Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve

I don't like New Year's Eve.

It's weird, because I love holidays, in general. I love colour themes and food themes and dressing up and presents and desserts, and New Year's Eve has all of these, if you apply yourself. I also love unbridled optimism, which is New Year's Eve all the way. Not to mention gratitude. And resolutions! I pride myself on these things!

But New Year's Eve? No thanks.

I admit I'm into the food themes. I can't argue with pork for luck and fatty wallets (not to mention that pork is delicious, in any form) and black-eyed peas, symbolizing coins for wealth. And colours, yes! But gold or silver for New Year's, maybe kind of? And black and white? It does have a certain cache, but it isn't universal like Halloween's black and orange, or Chrismas's red and green, and I just can't fully commit. Optimism is awesome, for real, but can't you make that resolution on November 15 just as well as you can on January 1?

Scrooge much? I know. Maybe it's the expectations; that you're secretly hoping that your party will turn into a Bacardi ad. Also that your arms should look fabulous in that shimmery tank top, even after all that Christmas morning bacon.

I'm way grateful for everything that happened in 2009. I've been unemployed - by choice! - for most of the year. I've made amazing new friends, and, mostly thanks to Facebook, reconnected with people I haven't seen in 10 years or more. I lived in Buenos Aires. I learned to speak Spanish, más o menos. I opened a restaurant. I tasted 40 new fruits! I trekked to Machu Picchu, had my passport stolen - and replaced! - in Bolivia, and spent the Winter Solstice in the southernmost city in the world. Gratitude, anyone? And yes, here I am in Buenos Aires on New Year's Eve, celebrating with a wonderful human being (with whom I plan to spend many a New Year's Eve!) and two sweet sweet kitties (who aren't Memphis, but are still lovely).

OK. Maybe gratitude trumps, because I have a lot for which be thankful, and after writing this post, maybe even a newfound affinity for December 31. Happy New Year, friends, and may your 2010 be that much better than your 2009. xoxo

Monday, December 21, 2009

Slam, Fight, Bright Light

Feeling pretty psyched.

Ushuaia is the world's southernmost city, and at a distance of 1000km, the closest to Antarctica. In other words, the end of the world as we know it. We timed our trip to be here for the solstice, and here we are. We aren't quite far enough away from the equator to experience a midnight sun, but it's now after 10 p.m. and the sky is still light.

And I feel fine.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Ice Ice Baby

Last night we arrived in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, where daylight lasts for a disconcertingly long time this time of year. Last night Ken reported spots of brightness in the sky past 1 a.m., and I'm pretty sure sunrise was around 4 this morning.

It's something of a challenge to maintain Monk Mode here in Southern Argentina. Apparently the cost (in pesos) of a hostel dorm room in Argentina is indirectly proportionate to its latitude. And although we haven't slept in the same bed in over two weeks, we have splurged on a few tourist attractions, including a visit to the Perito Moreno Glacier in the Los Glaciares National Park near El Calafate.

Some of you may be shocked to learn that even though I hail from Canada I've never seen a glacier. I know! I had no idea what to expect. I anticipated only that: a) it might be cold, being next to a glacier and all, so I brought an extra sweater; and b) since we'd be gone for around six hours I might get hungry, so I also brought a ham sandwich.

What I did not anticipate was that the glacier would be so cool (pun intended) that I wouldn't even have enough room on my camera for all the pictures I'd want to take. The Perito Moreno Glacier is vast: it's 30km long, and rises 60m above the surface of Lake Argentina. Falling chunks sound like thunder as they break off and when they hit the water. (Apparently this happens with some regularity, as we saw several in the few hours we were there.)

Glaciers. Who knew?

More glacier pics on Flickr. Coming soon: Rainbows, penguins, and overuse of R.E.M. lyrics.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Bus Diaries

Since we crossed the border into Argentina we've been travelling south along Route 40, with stops in Salta, Mendoza, Bariloche, El Chaltén, and now El Calafate. (Click map, at right, to enlarge.) Along the way we've walked through beautiful parks filled with lakes and wildflowers, and been awed by views of snow-capped mountains. Last night in El Chaltén, after a day of hiking, we dined on delicious Patagonian lamb and marvelled at the daylight that lingered well past 10 p.m.

From here we'll continue south through Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia, Argentina's southernmost city, to celebrate the Winter Solstice. For Christmas and New Year's we'll be in Buenos Aires where we're housesitting (and catsitting!) for three glorious weeks, during which I expect highlights to include unpacking for more than three hours, and cooking.

That is, unless someone wants to buy us a trip to Antarctica for Christmas. We're flexible.

More pics on Flickr.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Adios, Bolivia

Pictures from our last two weeks in Bolivia are on Flickr. We toured a working mine in Potosí (claustrophobic), spent four days driving around salt flats, geysers, and lagoons near Uyuni (surreal), and rode horses through the canyons and valleys around Tupiza (pretty, and painful).

Tomorrow we head to Salta, Argentina, and while I'm not exactly excited about the 24-ish hours we'll spend on buses to get there, I am excited about the delicious steak and wine that await us across the border, and we're both looking forward to reviving the mate habit we developed in Buenos Aires!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Doin' the New Passport Dance

We're back in La Paz, for the third time! This is two times more than we expected (OK, wanted) to be in La Paz, but here we are. We will fetch my passport and enjoy cheap street eats one last time before we bid farewell to Bolivia and make our way to Argentina on Wednesday.

We've been killing time on various tours throughout the country, from which I will post pictures shortly. Also coming soon: A post with highlights from our many bus rides so far. To whet your appetite, here is an anecdote from our 16 hour bus ride last night from Tupiza (a nice little town in the south of Bolivia) to La Paz. As we were just on the outskirts of Tupiza, the bus stopped, apparently requiring some maintenance. We pulled into some sort of maintenance yard and Ken, who had the window seat, gave me the play-by-play as he watched a guy go over to a pile of scrap metal to look for something. Possibly something to fix the bus.

"What do you see now?"

"Apparently the piece of metal was the wrong shape so he went back to the pile to find another one. But he was distracted when his shoe fell off and when he bent over to put it back on I got a nice view of plumbers' butt." Pause. "They're not just hairy on their heads."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I can't thank you guys enough for your supportive comments (on UFF and Facebook) and your beyond-generous offers to send me replacement items. Seriously, you guys helped put this loss into perspective. The world is full of bags and books and sweaters. I think Caroline put it best when she wrote, "It helps me to think of all of the unexpected things that have walked INTO my life, balancing out all the things that have walked/(been walked!) OUT of it." Word. And while I'm still angry as hell at the fucker who took my backpack, I'm also supremely grateful that neither of us were injured in the process.

Just last weekend I was chatting with Bri, and told her, "I could spend a month in [Bolivia]... it's so interesting." Be careful what you wish for, right? We're back in La Paz and after a couple of visits to the Canadian Embassy we learned that it'll take at least two weeks (and $240! aboo) to get a replacement passport. So... it looks like we'll be in Bolivia a bit longer than we expected. Fortunately we like it here, and it's the most inexpensive country we'll visit on this trip, so we'll just add a city or two to our itinerary.

Did I mention thanks? You guys rock. The most. Unlucky moments notwithstanding, I feel really lucky to have you in my life.

