That's right: for the first time ever, a white guy is going travelling in South America. Read about my adventures as I travel the continent and try my best not to steal or conquer anything.

August 22, 2006

So, about the blog . . .

I don't think there's much reason in keeping it around. I'm home now, and doubt I'll find much to post about, not that anything I could dig up would be very good anyway. So thanks to everyone who read and commented; I very much appreciate the interest that everyone took. All the best.


July 19, 2006


I'm back on my own travelling again, as Pat and Andy have sensibly chosen to return to their jobs, girlfriends, and whatever other commitments they have that got left in Toronto like gunsmoke. I think that if they had stayed much longer than their allotted three weeks, then they too would have divested themselves of those commitments, as I have, or perhaps as they have of me. Another week or so in Rio and we may have forgotten our own names; another trek into the Sacred Valley and our Social Security Numbers would have had no more meaning than a disconnected telephone number; another stamp and 90-day visa and our passports may have ceased to read "Canada". No one, of course, is able to take the experience of travelling so far, but we at least had a taste of it, and I'll follow them shortly in the act of suiting back up in the lives we left.

BsAs to Lima first thing in the morning - a Sunday morning, might I add; as in the kind that follows a Saturday night - and taking the advice of virtually every traveller that I've met, right off to Cusco without even a glimpse at Lima beyond that from our departure terminal. We're not long off the tarmac in Cusco before the (possibly psychosomatic) impact of the much touted altitude crawls into us: do we feel dizzy? Faint of our usual brio and verve? How much are the altitude sickness pills we took really helping us? Was that all-nighter at the pub last night such a good idea? Other than finding ourselves more than usually winded when climbing stairs - or Cusco sidewalks, as one might as well call them - we were largely unaffected by the altitude bugbear in which lurked, supposedly, the potential to ruin our trip. We watched Zidane administer the head-butt heard round the world, followed presumably by some team winning the World Cup. We called it a night quite early on, and prepared for the next four days that would be the culmination of our trip: a trek from Lares to Ollantaytambo, finishing in a visit to Machu Picchu.

Peru, as I had hoped, was not at all like Argentina; whereas the latter is likened often by its residents as a chunk of Europe that had, by some clerical error, been grafted onto South America, Peru's indigenous heritage thrives in its spiritual centres like Cusco and the Sacred Valley, albeit somwhat uneasily with the hordes of visitors - be they Pizzaros or Peers - that overrun these sacred places every day. Our guide Carla, a descendent of Inca royalty, escorted us around the ruins of palaces that would have been her home if not for her birth on this side of the last 500 years. When two young visitors to Machu Picchu were asked to remove themselves from the grass terrace on which they had chosen to rest, the official behind the order was quite vocally criticized by a gentleman who reminded her that these visitors have rights, for after all, "they are Peruvians." Carla confirmed that a particularly reactionary group of indigenous people sought the return of Machu Picchu to its original purpose as a functioning town and sanctuary, not a tourist destination, though the initiative is politically and economically impossible.

All this is not to suggest, however, that the locals we met along the way were somehow hostile. Quite the opposite. Given that they see gringos with backpacks nearly every day, the residents of the small Andean towns that we passed were surprisingly curious and playful. Surprising too given that many of these people have part-time jobs lugging whatever we don't want to carry up and down the Inca Trail. One group was happy to have us by for a chat and glass of chicha (a white corn-based alcoholic beverage), and the kids enjoyed being in pictures and only rarely were so jaded as to jump straight into a request for candy. We played a hotly contested game of football at 3600m, which I'll have to concede to our hosts (and Andy), they being the only ones able to run for more than 15 seconds at that altitude.

Having some delicious and alcoholic chicha with the locals.

