but is by no means a pro. We drive around a few city blocks while he gets the hang if it. I don’t think I took a breath for about 15 minutes. [Her tension made me tense, it was like she became Jean Grey from Xmen and controlled my thoughts and feelings]. After a couple stall outs and some wrong gearshifts, we hit the road. Our destination is Cafayate, a small town south of Salta. Words can’t do justice to the drive, so you’ll have to check out the pictures. We stop along the route for pictures. Most of the road is paved, but it’s slow going. Lots of sharp curves. We stop at la gargantua del diablo, and natural cave built into the rock. It looks just like you’re staring down someone’s [el Diablo is probably a little ticked off you refer to him as just ‘someone.’] throat. About 100ft high. Maybe more. It’s very hot. There is no refuge from the desert sun. [Except the air-conditioned car.] We arrive in Cafayate. The town is small, built around a central square. Some roads are paved. Others aren’t. Beautiful church on the plaza, which is dotted with cafés, bars and artesian markets. We find a hostel to stay at – not knowing where I’m sleeping at night is new to me, but I trust David. We find a hostel a block away from the plaza, leave our backpacks and head out to walk around town. It’s about 4 and the town is quiet. Siesta. Not much is open, so we decide to get back on the car and check out some of the surrounding vineyards. [We had hoped to rent bikes and cycle around to the vineyards, but all the bikes in the town had already been checked out, unfortunately]. This is Argentina’s wine country. [The beginning of it. Wine country stretches all the way down through the epicenter in Mendoza to then its southernmost region is around Bariloche. Cafayate is pretty far north, but it’s high altitude makes up for its latitude.] The desert climate is perfect for growing grapes and rainwater coming down from the Andes is enough to keep the vineyards hydrated without having to pump in water. 3 varietals are grown in the regions torrentes (white) Malbec and cabernet sauvignon. My first wine tasting. We learn to first check color then smell. Wine should smell different after you swirl it if it’s good. The vineyard is stunning. Sits on top of a hill overlooking Cafayate. [My favorite part was the cactus-lined driveway. The cactuses in this region got huge, up to 20 feet or more! Senior year, I had a cactus named Neil. Apparently he’s getting super big at home. This definitely made me miss him.] We get a tour and learn how to make wine. [You know how to make wine after that? This lady is spectacular!] It’s almost 5 and the vineyards are closing. We head back into town and walk around artisanal markets. Pick up two mini bottles of Malbec [One was called ‘Don David’] and go sit on the hostel’s roof to drink and read. Treat ourselves to a nice dinner on the square. Restaurant is called Turrantes [Amazing you remember this stuff] and came recommended by someone at the vineyard. We dine on empanadas, steak, and raviolis and indulge in a bottle of organically grown Malbec. We sit next to two Canadians at dinner – an elderly couple who are spending a month in Argentina. That’s the life. No obligations – can just pick up and travel. Back to hostel for a good nights sleep. Off to Cachi tomorrow

El Calafate–El Chalten

“Booked into the Calafate Hostel. I was looking for a dorm room to stay in. Somehow I got stuck in a double with a lone German–a 40 year old man, boozed up and reeking of cigarettes. His first observation once I met him was that I didn’t have a tent. How did he know such a thing? Was he ruffling through my bag after his 8th beer? He then proceeded to give me an airline safety demonstration of his tent, taking it out from under his bed and showing it to me. He explained how it fits 2 and suggested that since I was alone, I should join him on his hiking trip. I haven’t been back to my room since.”

He continued drinking then snored all night like a huffalump. I was up at 6am and out of the room. I sprung out of bed. Usually I’m terrible at waking up, but I was excited to get as far away from this man as possible.

“Calafate looks like a western frontier town. It had one tree lined high street, the rest just looked like cubes that were arbitrarily thrown onto the plain, the way lego bricks tumble out of a box onto the floor. Except this wasn’t a very big lego box. Just a small one. The flat-topped mountains in the background look like they were designed for the woman who will be coming around the mountain when she comes. Yee-haw.”

The first thing I did when I arrived in Calafate was visit a bird sanctuary. It was really windy and pretty cold. But there were flamingos and other really unique birds flopping around. I was surprised to learn that flamingos set up shop in the Patagonian plains. I’ve always thought of them as residing exclusively in Lakes of Africa. A pleasant surprise, surely.

The next day I did a day long tour of Perito Moreno Glacier. The Glacier is an extension off the second largest ice sheet on the planet, second only after Antarctica. Perito Moreno is the most popular of the 47 glaciers that extend off of the Patagonic Continental Ice sheet. PM is incredibly accessible and is so staggeringly large and expansive that an impressive tourism infrastructure has profited off it. Off of the continental sheet, 13 glaciers melt into giant lakes towards the Patagonian desert. The tens of thousands of year-old ice melts into a beautiful turquoise blue and flows into small streams and rivers which cut the desert and eventually flow out into the Atlantic.

The ice field is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water.

The park is about an hour and a half from Calafate. I took a bus to a ferry dock, got an up-front and personal look at the glacier on boat, returned to the designed walkways on the cliffs facing the expansive glacier, then returned back to town. Half of the walkways were shut down because the glacier had been calving and massive blocks off ice were tumbling dangerously close to where spectators could hypothetically stand. There were opportunities to walk on top of the ice, but in no means was that cheap, so I passed it off.