P.S. While I love gifts almost as much as I love getting stuff in the mail (i.e., A LOT), I don't think we'll be anywhere long enough to receive anything, and anyway, I wouldn't count the postal services around these parts for much more than post cards. Thanks for the offers though, so much.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Why I Love Ken: Reason #463

Tonight, after my backpack was stolen and I was lamenting the things I lost, including my passport with its plethora of stamps (including Machu Picchu!) from South America, Ken hugged me and said, "We have a lifetime to collect more stamps."

We had just boarded a bus to take us from Potosi to Uyuni, about a 6-hour journey. The bus was very small (our knees touched the seat in front of us), and as a result I made the unusual (for me) decision to stash my daypack in the rack above our heads. A few minutes (5? 10?) later, I stood up to help someone else squeeze in a bag, and realized my pack was missing. Gone. Here's the thing about buses in Bolivia. When they're not moving they are full of people, travelling or not. People selling empanadas. People singing songs for money. And, apparently, people who board the bus a few minutes before it leaves and then get off said bus with a bag to which they don't rightfully have ownership.

Just after I noticed it was missing, another passenger confirmed that someone had indeed sat beside him for a few minutes, then stood up, grabbed the pack (my pack! my super-comfortable Osprey Talon-22 daypack! in citron!), and left. I grabbed my remaining possession (a water bottle, PET, 2L) and headed onto the chaotic sidewalk, hoping to catch a glimpse of my bag, but of course it was long gone.

The rest of the evening was spent checking into a hostel in Potosi, filing a police report, making weepy phone calls (to credit card companies, and my mom), and downing a couple of litres of beer. Tomorrow we'll head back to La Paz to find the Canadian Embassy so that I can get a replacement passport (...I know).

Regularly scheduled programming will return after I've finished mourning the loss of my favourite Lululemon zippie and a book that I was REALLY into.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Catching Up

Internet access, especially reliable wi-fi, is bound to vary from place to place, especially when by "place" you mean "the cheapest possible accommodation with something resembling a bed." Fortunately the Ireland-France soccer match this afternoon means that we're comfortably ensconced in a Dutch bar in Sucre, Bolivia, with smokin' Internet access. Here are some recent highlights.

1. The Bob Marley Effect
When we were in Brazil a few months ago, people frequently greeted Ken as Bob Marley, shook his hand, and/or offered him something to smoke. Not one of our five days in Cuzco passed without Ken being offered some illegal substance or other ("Smoke? Sniff?"). Several times I've noticed someone taking a stealthy picture of Ken, and twice we've been stopped by someone who'd like his or her photo taken with our favourite Bob Marley doppelgänger.

2. Hostels
As we anticipated, $2.50 per night for our room in Copacabana was too good to be true. After a brief, half-hearted negotiation we paid about $4.25 per night (still a bargain, obviously, for a private room). On the Isla del Sol we paid just under $6 per night for a private room, and here in Sucre we're splurging: $13 per night, and we even have our own bathroom. Generally the hostels are safe, clean, and warm, and even have hot water (although my showering standards are certainly on the decline).

3. Monk Mode
Monk Mode (i.e., a budget) certainly makes things more challenging, but it has its advantages. I'm pretty sure we eat less ("1 Boliviano [15¢] for cheese? Forget it!") and bargaining is more fun when you're willing to walk away from a scarf that with an asking price of $3. (Inevitably you'll get it for $2.) Yesterday we boarded the "Dino Bus" to see some fossilized dinosaur footprints just outside Sucre, and soon learned that the 15 Boliviano (each!) ride didn't include entrance to the Dino Park and its 8 dinosaur replicas (30 Bolivianos! Each!). We took the bus ride anyway and amused ourselves with the dino replicas outside the park while we waited for the rest of the group. How frugal!

P.S. More pics from Peru and Bolivia are on Flickr.

Fruit of the Day: Tumbo

While most of our food shopping so far has been done at outdoor markets, we did stop in at one supermarket in La Paz. That's where we picked up the tumbo. It's small and oval, a lovely pale yellow, and very subtly fuzzy.

I cut a tumbo open length-wise to discover a very pretty orange, passionfruit-like cluster of seeds and pulp. (Turns out another name for tumbo is banana passionfruit - how appropriate!) I tasted the fruit as I would passionfruit: by eating the pulp around the seeds. At first I wasn't a fan. The taste is mild but a bit chalky, and certainly not as juicy as I'd expected. A few more seeds in, though, and the tumbo was starting to win me over. I've since seen tumbos stacked up at juice stands and I'm curious to try them blended and strained and maybe mixed with a little sugar (or pineapple juice).
UFF Fruit Rating:

Monday, November 09, 2009

Tasting Notes: La Paz, Bolivia

First, a map! The pins indicate where we've been so far: Lima and Cuzco (both in Peru), and Copacabana and La Paz, Bolivia. Click to enlarge.

Yay Geography!

We've been in La Paz for three days and as usual, our favourite part of the city is the food, especially the street food. On our first morning we passed a woman selling fruit salad: chunks of papaya and banana piled into small plastic cups. I bought one for a single Boliviano, or a whopping 15¢. (It turns out banana is especially delicious when it's marinated in papaya juice.) Fifteen cents will also buy an ice cream cone (with a scoop each of grape and banana or vanilla and coconut, and drizzled with chocolate sauce), a good-sized hunk of banana bread, a slice of the sweetest watermelon ever, or a cinnamon popsicle. Or you could use that same 15¢ to buy a couple of oh-so-fresh donuts, made by a woman sitting on the sidewalk with a pot of hot oil, a bag of dough, and a shaker of powdered sugar.

We've also enjoyed fresly-squeezed grapefruit juice (45¢), salteñas and tucumanas (delicious empanada-like pastries originally from the Salta and Tucuman regions of Argentina, respectively) for about 30¢ apiece, and this afternoon we ate a tasty pork sandwich replete with carrots, tomatoes, and spicy pepper sauce. It ran us 3 Bolivianos--the equivalent of 45¢.

Our favourite breakfast is at the Lanza Market, where a dozen or so women each have small stands, each with a table about the size of a diner booth tucked in behind it. Any of these women will make you a mean fried-egg sandwich with avocado, garnished with slices of ripe tomato and fresh white cheese on a crusty French roll. Two of these with a couple of cups of café con leche can be had for just over $2.

Tonight we splurged on dinner at our Irish-run hostel, and ordered up some very non-Bolivian bangers and mash. The huge (and very delicious) plate set us back $4, and it was worth every Boliviano.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Layered Dresses and Bowler Hats

Yesterday around lunchtime we arrived in Copacabana, Bolivia (not to be confused with Copacabana, the beach in Rio, or Copacabana, the club in NY). It's a small town at a high altitude (3841m) in a peninsula on Lake Titicaca (go ahead and giggle; I still do every time I say the name). Lake Titicaca (hee) is gorgeous, and tomorrow we're going to hike 17km to a place called Yampupata, from where we'll take a boat to the Isla del Sol, and maybe stay a night there. My browser capabilities are currently limited, but you can find a map here if you're so inclined.

Our accomodations here are by far our cheapest yet--we reserved 2 nights, online, for $5 (for both of us!). We expect there'll be some haggling over the price when we check out tomorrow, which is kind of a tricky situation: Even if it cost twice as much it would still be a bargain for us, and at the same time we don't want to be taken advantage of as gringos.