I've always thought of myself as being fairly hearty in dealing with the cold, but I've realized that in Canada we work hard to control our doses of it, simply by heating our buildings. While an Andean woman will never step out of her hut in the morning to fetch her llama and have difficulty breathing the -30C air, or have to curse as she scrapes the frost off of the same llama, temperatures got near freezing each night that we camped, as they do virtually every night in the dry season. These people just bundle up and deal with the cold every morning and every night, and if it's not cold, it's raining. Do I really like the cold that much, or is it coming in from the cold that I enjoy so much? Sleeping in all my clothes and my alpaca hat with my sleeping bag pulled up over my head I could only endure for a couple of nights. That's half the year for these people.

Describing Machu Picchu is virtually impossible, so I'll just share a few interesting facts that I learned that day. The word Machu Picchu is Quechua, and means "old mountain". Take the second "c" out of the word "Picchu", and you have an old something that is considerably more vulgar. So one must be certain to pronounce the name correctly. Machu Picchu was "discovered" by Hiram Bingham, a Yale archeologist, who was surprised to find two families living in the ruins when he showed up in 1911. One of the kids was happy to show him around. Pablo Neruda has written that "Machu Picchu is a trip to the serenity of the soul, to eternal fusion with the cosmos, there we feel our own fragility. It is one of the greatest marvels of South America. A resting place of butterflies at the epicentre of the great circle of life. Another miracle." To be sure, it made for a pleasant day trip.

Cusco, former capital of the Inca Empire, is where I spent the rest of our time in Peru. An unabashed tourist town, at least in its centre, it is difficult to walk down the street without someone attempting to entice you into their travel agency, souvenir shop, or restaurant. The tactics used in pursuit of this goal fall just short of a lasso, and walking up Procuradores to my hostel, especially at dinner time, was a task better suited to a tight end than a tourist. Fortunately, I found the town beautiful and interesting enough to reward a few days stay, despite these petty annoyances, and booked my bus out for Sunday, a few days after Pat and Andy flew home. The next stop was Copacabana: not the hottest spot north of Havana of Barry Manilow fame, nor the beach where we played football in Rio, but rather the less notorious town in Bolivia on the shore of Lake Titicaca. From there to La Paz and the rest of Bolivia, and finally - I hoped - a glimpse of South America.

Some kids from a town we stayed in along the way.

A first look at Machu Picchu.

More Machu Picchu.

July 05, 2006

Moving past the Mundial

Like most of Buenos Aires and the rest of Argentina that day, I was pretty crushed on June 30. Seeing this team for which everyone had such high hopes lose to Germany in a penalty shootout wasn't unjust - as nothing can be in sport, at its purest - but it proved nothing. Germany certainly didn't prove itself the better team, and while Argentina did, they couldn't prove that they deserved to move on. So why not Germany then? But how agonizing. Ernesto Cambiasso, who played every ball he found firmly and accurately, struck a similarly confident ball towards the upper-right corner before a diving Lehmann intercepted it, ending the game. He and his teammates would have been worthy competitors in the semi-finals. But they won't be, so we move on.

This - in case there was any confusion - is how you get pimped out for an important game.

Ever so pimped out. How can Argentina lose?

Fortunately I had plenty to move on to: June 30 was my last day in my apartment in Recoleta, my last day in Buenos Aires before hitting the road with visiting friends Pat and Andy. The boys and I are off on three weeks in South America so loaded with travel and activity that I'm amazed that we were able to budget time for sleep. Our first stop after four days in Buenos Aires was Las Leñas, a ski resort in the Argentine Andes. Despite the presence of two snowboards to slow us down, the four of us tore it up and enjoyed the spring-like conditions. The porteños are happy to bring their famous appetite for nightlife on vacation with them, and as we cut off our evening around three to ensure that we were in a reasonable condition for the next day's skiing, the nightclub we left was just beginning to fill up. Whistler it ain't. We celebrated Canada Day as best as we were able, though the Argentines seemed oddly dispassionate about the occasion when we informed them of it. Still down about the previous day's loss, no doubt.

Andy makes it look easy.

The crew on our final day.