That afternoon, I caught a bus to El Chalten. Chalten is dubbed the hiking capital of Argentina. I got there on a three hour bus ride around two of the large glacial lakes. The bus ride was from 7:30 to 10:30, but the sun was hung low in the sky for the whole ride. I arrived in Chalten late that night, spent a night in a hostel, very relieved to see that the German man was not my roommate. I stayed at the Rancho Grande hostel. There, I ran into about four different groups of people I had met at different stages throughout my time in Argentina. The most rewarding encounter was with two Middlebury girls I met out at a bar in BA. They just got off a 3 day trip and gave me their left-overs–a gift box of maple and brown sugar oatmeal, peanut butter!!!, a slew of delicious energy bars, powdered coffee, and toilet paper. They have no idea how happy these gifts made me. Really happy. I got up the next day and rented a tent and a stove, ready to go and spend the night at the foot of Mount Fitz Roy, the tallest mountain in Patagonia. Heres what I wrote at my campsite, reflecting on the previous two days:

“I’m sitting on a sandy patch of land in Parque Nacional de los Glaciares. Its 6pm but the sun is still high in the sky here in the deep south of Patagonia. Mount Fitz Roy is a kilometer from me, towering up in the sky as the tallest mountain in Patagonia. It is marvelous to be sitting here in a cozy patch of soft sand with the warmth of the sun and a cool breeze. Like all of my hiking days in the Andes, today was spectacular. I hiked with Victor, my seat mate on the tour from El Calafate to Perito Moreno Glacier. Victor is a great, unabashed guy from Barcelona. We traded off, taking turns practicing Spanish/English as we hiked up to the spectacular lakes at the foot of the Fitz. As he left my campsite to hike back to Chalten he said, ‘Thanks for making my travels better.'”

“Perito Moreno was amazing. I kept it simple by taking an hour long boat ride and walking the ready prepared trail. No glaciar walking…too expensive. The glacier is staggering. Not only are the 60 meter faces, but the whole thing extends into the horizon, through a valley that the glacier itself carved through a string of mountains. Every once in a while, you’d hear a massive rumbling, louder than if there was a thunder-strike right above you. You’d look out over the ice expecting to see a significant chunk of the glacier falling into the lake triggering a tidal surge. I’d look out wide-eyed expecting to see the beginning of the world end, but be disappointed by barely noticing boulder sized chunks, which looked like pebbles in contrast to the sheer size of the glacier. Just the pebbles falling off the top would cause the ground to shake. The ice was very much alive: cracking, crumbling, and even roaring at unknown and unpredicted intervals. ”

“The bus between Calafate and Chalten was a gorgeous ride through the desert. Alpaca were hopping over fences and running off into the sun, there were turquoise rivers cutting the sandy desert, the sun was piercing through the window of the bus refusing to set. I’m at the bottom of the world, and I feel it.”

That night camping out alone was brilliant. I got to sit out, listen to the wind and watched the clouds that just hung over Fitz Roy. I cooked myself a pasta dinner and watched the mountain. That evening, clouds beheaded the top of Fitz, but couldn’t ever pass over it. The mountain was an impenetrable barrier.

Image 6
A day in the life: solo hiking. Campsite. Peanut Butter & Glaciers. Books. Relief. Built a home. Sweet smells of home.

The next day, I got up early and went on a hike through the wilderness to find a hanging glacier hugging a rocky ridge. I climbed up a mountain to observe it only to find a raw, wind-swept terrain. I couldn’t stand up without getting knocked over, so I had to lodge myself up against a rock behind me so that I didn’t fall off the mountain. Brilliant stuff. I was the only person up there, an eerily isolating feeling. I was staring down a natural force that outdates dinosaurs. The thought was sickening and in that isolation, my imagination started taking control. I pictured an earthquake ripping up the mountain beneath me and sending me into a molten magma crevasse, I thought the giant rocks would get set into motion by the wind and flatten me like a looney toon, then I worried that the glacier would slip off its millenium-old perch and add me to its records of time. I wasn’t ready for that–yet–so I went back down to camp to pack up and hit the road.

After returning my gear, I found a place that made a banana, avocado, and honey milkshake. My favorite thing.

That evening, I took the bus back to Calafate, booked a bus to Puerto Natales, Chile, then found a hostel for the night. Here are my notes from the bus back. I asked for a seat right up front so I could watch the desert.

  • Condor drags carcass of road kill off the road, fearless of the bus hurtling towards it.
  • Desert. Fences. Nothing but a road.
  • Dead alpaca caught on a barbed wire fence. Head and hind legs intact with fur, ribs are exposed, eaten from the inside out. Preyed on by the desert.
  • Sandy plain, snow capped mountains in the mist.

In Calafate, there was a street dog that I was particularly fond of. This dog was a bundle of energy. He wouldn’t ever stop doing what it loved to do. His favorite activity, in the whole wide world was to wait on the street until a car came by. The dog would run next to the car, barking at it. The dog would then get a step on the car and stick its head out in front of the bumper and try to bite the tire. Right before the dog would get smushed, he would dip out and run back to the starting position. Time after time after time. I stood on the curb and watched this pup do this over fifteen times in a row. It was homeless, but knew how to have a damn good time. Fearless.

At this point in my trip, I only had 60 pesos (6 dollars) and 50 US dollars in cash to get my through Argentinian Tierra Del Fuego. I knew that was going to turn out to be a problem, but not something to worry about for now. I was heading to Chile, a country without the same currency controls so I would be able to use my debit card, rather than just rely on cash that I had exchanged a world away in Buenos Aires.