The food here is delicious and cheap. For breakfast today we had coffee, bread, and freshly-fried donuts (bañuelos) with syrup for about $1.50. Lunch was grilled lake trout with french fries and rice and ran us under $3. (We later splurged on a brownie with ice cream that cost as much as the trout!) Most of the women here don't come up much past our waists. They all wear layered dresses and bowler hats, and the majority have a baby slung on their backs.

More updates when we get to La Paz; as one might expect, $1.25 per night doesn't include wi-fi.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

There's a very special (read: frightening) new Fruit of the Day available to get you in the mood. In case you're wondering, we're dressing up as backpackers this year, and I think our costumes are very convincing. Happy Tricks or Treats!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Day 5: Machu Picchu

We set alarms for 3, 3:15, and 3:30, and by 4 a.m. we had begun our flashlight-lit walk from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. It was a steep climb of about 1700 very uneven stairs (Ken counted), and at 5:15 or so, as the sky lightened, we were among the first 50 people to arrive at the entrance gate. We had our tickets stamped and received our passes (only 400 are distributed daily) to climb Waynapicchu, a mountain with literally breathtaking views of the ancient Incan city. At about 6:30 we began a two-hour tour of Machu Picchu with Enrique, then Ken and I set off to climb Waynapicchu. For me it was one of the most difficult parts of our trip. The "steps" were steep and uneven, and to get to the top took almost an hour. It was worth the effort. I stopped at a plateau near the top and Ken continued another 10 minutes or so to the peak. While I sat waiting for him in the sunshine, overlooking Machu Picchu, I felt incredibly peaceful.

We arrived back in Cuzco late Wednesday night and spent most of yesterday scratching our bitten legs and resting our tired feet. Today we treated ourselves to hour-long massages at the bargain-basement price of $7 each, then had lunch at the central market, where a huge bowl of soup and a generous portion of rice, salad, lentil stew, and fried fish costs all of $1. Including a glass of juice.

On Wednesday I swore it would be weeks or even months before I did another trek, but today I'm reconsidering. After all, in life, as in Peru, anything can happen, but nothing is for sure.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

In Peru, Anything Can Happen...

...but nothing is for sure.

These were the words of wisdom imparted to us by our guide, Enrique, as we embarked on our 5-day trek to Salkantay and Machu Picchu. It was amazing, and it was really, really hard.

Day 1

A bus picked us up at our hostel at 4:45 a.m. After a few more stops in Cuzco (alt. 3350m) to pick up about 14 other adventurous souls, we drove on very curvy roads to the town of Mollempata (alt. 2800m) where we disembarked, slathered ourselves in sunscreen and bug spray, and started walking. We hiked, mostly uphill, for about 5 1/2 hours. After lunch (soup, rice, and delicious lomo saltado (beef stew) the road was blessedly "boring" (read: wider and flatter). We arrived at our first campsite at the base of Salkantay (alt. 4100m) around 5 p.m., just in time to beat the torrential downpours. Luckily there was a shelter in which we could set up our tents, so we stayed dry. We drank coca tea, ate dinner and were huddled in our sleeping bags by 8 p.m.

Day 2

At 5 a.m. our guides Enrique and Saturnino "knocked" on our tents and presented us with hot cups of coca tea. We packed up our gear and after a delicious breakfast (pancakes!) we were back on the trail. Day 2 would involve about an hour of switchbacks, or zig zags, up a steep mountain, a brief plateau, then another 40 minutes or so of steep uphill climbing to reach our highest altitude (4650m). By the end of the final climb Ken and I were resting after every 50 steps. It was beautiful and brutal, and when we got to the top we celebrated with cookies and apples and much picture-taking. Walking down the other side of the pass we passed completely different terrain: Huge rocks surrounded by mist that reminded us of "Lord of the Rings." After lunch we walked about 2 hours more and arrived at our camp, nestled into the side of a lush hill and also home to various chickens, dogs, and pigs. Bedtime was again early, and we slept soundly after our long walk.

Day 3

After another 5 a.m. coca-tea wakeup call and a hot breakfast of oatmeal and omelettes, we started out through the forest. We crossed a small river and then hiked a steep, rainy, and very muddy uphill for about 50 minutes. As we started to make our way down the other side, through the Andean cloud forest, we passed a small home with a yard full of wild turkeys, giggling away in the fog. These were some of the funniest beasts I've ever heard, and each time they gobbled (in unison!) I laughed and laughed. It was one of my favourite parts of the trek.

We continued our descent until we reached a dirt road, at which point we were also low enough that the rain had stopped and the sun was strong. The dirt road stretched on for many hot kilometres and included a small river crossing at which we had to strip off our boots and socks. The icy water felt wonderful! Unfortunately there were swarms of small blackflies waiting for us on the other side, and we all ended up with countless small, red, and indescribably itchy bites on our calves and shins. We finally reached Playa (alt. 2400m) and were finished our hike for the day: After lunch, a bus took us on the most treacherous road EVER to Santa Teresa (alt. 1800m). After we set up camp (and continued to slather on insect repellent in a feeble effort to fend off the relentless biting flies), we continued our scary bus ride (seriously, I was sure we were going to be part of a "there were two Canadians and an American on the bus" article) to soak our tired bodies in the loveliest of hot springs. On our return to camp we dined, and several members of our group celebrated into the wee hours of the morning. Ken represented on our behalf; I was in bed by midnight. (Apparently Ken's representation was strong, as the next day, Saturnino frequently sought him out to provide reggaeton beats as we hiked!)

Day 4

We slept in until 8, despite Enriques's warning the previous night: "If it's sunny, I know you're going to be up at 6:30, because inside your tent it will be hell." Breakfast included a birthday cake for our amazing cook, Isidro, who turned "at least 50" and who could climb a mountain faster than any of us 20- and 30-something gringos. After breakfast, we walked at a leisurely pace through a valley in the blazing hot sun, stopping for lunch at the Machu Picchu hydroelectric plant before continuing our walk along the railroad tracks to our penultimate destination, Aguas Calientes, a small town through which almost all Machu Picchu visitors pass. Ironically, our hostel in Aguas Calientes didn't have hot water. It did, however, have beds, and toilets. With seats. Glorious, glorious seats. Dinner was a very mellow affair at which we received our tickets to Machu Picchu and were instructed to begin our climb of approx. 400m (vertically, that is) at 4 a.m. the next day.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Gone Trekkin'

After a rather uncomfortable 23-hour bus ride from Lima to Cuzco, and two days in Cuzco (alt. 3300m) spent sleeping, drinking coca tea, and catching our collective breath, we're embarking this morning on the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. I confessed to Beto, the guide with whom we booked the trek, that I was a little afraid of the 5-day journey. He told me not to worry; that I could ask the spirits in the mountains for help, and that they would be there.

OK, Mountain Spirits, here we come.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Ceviche in Lima

On our last night in Rio with Frenchy and Dutchy (aka Audrey and Eric), we asked them for a list of the best (and worst) parts of their six months in South America. They recommended cities and sites to see (and some to avoid), and told us their favourite places to stay. In Lima, they had been the first guests of the brand-new Kokopelli Hostel. Audrey advised us to ask Paolo, one of the proprietors, to point us to the ceviche restaurant to which he had taken them. Paolo offered us one better: To take us there for lunch on Monday.