Back to Buenos Aires on the morning of the fourth; a flight that afternoon to Rio. After all that snow and brutal sub-10˚C temperatures, we were ready for some beach and sun, and Rio delivered. Andy had been itching for a football match since he touched down in South America, and we finally found one on Copacabana beach with a group of Brazilians, who clearly weren't playing this sport for the first time. The beach game is odd for those of us who learned on grass, and while the flat area closest to the water allowed for some dribbling (in between waves), further up the pitch the ball was usually played in the air. We foolish gringos made the mistake of trying to pass the ball through the sand a few times, before attempting the more logical indigenous style of a short flip upwards followed by a mid-air lob over one's opponents. While at least one local player possessed such phenomenal ball control skills that he would slide himself and the ball past my 6'4", 200-pound frame without so much as a brush of contact, I could defend against some of the less obviously gifted players by exploiting their adversion to passing, a trait they share with their Argentine counterparts.

So a few more days in Rio, back to Buenos Aires on Saturday for our last swig of the porteño nightlife, and then to Cusco, for something completely different. Three days hiking in Peruvian Andes to Lares, and then a fourth at Machu Picchu, perhaps South America's most famous destination. The boys pack up for Toronto afterwards, and I get some rest.

Beautiful Rio from the famous statue of Christ.

Another side of Rio.

Cariocas take an interest in the football.

June 17, 2006

So long Group of Death, thanks for the memories; yours, Argentina

Cambiasso betrays some enthusiasm after he puts Argentina up 2-0 against Serbia and Montenegro.

Though I have no unique insights into what took place yesterday, to write a blog set in Argentina and not mention THE GAME would be a thundering silence, as the oxymoron goes. The significance of Argentina's 6-0 dismantling of Serbia and Montenegro yesterday, considering just the impact on the tournament standings, is actually relatively minor. Argentina was expected to win, expected to finish in the top two of Group C, and expected to establish themselves as a contender in doing so. Wednesday's game between Argentina and Holland will decide who finishes on top of the group, but both teams have now assured their passage to the Round of 16. Had Argentina earned anything short of their six points thus far it would have been a disappointment.

The significance of the game to the country, however, is simply that it was one of the greatest World Cup matches in Argentina's history. The game was a majestic rout; a performance so dominating that the Serbians & Montenegrans were rendered foils for Argentine brilliance, no more a threat than the Washington Generals. Fans were delirious with the spectacle, and the players - all of them - described the experience as "a dream", or "dreamlike", or some similar nod to the sense that what just happened was so much better than what could or should have been. The game, as most of the commentators and columnists and ex-player-turned-talking heads have noted, was perfect. Looking for a quick start? Maxi Rodriguez gets the party started in the sixth minute. For consistency? Three goals in the first half, three in the second. Teamwork? 25 passes before Cambiasso drives in the second goal. Individual skill? Carlos Tevez breaking through one defender, and another, and bending the ball past the helpless keeper for the fifth goal. Even Leo Messi - the 18-year-old phenom who's face is becoming about as ubiquitous here as Maradona's - capped the scoring in his first ever World Cup match.

Now, obviously it's too soon for Argentines to clear their schedules on July 9th, or RSVP for the victory party that night. But the world has been put on notice, and while Argentina hasn't looked in finer form since 1986, their opponents are sputtering. The English got their result, but needed 83 minutes to pull ahead of Trinidad & Tobago; the Germans just squeaked by Poland with an extra time goal; the Mexicans couldn't beat the Angolans, the Italians couldn't beat the U.S., and even the mighty Brazilians looked vulnerable in their opening match against Croatia. When planning out various scenarios for this tournament - and adjusting my travel schedule accordingly - I realized that finishing on top of Group C would give Argentina the best chance of avoiding any serious competition until the semi-finals. Avoiding England, Brazil, and Spain seemed the best way to assure a good result. Now those teams ought to be asking themselves an equally pressing question: "how can we avoid Argentina?"