(First, though, on Friday night, we went to a club. I know: I'm too old for that shit. We went with a few people staying at the hostel, all decked out in our best backpacker chic. At one point someone commented, "I'd never wear this to a club at home," to which I replied, "I'd never go to a club at home." It's true.)

Anyway, Monday rolled around and we were both very excited for lunch. Paolo rounded up a group of about 15 people from the hostel to join the festivities, and we piled into a few taxis to go to the neighbourhood of Barranco. Once there, he led us into a little market, past stalls selling raw chickens (with the feet still attached!) and even a little barber shop. The "restaurant" was a bunch of plastic tables under tarps, and we assembled enough chairs to fit our posse. We unanimously agreed that Paolo should order for all of us, and soon food started appearing on the tables.

We started out with chicha morada, a sweet and very tasty dark-purple juice that's made from purple corn. Small metal bowls of salted, roasted corn kernels also appeared on the table. We snacked on those until our first course arrived: A bowl of almost-clear broth with a mussel in each bowl and a generous sprinkling of cilantro leaves on top. It was refreshing and flavourful (especially with the addition of squeeze of lime and a rather potent hotsauce), and the mussel was particularly good.

Next came a dish called tiradito apaltado. Tiradito is like ceviche (fish marinated in lemon or lime juice with onions), but sometimes with oil in the marinade, and without onions. This particular tiradito was served with corn, a hunk of sweet potato, and half an avocado on top. The fish was incredibly fresh-tasting and the avocado was one of the best I've ever had, fresh and perfectly ripe. While we were devouring the tiradito, plates of crispy fried seafood (pescado frito) arrived, garnished with yuca fries and a bowl of mayonnaise for dipping. These were a mix of calamari, shrimp, and other fishy bits that had been battered and fried.

We continued the feast with ceviche - once again a mix of seafood, this time marinated in citrus and garnished with sweet red onions and more sweet potato. I loved the tiradito (especially the avocado) but the ceviche was probably my favourite dish. The fish was sweet and a little bit salty and oh-so-tender, and the thin slices of onion and sprinkling of corn added a perfect crunch.

Just when we thought we were winding down, two rice dishes appeared. One was very similar to seafood-fried rice, only not there was definitely no need to fight over the shrimp. The other was more like seafood risotto, with a lighter flavour than the fried rice but still packed full of fishy goodness. I limited myself to small portions of those (both were delicious!) so I could finish the remaining ceviche for dessert, and Ken busied himself with the leftover fried bits from the pescado frito.

Finally, Paolo announced the grand total: 14 soles (about $5) each, including tip. And we thought beef was cheap in Argentina!

More pics on in our Peru set on Flickr.

Cross-posted on Ultra Fine Food (there are a bunch of new fruits over there, too!).

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Four Things We Love About Lima

4. The coast reminds us of San Francisco (so does the weather (foggy), but it's a lot warmer than our last week in Canada!).

3. The parks are beautiful and oh-so-well maintained. Last night we were walking in Parque Kennedy and came across a salsa party! Today we walked a few kilometres of park that run along the coast in Miraflores, and passed dozens of walkers, runners, families, and lovebirds taking advantage of the foggy-yet-mild afternoon.

2. Fruit is plentiful and cheap: In addition to our new fruits-of-the-day (chirimoya and granadilla, tonight we bought 5 bananas at the grocery store for about 20¢. We also bought a guacamole kit containing 2 ripe avocados, small containers of hot salsa, corn kernels and cheese, a lime, and a small pack of Doritos for all of $2.60.

1. The people are happy, chill, and so helpful! On Friday night when we tried to hail a cab a stranger stopped to tell us the taxis wouldn't stop on the corner on which we were standing, and pointed us to the correct location. And yesterday when I stopped to ask a municipal security guard about the salsa party (which apparently takes place every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights) he encouraged us to dance!

This half of our South American Adventure is starting out with great success! We've slept more in the past three days than we did in the month before, and we both feel like we packed the right combination of items, more or less. We're planning to stay in Lima until Tuesday and then embark on our first looooong bus ride (22 hours, over the Andes) to Cuzco. OK, I'm not sure I'm fully prepared for *that* adventure.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Vamos Ahora

We've been in Waterloo for over a week, and I'm sure you're all wondering how the much-hyped reunion went with our beloved feline, Memphis. While there wasn't exactly the slow-motion running across a field of daisies into each others' arms/paws (although I do appreciate the imagery, Tyler!), there has been much cuddling. There has also been a startling revelation: It turns out I don't have the "bad sinuses" I've been claiming to have for the past 12-ish years. That is to say, I am severely allergic to this furry orange beast. The first morning back I woke up with my eyes looking like I'd cried all night, and within half an hour of being out of the house I was back to normal. In fact, when Memphis curls up on my lap (or chest if I'm lying down), I can feel my throat close up. Good times. So far I've dealt with this situation by taking a Benadryl before bed every night. Denial rules! When we come back for good maybe I'll also try to stop rubbing my face in her belly, but I can't say for sure (guys, she's SO soft!).

Anyhoo, tomorrow we fly off to Lima, via Miami, for the second half of our South American Adventures. In honour of this special event, I have prepared the first of many very basic* maps to illustrate our whereabouts.

YYZ is the code for the Toronto Airport, and now you know where the Rush song name comes from! We have a five-hour layover in Miami, and we arrive in Lima at 4:30 a.m. on Friday with our knapsacks on our backs**. Let the games begin!

We've pared down our belongings to one backpack of about 45lbs each, containing mostly quick-dry pants and underwear (and in my case, enough sample-sized products to have my very own spa day at least once a month). The blogging will continue and I'll keep putting pics up on Flickr.

*I'm not bringing my computer. On a six-month trip. I'm already experiencing withdrawal.

**Val-deri,Val-dera, Val-deri, Val-dera-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha***

***Holla Onkel Hans!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Canadian Thanksgiving

Turning Leaves, originally uploaded by Kitty LaRoux.

That three days of sleep I keep promising myself still hasn't come to fruition. We've been bouncing around Waterloo since we arrived a week ago: Walking dogs and kissing babies and dancing the Chicken Dance [<--awesome Lawrence Welk video alert!] at Oktoberfest.

We're heading off to our third Thanksgiving celebration this afternoon, and the list of things for which I'm thankful this year just keeps growing. Happy (Canadian) Thanksgiving!

Monday, October 05, 2009

No Sleep In Brooklyn

It's our last night in New York until May 2010. Give or take.

That seems like it's really far away, but then, so did September when we left for Argentina back in March. Somehow, though, it doesn't feel any easier to leave this time than it was back then, even though now we have practice.

We've had the most amazing two weeks, shuttling between Brooklyn and Manhattan, not to mention Cape Cod and Stamford and New Haven. I postponed any weight-loss efforts and thoroughly enjoyed all of our NY-favourites (bagels: check! pizza: check! burritos, sushi, bacon and eggs: check, check, check!). I practised yoga and ran in Prospect Park and took pictures of babies and dogs and perfect peaches. At times I felt like I hadn't been away more than a week or two, and other times I walked around all agog, like I was experiencing the crazy-awesome-weirdness of New York for the first time.

Tomorrow afternoon we're flying to Toronto, at which time we will immediately drive to Waterloo and smother Memphis with affection. (Friends have suggested that she might ignore me at first, as it goes with those of the feline persuasion, but I think that will be difficult as I don't plan to put her down for at least an hour.) Then I'm going to sleep for three days.

My mom always used to ask me why I was so tired when I went home to visit, and I always thought it was just because I stayed up late to pack. This time though, it's because I stayed up late to hang out with New York. We had some catching up to do.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

It Takes A Village

Huge sugary thanks to Bri & Geoff, Leslie, John & Joe, and Anna, Pete, Nola & Nick, for the use of their kitchens (and stand mixers!). Thanks to Ann & Rob for transporting two tired travelers toting a disassembled cake and buckets of buttercream from NYC to Cape Cod. Thanks to Meredith & Philip for trusting their wedding cake to a crazy person. And thanks to Ken for his ongoing patience with my, um, ambitious commitments.

I'm going back to bed now. Possibly for three days.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Gillian & Ken in NYC: FAQ

Q Why are you back? I thought you were staying in Buenos Aires/South America for a year!

A We came back for a visit! This weekend we'll be at a wedding in Cape Cod, then we'll be in NY for 2 weeks. On October 5 we fly to Canada to see our peeps (and kitteh!) up north, and on October 15 we fly to Lima, Peru, to start another 6 months of South American Adventures (not to mention a full 15 months of summer).

Q Is it true that you are baking the cake for this wedding?

A Yes. Because I have a condition known as "insanity." The buttercream frosting, however, is some of my best work, so no regrets.

Q When can I/we see you?

A We have few plans after this weekend. Email us! If you're in Waterloo, we'll be at Oktoberfest at the Aud Queensmount (thanks Leigh!) on October 10. Two words: Walter Ostanek.

Q In your last post you referred to Ken's brother as your brother-in-law. WTF?

A Relax. It was a term of endearment, not legally binding <cough>Marc</cough>.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I ♥ NY

We've been back in the States for 24 hours and in NY for 18 and I can't believe how happy I am to be here. While I was waiting in line for US Immigration in Dallas I watched the US's new "Welcome" video, with montages of American landscapes and very deliberately multicultural people. I almost wish I could be cynical about this blatant PR effort but, I have to admit, it made me tear up a little. (Shut up! I was really tired, OK?)

Ken's brother picked us up at the airport which was the best possible scenario, given our 250 lbs (!!!) of luggage and general states of mind after 2 flights totaling almost 14 hours. Then, because he is the best brother-in-law ever, he took us to our most favourite diner in Brooklyn (Tom's - go there, please, it is the best) and not only did we eat bacon and eggs, we drank coffee out of huge mugs (with free refills) and used giant, soft, luxurious napkins. I didn't even realize I'd missed these things!

Later, Ken and I went into the city to buy wedding-cake-making supplies. We ate slices of thin-and-oh-so-crispy-crust NY pizza and watched the weird and beautiful people of NY go by at the corner of 22nd & 6th. Later, on our way back to the subway, we saw Janeane Garafalo in Union Square.

Last night I went to a friend's and we ordered chicken shwarma (so delicious) and now I'm off to another diner for more bacon and eggs and more mediocre-yet-bountiful coffee, and before I'm up to my elbows in cake frosting I just wanted to gush about how much I love NY. And I haven't even had a bagel yet.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #1: Eat Dessert

Let's be honest: Eating dessert is pretty much at the top of my to-do list anywhere, not just in Buenos Aires. I've lost track of how many times I've mentioned my lust for dulce de leche, the rich caramel spread/sauce that is to Argentines as Nutella is to Germans, or maple syrup to Canadians - in other words, essential. However, I have yet to describe the myriad desserts in which it is contained (or accompanies), not to mention the dessert-menu items that don't even contain the magical substance.

Two classics that are often served with dulce de leche are flan, a firmish pudding not unlike the crème part of crème brûlée, and panqueques, which are really crêpes. The former is usually served with a generous dollup of ddl alongside, while the latter is filled with the stuff and either rolled or folded into a triangle, so that when you cut into it the ddl oozes out delightfully. Panqueques may also be ordered de manzana (with apples) or al rhum (with rum). The only time we tried panqueues de manzana they were extremely carmelized and so sticky that they were kind of unpleasant to eat. The rum pancakes, however, are fun because they're flambéed at your table, and everyone likes an open flame.

If you need a quick-fix of ddl, grab an alfajor. There are a few different types, of which the most common are the dulce de leche (filled with ddl and covered in a sugary meringue coating), and chocolate (also filled with ddl, but covered in chocolate). Then there are alfajores de maicena, which are the homemade varieties in which ddl is sandwiched between two cornstarch cookies then, optionally, rolled in coconut or dipped in chocolate.

Every ice cream store also has a plethora of variations on the dulce de leche theme. There's straight-up dulce de leche, which is ddl-flavoured ice cream, and dulce de leche super, which is ddl-flavoured ice cream with a ddl swirl. The other day I had dulce de leche bombom: ddl-flavoured ice cream with chocolate bonbons containing dulce de leche scattered throughout. Luxurious! And of course, you can order ice cream for home delivery, which is even more dangerous than the selection of Ben & Jerry's at an NYC bodega.

Lest you think this post should have been titled "Eat Dulce de Leche," there are a few other ubiquitous desserts in Buenos Aires that deserve a taste. Queso y dulce is fresh, salty cheese served with a hefty slab of dulce de membrillo (quince paste - quince was recently a Fruit of the Day), or dulce de batata, made from sweet potatoes. It doesn't look super-appetizing but it's tasty and a good compromise between dessert and cheese courses. Frutillas y crema (strawberries and cream) is usually Ken's first choice, and the Don Pedro is another favourite: It's a scoop (or three) of vanilla ice cream, doused in whiskey.

P.S. On Tuesday we'll be back in NY and on Wednesday I'll be baking the Queen Mother of all desserts: A wedding cake, for our friends' Meredith and Philip's nuptials in Cape Cod next weekend. Blogging (and sleeping, I suspect) may be limited for the next week or so, but I'm sure you'll survive, somehow. ¡Besote!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #2: Exercise

As I've mentioned, cheap food isn't always healthy, and anyway, who can resist the siren call of dulce de leche? To mitigate the more undesirable effects of too much steak and wine (and my inability to refuse the dessert menu in a restaurant), we signed up at a gym and hired a personal trainer within a few weeks of landing in Buenos Aires. While I've paid as much as $80 for a personal training session in NYC (Richie!), here we paid just over $10 for a session that included a 10-minute massage (!).

Buenos Aires has a surprisingly large community of runners, and even though I decided back in June to forego marathon training this year, I ran a handful of times in Palermo parks, which are beautiful and safe. I also ran a few races in these parks, and even PR'd in the last one I ran, in June.

Walking around the city is also great exercise; you just have to be vigilant about watching for dog poop. Consider it additional training, like an obstacle course! You could also walk your own dog (or 12).

And of course, there's dancing. Tango is the most obvious choice, but in the four months we lived here, we never made it to a class, let along a milonga. We did, however, try out Zouk-Lambada, a French-Brazilian dirty dancing, and tomorrow night will be testing our mad Samba skillz at a bar in San Telmo.