This city is buzzing. There wasn't an Argentine friend I spoke with yesterday that wasn't in celebration mode, not one who wasn't making comparisons to '86; there wasn't a bus on the street from 10:00 to 12:00, a business that didn't take time off for the game, a bakery with any medialunas (mini croissants) in stock by 10:30. Six is the number. 1986, 2006. Six goals, six more games. Six more victories to an event of epic proportions, and if you think I'm exaggerating, well . . . ask a porteño. You're in the minority.

In other news, it turns out that they used to show "Different Strokes" down here, only they called it "Blanco y Negro", which means "White and Black". Rather lacking in subtlety, no? Anyway, when I found this out from one of my Argentine friends, I naturally asked after Gary Coleman's famous line. I refused, just refused to believe that such an iconic catchphrase could be accurately translated. She told me that whenever he was responding to his brother with his trademark incredulity, Arnold would say "de que estás hablando viejo?" This literally translates to "of what are you speaking elder brother?", which I pointed out is totally not in the spirit of the original catchphrase, but she then told me that the more colloquial translation of the phrase is "what are you talking about older brother?" That's fine, except that of course Arnold didn't say "what are you talking about Willis?", he said "whuchutalkinboutWillis?", dropping only the patently superfluous syllables from the clause. Now, Spanish is a syllabic language, and unlike English-speakers, people really say every syllable down here, and my friend simply COULD NOT imitate Gary Coleman accurately, but only get as close as "whatareyoutalkinabouWillis", which is no more Gary Coleman-esque than the same line in Swahili. Checkmate.

Oh, and Kermit the Frog in this country? Rana René. WTF?

June 04, 2006

A few Argentine heroes

General Jose de San Martín

Image shamelessly ripped from some site on San Martín I found on google.

A little history: San Martín liberated Argentina from Spanish rule. That's a pretty good one-sentence bio in and of itself, but it's only the start: after studying in Spain and fighting against Napoleon in the Battle of Baylen, San Martín returns to Argentina and quickly beats back the disembarking Spanish army arriving from Montevideo. He then decides that the only way to completely liberate Argentina is to unseat the Spanish royalists in the Viceroyalty of Peru, and so takes over as the Governor of Cuyo in western Argentina, and devotes three years to developing his strategy for conquering Peru. At some point the BsAs old boys feared his popularity and power, and tried to strip him of his Governorship, but protests in his support and against his successor force San Martín's reinstatement. In 1817, San Martín crosses the Andes and defeats the royalist forces in Chile, following it up with post-siege takeover of Lima. Checkmate. In 1824, depressed by civil wars and political infighting, San Martín moves to France to raise his daughter, dying in 1850, never living to see his dream of a strong and united South America.

And today: San Martín, the liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Peru, is interred in a magnificent mausoleum in the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires, and lives in effigy on the $5-peso note, though this doesn't put him in especially distinguished company, as dictator and genocide-happy Juan Manuel de Rosas appears on the $20. In BsAs, where every undeserving rich politician gets a statue, San Martín earned the many tributes to him around the city, and around the country, as it seems that virtually every city or town in Argentina has a Plaza San Martín right in its centre. I get the feeling that were he still alive, San Martín would still be living in France, rightfully miffed at the mismanagement that frustrates his vision.

Canada's equivalent: As an Argentine friend is very fond of reminding me, Canada fought no wars for independence, and thus has no claim to a San Martín-esque hero. I'm then fond of reminding this friend that Canada was suiting up for WWI and WWII while Argentina was warming the coals for its "Welcome Nazi War Criminals" asado, but I have to admit, there's nothing quite like a guy who freed your country from imperial rule by military force, and did the same for two of your neighbours to boot. But hey, 2.75 Argentine pesos to the Canadian dollar, so peace and treaties can't be all bad, eh? Eh?

Diego Maradona

Image blatantly stolen from some hardworking guy's fan site on Maradona.

A little history: As if the man needs any introduction. Born in a shantytown outside of BsAs, of mestizo origin, Maradona's talents were first spotted when he was 10, and he was recruited to play for the junior team of the Argentine Premiership squad Argentinos Juniors. Maradona then flew up the footballing ladder through the Argentinas Juniors, the Boca Juniors, Barcelona, and SSC Napoli. It was during his tenure with Barcelona that Maradona is said to have been introduced to cocaine, no doubt by a supporter of Real Madrid, or perhaps a West German spy. Maradona earned accolades at every step along the way, but his most famous exploits came in the 1986 World Cup, which Argentina won. In the semi-finals against England, Maradona scored both of Argentina's goals in the 2-1 game, the first, famously, with his hand. The referee missed the infraction, and Maradona later claimed that goal was scored by the "Hand of God", though his second goal that game was all skill, and voted "Goal of the Century" in a 2002 online poll conducted by FIFA. So I guess it evens out. His better days behind him, the 90's saw him struggle with drugs, his health, and a very public private life, but he has since had a little surgery, kicked the dope, and looks surprisingly good.

And today: As one might guess, Maradona is much in the news these days, given the topical events going on in Germany. What's ridiculous about it, really, is that he's everywhere. In between games he's on the television, discussing his thoughts on this year's squad, or holding a press conference, evaluating the action thus far. He's in advertisements, he's lent his face to various forms of food packaging, he's got his own page in the World Cup section of the daily newspapers here. It's insane. 20 years since that stocky little punk scored two of the most famous goals in history and my English friend tells me that Argentines still give him a special little wave whenever his nationality is raised in a conversation about football. The "Hand of God" is considered to be a classic example of Viveza Criolla, a porteño trait that could be charitably described as a flair for getting away with acts of questionable morality. At least he can say that no one's done it better.

Canada's equivalent: In terms of near-universal celebrity, it has to be the Wayne, though number 99 is a little too clean, and frankly, boring to be compared to el Diez. Maybe the Tocchet and Mrs. Gretzky gambling scandal had a little of the Viveza Criolla in it, but "I didn't bet" doesn't quite have the same flair for mythology as "a little of the hand of God, and a little of the head of Maradona", now does it?

Carlos Gardel

Image very obviously appropriated from Wikipedia, to which I neither donated nor said thank you.

A little history: Though born in Toulouse in 1890, from the first moment that Gardel picked up a guitar and sang, he was pure porteño. Gardel didn't just write many of the most famous tango songs in history, he embodied the tango spirit, and spread it throughout South America, and to Barcelona, New York, and Paris, where he performed in 1928. In 1917, he performed Mi Noche Triste, a song about brokenhearted pimp that makes liberal use of lunfardo slang, at the Esmeralda Theatre in Buenos Aires. Whereas previously tango songs would only be heard in milongas or houses of ill repute, Gardel was performing for the porteño gentry, and he was a hit. Gardel's music and film career was ended in 1935 when he died in a plane crash in Colombia, prompting a few particularly devoted fans to attempt suicide. He remains Argentina's most celebrated musician, and has declined little in popularity since his death.

And today: Gardel's face with its famous smile is plastered all around the Almagro barrio in central BsAs, especially near the Abasto shopping centre, where he toured the club circuit in his early days. Upon hearing his unmistakable voice, it is common for an Argentine to comment that "Gardel sings better every day." The televisions in the subte take time out from their barrage of ads to play selections from his songs. When Maradona scored against Greece in the 1994 World Cup, a popular radio announcer, overflowing with excitement, exclaimed "Gardel is alive! Gardel is alive!" This joy was short-lived, as Maradona was expelled after two games for failing a drug test, and Argentina eliminated by Romania in the Round of 16, but that's okay, because life goes on, new stars emerge, and escucha! - Gardel sings better every day.