Gym: Always Club in Palermo

Running Clubs:
Club de Corredores has a group that meets weekly. The club also organizes regular races in Palermo Parks.
BsAs Runners also organizes races around the city.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Here is the story of how we chose to take a 5 hour bus ride to a city that sells towels with images of enthusiastic-looking naked ladies on them.

(Click to enlarge; NSFW.)

Last week, on the day our Brazil visas expired, we reluctantly boarded a bus to leave the country. (OK, that's a lie; we'd just spent a very rainy day in Puerto Alegre and were pretty psyched to swap the glamour of playing cards at the bus terminal for another 12 hour bus trip.) During our preliminary immigration check with the bus company we were asked about slips of paper that we were supposed to have filled out when we entered the country, not to mention stamps in our passports - neither of which we had received. The woman at the bus company assured us that we'd be fine.

Cut to: 3 a.m., the border crossing at Chui, Brazil, also known as Chuy, Uruguay (both pronounced "choo-ie"), at which time we were asked to step off the bus and explain the deficiencies in our passports. In Portuguese. Or, in my case, in Spanish with very poor Portuguese pronunciation.

After about 20 minutes of "explaining" to the Brazilian Federal Police that we hadn't received anything when we crossed the border, we were asked to write down our parents' names--never a sign that things are going well. A few minutes later we were handed forms. Mine read, in Portuguese, natch, that Gillian Gutenberg, daughter of [parents' names witheld to protect the innocent], committed the heinous crime of not having her passport stamped. (Thank god they didn't catch me smuggling coconut chocolate bars out of the country.) After a half-hearted attempt to read the forms, we signed them, which may mean that we'll be on an upcoming episode of Locked Up Abroad. We were also instructed that should we desire a Brazilian visa in the future (...duh), we would need to pay fines of $93 each.

Obviously the Brazilian Federal Police are not familiar with Monk Mode.

We arrived in Montevideo, Uruguay, about 5 hours later. The next day, after a fruitless attempt to pay our fine at a bank, we hit up the Brazilian Consulate, where I had the following conversation (in Spanish; illustrated here in BASIC) with a woman working there.

10 Me: We need to pay this fine. Do you know where we can pay it?
20 Brazilian Consulate Woman: You have to go to a Banco do Brasil, in Brazil.
30 Me: We can't go back to Brazil because our visas have expired. And we can't get new visas until we pay the fine.
40 GOTO 20

After a few rounds of this, an Orange Alert was issued for levels of annoyedness, and another woman came to speak to us. At that point Ken took over, and we learned that we could go back to Chui/Chuy and pay at the Banco do Brasil there.

And so, on Tuesday morning we boarded a 7 a.m. bus to Chui/Chuy to give the Brazilian Federal Police $186 to be allowed back in the country. We found the Banco do Brasil in Chui/Chuy with minimal effort and after some hijinks involving various metal items in my purse, I waited by the ATMs (and under the careful watch of the security guard) while Ken went in to pay our dues.

He came back out a few minutes later and reported that we needed to pay with Brazilian reais, not the Uruguayian pesos we'd brought. Please note the irony of this situation: We could buy a naked-nurse towel (click to enlarge; NSFW) using either Uruguayian or Brazilian currency, but we couldn't exchange our money at the bank. It was then that we learned that the ATMs at this particular bank didn't work with any of our banks' networks. Visa, apparently, is not everywhere you want to be.

We walked back about four blocks to the money exchange center, exchanged pesos for reais, then went back to the bank, where I waited, again, by the ATMs and the security guard, while Ken went into the bank, again, to pay the fine.

Ken came out a few minutes later to tell me we hadn't exchanged enough to pay the fines. Math is hard! Let's go shopping! We walked back to the exchange center (again) and back to the bank (again). The security guard watched with equal parts suspicion and amusement.

I was starting to think we liked Brazil more than it liked us.

Fortunately, third time's a charm: We left the bank with our precious receipts and made our way back to the bus terminal (which was really just a row of bus company offices on a street) to catch the next available bus back to Montevideo. Unfortunately, the next available bus was with a company that didn't accept non-Uruguayian credit cards, and we'd used all of our precious cash paying our fine. We were directed to another nearby bank, where we tried, using various combinations of bank cards and ATMs, to withdraw money. Guess what happened?


We walked back to the row of bus companies and found the next bus departing Chui/Chuy, at a different company. One that, thanks to all that is good and pure in the world, accepted MasterCard. We rejoiced quietly, then retired to a café across the street to drink coffee and play cards until we could bid farewell to the fabled land of naked-lady towels (click to enlarge; NSFW) and giant skewers of meat.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Monk Mode

We've almost reached the six-month mark of our yearlong South American adventure, and as I mentioned previously, the second half of our year won't be spent in Buenos Aires (where we've lived for four of the past six months). Instead, after our visit home in September (during which I plan to consume copious amounts of nut butter, maple syrup, and Timbits) we're going to fly to Lima and travel around the continent - first south through Peru, Chile, and Argentina, then back to Brazil and possibly a few of the northern countries like Bolivia.

For the past three weeks we've been traveling through Southern Brazil and Uruguay, which has been a great trial run to figure out exactly what we want to carry on our backs for six months (the answer: a lot less than we're carrying now). It has also given us the opportunity to figure out and implement our new budget, in which we allocate a third of our daily spending to travel - something we didn't have to do when we were living in Buenos Aires. Borrowing a phrase coined by my BFF, Sirrah, we're in Monk Mode, which means that we're living frugally - just like monks, except without all the annoying celibacy.

It wouldn't be so bad except that we both like to eat, a lot, as in we really enjoy eating and we also like to eat a lot of food. In Brazil, we could usually find lunch of either chicken, fish, or meat, plus rice, beans, fries, and a small salad for around $5, and it was more than enough to share. A shot of coffee (cafezhino) in Brazil goes for anywhere from 25-50¢, and there's all that delicious fruit.

We're now in Montevideo, Uruguay, and have found a bakery near our hostel at which we can buy 2 coffees and 6 tiny medialuna sandwiches for $2.50. A hamburger from a street cart costs as little as $1 (and up to $2, depending on how many toppings you want to add, and by toppings I don't just mean ketchup and mustard - these babies come with slices of cheese, ham, bacon, and sometimes a fried egg).

As you may have gathered, the menu items available during Monk Mode are often not the most nutritious, so my new plan is to seek out introductory (read: free) classes of any physical activity I can bring myself to do, from yoga to capoeira to pilates.

Activities in a new city are also a challenge. We spent one day in Puerto Alegre, Brazil, and it rained, nay, poured, for 11 of the 12 hours we were there. We spent most of the day wandering around the central market, parking ourselves at one of its many eating establishments and ordering 2 of the cheapest coffees on the menu which we nursed for an hour or more while we played cards.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Or, How We Make Plans

Two days ago we left Rio and toted our caipirinha-induced hangovers about 90km north to a small city called Teresópolis, up in the mountains and known best for its state park and hiking. After we arrived and found our hostel (a really beautiful place nestled up on a steep hillside), we took our map of the park out for pizza to plan our next couple of days.

In addition to several shorter hikes within the Teresópolis side of the park, there is a 55km hike that starts in Teresópolis and finishes in Petrópolis, another city that we'd considered visiting.