Canada's equivalent: Again we're lacking. In terms of songwriting talent, only Neil Young comes close, and I think you could make a case that his innovation and creativity put him at least in Gardel's league, though Gardel had only 45 years in which to book his considerable achievements. But Neil Young has nowhere near the recognition that Gardel had at the time, in his home country and abroad, and obviously our most famous exports don't even warrant a mention on the scale of artistic merit. And that dying at the peak of your popularity thing? Hard to find better legend-making stuff than that. So again Canada finds itself unable to compare, but I suppose that every national hero earns their honours in a style particular to their country, and could Argentina produce a Tommy Douglas? Or a Don Cherry? Or a Lester Bowles Pearson? Keep your freedom fighters, your world-class sports legends, your musical pioneers of a uniquely national genre. We're doing just fine. Oh Canada.

May 25, 2006

A visit from dad; a little vacation

I was fortunate enough to have a visit from dad last weekend, and we both had a great time. It's nice to be able to show someone around city - makes one realize how much one has really absorbed - and I got to do some of the more touristy things that I often don't get around to. I had never even been to San Telmo on a weekend. Pathetic! Rather than narrate the whole trip, I'll just drop in some photos that we took, and add some commentary.

Colonia del Sacramento is a pretty and historic village right across the river from BsAs in Uruguay. It makes for a natural day-trip for porteños looking to escape the pace of the big city, and for gringos who need a new 90-day visa from Argentine immigration.

The beautiful Iglesia Matriz on the north side of the Plaza de Armas in Colonia.

Dad and I enjoying a parillada, which is a selection of various cuts of beef brought out on a little grill, which is visible in the centre of the table near the front. I enjoyed the bife de lomo and the bife de chorizo (both cuts of steak); I took down the chorizo (sausage) and was a little thrown by the morcilla (blood sausage), but I've developed a taste for it now; the liver and tripe I could only handle in smaller doses. But we did a pretty good job overall.

San Telmo on a weekend reminds me a lot of Las Ramblas in Barcelona, only with more tango.

Che says . . . "for love, use condoms". Thanks Che.

Here's the beginning of a series from Recoleta Cemetery. Recoleta Cemetery is more like a miniature village of masoleums in which Argentina's aristocratic dead are not so much buried as stored. It is said that a property here of just a few square feet costs more than virtually any estate in the rest of the country. Naturally, everyone buried here was born into one of Argentina's elite families, except for a common farm girl who managed to marry up and sneak in. Hardly proper.

More of the cemetery.

Needless to say, the architecture of the cemetery and the surrounding city are often incompatible.

No shortage of angels to keep watch.

Dad found the dog walkers quite funny. Since porteños are far too busy and important to walk their own dogs, they hire professionals who take large packs of them all at once throughout the city. The dogs are permitted to hang out in the park and make a mess wherever they see fit.

From the Plaza de Mayo.

We were there just before May 25, which is one of the Argentine holidays of independence. May 25 celebrates that day in 1810 when a group of citizens in Buenos Aires formed the Primera Junta to take charge of Argentine affairs for themselves. Later, on July 9 (though six years later), they declared independence from Spain, so that day is a holiday too.

May 09, 2006

Patagonia: El Chaltén & El Calafate

I left El Bolsón on yet another sunny and crisp afternoon, but by this time I was ready for the road and the long journey south. My destination - both in my mind and on my ticket - was Puerto San Júlian, a coastal town halfway down the country where I planned to catch another bus to El Chaltén, thus bypassing the standard and lengthy trip south to Río Gallegos, which is right in the corner of the continent. My Rough Guide called Puerto San Júlian "a convenient place to break the enormous journey between Trewlew and Río Gallegos", which is true, but I should have paid more attention to their other descriptions, including "treeless and barren to look at." Indeed. What's more, upon entering the bus station I saw that all of the bus service's kiosks were closed, which suggested that I may not find my connection to El Chaltén any time soon, if at all. The idling bus - of which almost all of the passengers were going to Río Gallegos - presented an opportunity, and while the driver was doing his paperwork in the office, I casually hopped right back on the bus and took my old seat. My first experience as a stowaway.