K: Maybe we could do that hike tomorrow.
G: 55km? In a day?
K: Yeah, that's just over a marathon. How long would that take?
G: Hm, I guess we could do that in 8 hours.

Later that night Ken did some research on the World Wide Web: The 55km trail is a 3-day hike for which you need to hire a guide. We agreed to spend Tuesday at the park to do some shorter hikes and gather more info. When we arrived, a very friendly guide apologized for the weather (it was extremely foggy) and showed us how to find the trailheads for the trails accessible from Teresópolis. She also advised us to hike one in particular (Post Card Trail) that is rated moderate to difficult to gauge our readiness for the 3-day hike.

We set off up a steep road of about 2km to find the trailheads. The first trail we hiked, rated easy, was ony 400m and took us all of 10 minutes. We felt studly and set off to find the next trail, rated moderate. This one was 1.1km and took us an hour. I was starting to realize the error of our previous night's calculations. We continued up the steep road to the trailhead for Post Card Trail, and decided to save it for last (read: I wasn't sure we should start it without at least a little break first).

After a snack, a bathroom break and a nice flat 400m hike we started up Post Card's steep 1.2km trail, and reached the lookout point in just under an hour. There was a handy sign that illustrated the various mountain peaks visible from that point.

*Visibility may vary according to weather. See also: Extremely foggy.

Anyway, after 4 hours of hiking and a couple of hot showers, we realized that we're unprepared at this juncture for 3 days of hiking. Instead, we're going to spend the rest of the week doing that for which we are well-suited: sitting on the beach. Hopefully our visibility will improve.

P.S. On Monday we purchased a large bag of oranges for about 54¢. As an experiment, I'm going see if I can survive on only oranges for the next 24 hours. No matter the outcome, it will be a real boon to our budget.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

More on Buses

This week we started our backpacking-lives in style on a full-bed bus from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazu. The bus company was Via Bariloche and the service was beyond awesome. The first thing we did when we boarded was to check the accuracy of the claim "full-bed," and we were not disappointed. Here we are, sleeping* on the bus.

*Sleeping is simulated.

An hour or two into our 16+ hour bus trip, we were served a hot meal with wine, followed by coffee. And just as I was about to tuck in for the night, we were offered a choice of whiskey or champagne! Note: All this was while we watched our choice of movies (or Latino music videos!) on our own personal TVs. Breakfast (medialunas, juice, and coffee) was served about an hour before we arrived, feeling quite refreshed, in Puerto Iguazu.

Then we went to see some waterfalls!

Another 24 hours on buses later (which I won't describe in detail - suffice to say that, at least in our limited experience with intercity bus travel, Argentina>Brazil), we arrived in Rio and are hanging with the Europeans. I just hope my liver survives the next 3 days with these guys.

The Buenos Aires list is on hold for now, possibly until we get back there next month and I finish detox.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #3: Kiss Someone

Here's a snippet from something I wrote over two months ago, because my current self couldn't have said it better than my past self. I love it when that happens.

One of my most favourite things about Buenos Aires is that everyone kisses everyone here. It's like a handshake or a casual wave, only it's always a cheek-kiss; right-cheeks, please. And absolutely everyone does it, everywhere, to say both hello and goodbye. At the gym, big muscly guys greet each other with a kiss. It's how I say hi to my trainer, Adrián. (I'm not complaining; it's the closest I'm going to get to making out with a 24-year-old again in this lifetime.) When we had our party a couple of weeks ago, whenever someone new showed up, it took him or her 10 minutes to make their way around the room, smooching everyone up. Just this week, I went to a spinning class*, and as I was setting up my bike the instructor came over and greeted me with a kiss. And our really really awesome Spanish teacher, Sofía, signs all her emails "un besote". Beso = kiss, and besotee is a little BIG BIG kiss (per Sofía, who just corrected me on this important matter) - which happens to be my favourite kind.

The only difference is that I now get to kiss my new trainer, Matias, and that when we text to arrange our meeting times he will often reply, "Dale [OK], un beso." I'm also happy to report that the threat of swine flu doesn't seem to have diminished the amount of kissing in the least.

We're about to embark on a many, many hour bus trip, and then another many, many hour bus trip, and my good intentions of writing stuff to auto-post over the next couple of days drowned in a glass (or three) of Malbec last night, so it may be a few days before I have a chance to wrap up this list. Stay tuned!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #4: Ride a Horse

When Ken and I visited Buenos Aires two years ago, we went to an estancia (ranch) called Los Dos Hermanos, located about an hour out of the city. We had an amazing day that included breakfast, a huge asado lunch of homemade empanadas and at least four sizzling grills of meat, plus salads, and several hours of riding horses. We liked it so much that we went back again this year for Ken's birthday. We had another great day of food and horses, and in the afternoon they surprised Ken with a birthday cake! How nice!

Last week we went horseback riding again, this time at a nearby place called A La Par. A La Par is in a huge and very beautiful provincial park (Parque Provincial Pereyra Iraola) about 30 minutes from downtown Buenos Aires. We arrived just after 11 a.m. and immediately saddled up for a ride that lasted almost 2 hours. Our guides at A La Par, Adrian and Emilio, were very encouraging. They really taught us how to ride our horses more effectively. On our return we tucked into a snack of medialunas and mate.

Bonus: A La Par is home to four completely adorable dogs!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #5: Eat at a Puerta Cerrada Restaurant

I've written about puerta cerrada (closed door) restaurants before. I can think of few better ways to experience a culture than to dine in someone's home, and to share with them the food, wine, and music about which they're passionate.

At Casa Felix, you'll enjoy an outstanding pescatarian (fish-and-veggies only) meal with lots of local flavour, including native herbs that Chef Diego Felix grows in his backyard. At ¿Dónde me trajiste? you'll share a delicious home-cooked meal and enjoy a wonderful evening of live music (my full review is here).

Other puerta cerrada restaurants that I know of but haven't visited (...yet):

Casa SaltShaker (varied theme menus that look interesting and fun; they also offer cooking classes)

Cocina Sunae (pan-Asian fare - something that's generally hard to come by in Buenos Aires)

Of course, if you missed your chance to dine at our most favourite of all puerta cerradas, Ceci n'est pas un restaurant, fear not - I suspect we'll be open for business again sometime.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #6: Take the Bus

The buses in Buenos Aires are outstanding for so many reasons. First, they cost next-to-nothing. We've never paid more than 35¢ to get all the way across town. Second, there are literally hundreds of them, and no matter where you are and where you want to go, there's a bus for you. Third, the buses here are pimped out! Not only are they all adorned with various etched mirrors and fuzzy dice, the driver is often rocking out to loud 80s tunes. Some even have UV lights! It's just like when I used to go rollerskating at Super Skate 7 in grade 9, only I don't have to worry about falling on my ass. Although sometimes I do worry that the bus is going to hit someone, because they go pretty fast and don't leave a lot of room for error.

The bus system can be a little challenging to decipher at first. You need a Guia "T" (pronounced "gia tay"), which can be purchased at kioskos downtown and near the main bus terminal for a few dollars. The Guia "T" is a guide to all the buses in Buenos Aires. As a bonus, its cover illustrates a plethora of fonts and design principles!

The Guia "T" has a website, but it's been Coming Soon! for a while now. There's another site, though, called Como Viajo, that lets you enter your starting and destination points and tells you which buses or metro lines to take. It has terrible maps but other than that it's just fine.

The main drawback of taking the bus is that you have to have monedas, or coins, which can be hard to come by. We hoard coins just for this purpose, and possibly also to give Ken something to do (he likes to stack them neatly by denomination). You may be forced to stop at a kiosko and buy an alfajor to get change. (It's a hard life.) Another drawback is that they're a bit dirty - that is, they spew giant clouds of exhaust. But that just means that riding the bus is more pleasant than, say, walking beside it. Also, you might get an emo driver, like the one we had on Friday, who was smoking AND texting while slowly navigating a bus through San Telmo.

Speaking of buses, the intercity buses here are also awesome. They have seats that recline fully into beds, and often there's a movie and/or a hot meal! Which is good, because starting on Sunday we'll be on a bus for 20 hours, to Iguazu Falls, after which we'll be on another one for 24 hours from Iguazu to Rio de Janeiro. Thank god for Benadryl.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #7: Eat Meat

Oh come on, you knew this one was coming.

We knew we'd eat a lot of steak here - not only is it super-delicious grass-fed beef, it's also unbelievably cheap. At the grocery store, we can buy two T-bone steaks for around 15 pesos (less than $4). At a restaurant, the most expensive cut (lomo, which is roughly a filet mignon) costs about $8, and is big enough for us to share. Empanadas stuffed with beef, chicken, or ham and cheese are readily had for under $1 apiece at any pizza joint. And don't even get us started on the sandwiches: Neither of us has met a choripán (sausage), lomito (sliced beef), or bondiola (pork) we didn't like.

There are also the sauces to consider. Chimichurri is a ubiquitous blend of garlic, herbs, oil and vinegar that we use without reservation on any and every type of meat (it's also great on bread and fries). On sandwiches, though, you may be presented with myriad toppings, and while Argentine cuisine isn't known for it's spiciness, some of the hot peppers on offer aren't kidding around (bottom left, I'm looking at you).

Our favourites:

We've lost count of how many times we've eaten at El Desnivel in San Telmo. It's no-frills, cheap, and if you're lucky you'll get a surly waiter. If you have time, a Saturday trip to Los Talas del Entrerrianos will give you the best of meat sweats. You can get a decent asado (mixed grill) at any of a number of restaurants, but for the best ambience, share one with friends on a Sunday afternoon at the Fería de Mataderos. If you're really lucky, you'll be invited to a real Argentine asado, which is just like a regular American-style BBQ only with way more meat. (At the last one we went to, I earned the nickname "Meat Juice Girl". My mom's gonna be so proud.)

Finally, I've said it before and I'll say it again: Go to the Ecological Reserve, just past Puerto Madero. Find El Parrillon (it's the second parrilla on the left), and order the Super Bondiolita al Limon. You'll thank me, I promise.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #8: Learn Spanish

Learning Spanish was one of our top reasons for choosing Buenos Aires as a place to live. The week we arrived we started classes at Íbero Spanish School in the center of Buenos Aires. It was a good place to start: We had a great teacher (Alejandro), the school organized activities like movies and dinners, and probably most importantly, it was a great way to meet other travelers. In fact, that's where we met Frenchy and Dutchy (a.k.a. Audrey and Eric), with whom we're going to rendez-vous next week in Rio.

Anyway, after a few weeks of commuting to downtown Buenos Aires, which is not entirely unlike midtown NY (read: stressful and smelly), we discovered through the power of the interwebs our current and most-beloved profesora, Sofía. Sofía is part of a Spanish "school" called Ñ. There are 5 or 6 core teachers, and they don't have a school, per se, but teach privately (or in very small groups), either at peoples' apartments or in a cafe or restaurant. Our lessons with Ñ have really been tailored to our skill level and interests, and apparently we've learned something, because on Friday evening we had dinner with Alejandro and his partner, and during the entire meal we spoke only in Spanish. And I think they even understood most of what we said!

In addition to classes, we tried to immerse ourselves in the language with language exchanges, telenovelas, podcasts, and books, newspapers and magazines. At times it wore us out (I still marvel at how drained I feel after a 2-hour class), but not only are everyday interactions exponentially easier now, I'm even starting to feel like I can express myself in Spanish (which in turn makes me feel like less of a dud in social situations).

Links you'll like:

Íbero Spanish School
Ñ de Español

Language Exchanges
Spanglish BA ~ kind of like speed-dating for language: You're assigned a table with 2-3 other people, and you spend 5 minutes speaking English, then 5 speaking Spanish. Then half the table rotates, and you have a new group with which to chat. The fee is nominal and usually includes a drink.
Conversation Exchange ~ a free conversation exchange that you can do by email or chat, or live and in person! Ken & I both met people using this site and it was a great way to practice our conversation skillz. You don't even have to live in BA to use it.

News in Slow Spanish
Show Time Spanish

Newspapers & Magazines
Clarin ~ major Argentine newspaper
El Mundo ~ kind of like the NY Times in Spanish
OHLALÁ ~ well-designed and well-written women's magazine
Planeta Joy ~ lots of lists of bests in Buenos Aires (I suspect I will take advantage of their chocotortas list before we leave)

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #9: Merienda

Merienda first entered our lives back in April, when we started tracking our meals for our personal trainer. He sent us a spreadsheet with all the usual meals and snacks to fill in, but there was one new (to us) entry tucked in between almuerza (lunch) and cena (dinner): merienda.

Dinner in Buenos Aires is much later than we're used to in North America, and the only way to make it through the afternoon is to have a late-day meal that's more-or-less another breakfast. A classic merienda is coffee with three medialunas (small-ish croissants with a sweet glaze), and we've seen the combo for as little as 5 pesos (about $1.30).

Buenos Aires: The List

With just over a week left to enjoy the Paris of the South, we've compiled a list of our 10 favourite things to do in Buenos Aires. I'll post one or two per day until we leave, and who knows, this week we may even add to the list - that's just how we roll.

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #10: Drink Mate

The first time we tried mate was at an outing with our Spanish school. We first drank it amargo, which means bitter (or more gently, unsweetened), and neither of us liked it much. The cebador (mate server) then added some sugar and we found it more palatable, as do many foreigners.

When we changed to private Spanish instruction and met Sofía, she gave us more detailed instructions. She told us exactly what shape of mate, or gourd, to purchase. She explained how to properly prepare mate, and told us that sweetened, it isn't really mate. (We've since gleaned that how one prefers mate is a matter of taste, and that taste is often regional.) There are literally dozens of different brands and varieties of mate in the grocery store, and choosing can be difficult. Fortunately, not long after we started drinking mate I went to Norma's Argentine cooking class, and she introduced me to an organic yerba mate with herbs that was delicious.

Not long after our lesson with Sofía we bought our own mate and have been drinking mate regularly ever since. We don't quite have the dedication of a Uruguayan fellow we met in Brazil who carried his mate and Thermos with him in a handy leather tote, but I suspect we'll continue to drink mate as long as we have access to yerba.

In short, yerba mate is an acquired taste that we think is worth acquiring. And Buenos Aires, where the parks are full of mate drinkers no matter the season, and where you can order a mate service (mate, hot water, and a handful of sweet biscuits) for 5-10 pesos at most cafés, is the perfect place to start.