I don't like scamming Argentine corporations (I'm such a foreigner), so I felt rather badly for my decision, but at least they made me sweat a little for it. The last stop before Río Gallegos is Luis Piedra Buena, which is an even smaller and more desolate town than Puerto San Júlian, but for some reason it's also where a considerable number of new passengers chose to embark. I watched as the empty seats were steadily occupied, packed my bag, and began to make plans for staying in Luis Piedra Buena if the bus proved to be sold out. I was ever so relieved when we finally pulled out, every seat on the bus but mine claimed by a legitimate passenger. Thank you bus company; sorry about that.

By the time I arrived in Río Gallegos I had spent 27 hours on the same bus with only a few brief stops, but I was still a ways from my destination, and booked my bus to El Chaltén for 9:30am the next morning. Río Gallegos was typical of many of the Atlantic coast towns that I saw in Patagonia: wide roads and dirt sidewalks; makeshift shacks adjacent to cement houses; very few multi-story buildings; fences around every property; stray dogs everywhere; many properties in a state of partial completion, with piles of wood and cement blocks scattered about; faded colours. The town didn't appear to be good for much more than arriving, sleeping, and leaving, and that's about all that I did.

The trip from Río Gallegos to El Chaltén was beautiful and rather desolate.

It was quite a time-consuming journey from Río Gallegos to El Chaltén, and once again I found myself arriving in an unfamiliar town at midnight. I won the race to the nearest hostel though, and scooped up one of the last beds. Traveling can be stressful when one arrives somewhere, late, with no clue where one is going to stay, but it certainly teaches one to appreciate as simple a comfort as a roof and a few blankets. The next morning, El Chaltén would turn out to be a scattered town, easily the most rustic of any that I had visited, but perfectly situated next to Parque Nacional de los Glaciers, where lived many hiking trails and the area's star attractions: Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy Mountains. On a clear day, the twin spires of Torre and Fitz Roy, purple and orange as the sunlight oozes down them, jutting into the pure blue sky like the throne of a God, are an awesome marvel. Or at least that's what we've been told, for anyone who was there over just the same three days as I caught no sight of them for the clouds. That's okay though; the hike to Cerro Piltriquitron taught me to value the challenge rather than the reward.

El Chaltén certainly has its own vibe; a town that exists for no purpose other than to serve the needs of hikers and climbers, it lacks Bariloche's polish, El Bolsón's hippy spirit, and El Calfate's touristy manicure. What's more, the clientele matched the town's spartan character: here the hikers cooked their meals at 8:00pm in the hostel kitchen, perhaps allowing themselves a beer or two, but soon after set off for bed, alarms primed for 4:45am so that they could watch the shadow peel off of Fitz Roy as the sun rises. I stuck with my usual schedule, and won this round, as the early-risers received no reward but were only drenched for their dedication.

I spent one day relaxing - recovering, perhaps, after all that travel time - in El Chaltén, and three days hiking. Devoid of a nightlife, El Chaltén instead rewarded introspection, and I was happy to walk alone for a few days after a very social two weeks in El Bolsón. Not to mention that I had my hiking legs well under me at this point, and was able to cover as much ground in as little time as anyone there, I'd guess. It's difficult to describe the hikes, and I'll leave it to my pictures to even attempt it, but I'll just add that the reaction that many have to the Parque Nacional de los Glaciers is respect: respect for Fitz Roy, which despite its middling elevation remained unconquered by the world's best climbers for decades; respect for the weather, which is capricious and sometimes fierce; respect for the land, which offers as many challenges as one is willing to take on. Patagonia is many things but it's never mild. Parque Nacional de los Glaciers is the closest that most of us tourists got to knowing the hostility of the land.

Looking back towards El Chaltén.

Sometimes the scenery reminds me of Canada; sometimes it looks quite foreign. This swamp gave me a B.C.-ish vibe.

There she is: the majestic Cerro Torre, between the two visible peaks, coyly reveals its grandeur.

The last stop on this leg of my trip was El Calafate, which like Bariloche, is a popular destination for vacationing porteños and tourists, and is thus very touristy. Lots of hotels and hostels, chocolate shops, pricey restaurants with large slabs of meat proudly displayed in the windows, and of course many opportunities to buy a postcard or t-shirt. Not the kind of place in which I wanted to spend too much time, but before I passed through on my way to Ushuaia, I had to stop in at one of Patagonia's most famous tourist destinations: the Perito Moreno Glacier.

The Perito Moreno Glacier is a massive - just massive - glacier, one of only three in Patagonia that isn't receding, that stretches right across to the opposite shore of Lago Argentino, forming a natural dam between the two sides of the bisected lake. As a result, the water level slowly begins to rise on the Brazo Rico side of the lake, and can reach a height disparity of 30m with the other side before smashing through the glacier wall, restoring balance. This cycle occurs once every four or five years, the last rupture taking place only a few days before I arrived. Not that there's any shortage of activity on an ordinary day: pieces of the glacial wall are frequently falling off, making for quite an amazing noise, and splash.

The trip to the glacier eats up the whole afternoon and much of the evening, as they leave you there for about four hours. I was reminded of the Simpons episode in which they parody King Kong, and Mr. Burns (playing Carl Denham) is asked about the program for his show:

Reporter: What kind of a show you got for us, Mr. Burns?
Mr. Burns: Well, the ape is going to stand around for three hours or so. Then we'll close with the ethnic comedy of Duggan and Dirschwitz.
Reporter: Sensational!

In my case, I showed up, stared at the glacier for three hours or so, and then went for a brief hike. Sounds a little boring, but the glacier is so compelling that I was glad that I had the amount of time that I did. One can walk around a little and see it from different views, but really, you're mostly just watching it. Hopefully the pictures give some sense of why it rewarded such attention.

Like a frozen avalanche released from the mountains.

I had a strong impulse to swim over, climb up, and just walk into the distance. It was just so . . . naturey.

Pretty amazing.

Two liberated pieces that had swam away to freedom but became unfortunately lodged in a shallow part of the lake, where they now pose for pictures.

So that was about it for me and El Calafate, though I still had a fair amount of time to kill, as my bus didn't leave for Río Gallegos until 4:00am. The timing was ridiculous, and there were numerous buses between El Calafate and Río Gallegos, but I had seen a sign advertising a $25 peso fare, $7 pesos less than what was standard. I tried to buy a ticket for a trip at a reasonable time, like 8:00pm or 10:00pm, but was told that those cost $32 pesos; the reduced price was only available for the 4:00am trip. Trying to give me the old bait 'n' switch, eh? Well we'll see about that. So I was leaving for Río Gallegos at 4:00am. The bus, which was surprisingly busy, would take me to Río Gallegos by 8:00am, where I would catch another bus shortly thereafter that would make the long trip to Ushuaia. Just a 16-hour jaunt down to the end of the South American continent, into Chile, across the Magellan Strait, back into Argentina, to Tierra del Fuego, to the end of the world.

May 04, 2006

Veléz Sarsfield vs. Newell's Old Boys

Picked up a ticket on Tuesday night to go see Wednesday night's match between Veléz Sarsfield and Newell's Old Boys. First off, the patently English names for some of these teams is quite amusing, and I haven't heard anyone offer a satisfactory explanation other than that the Brits helped to make the game popular down here in the early days. Other anglo-friendly team names include Racing Club, Arsenal, Argentinos Juniors, Banfield, River Plate, and of course the Boca Juniors. Hearing an Argentine who doesn't speak a word of English try to spit out "Newell's Old Boys" is pretty humourous. Letters just aren't arranged like that in Spanish.

I've mentioned the Copa Libertadores before: it's South America's answer to the Champions League. The league stage pared the teams down from 32 to 16; those that remain now play two matches in a knockout tournament, away goals counting double. Four Argentine teams were able to make it to the round of 16: River Plate, Veléz Sarsfield, Newell's Old Boys, and Estudiantes de la Plata. Newell's is from Rosario, and were clubbed there by Veléz in their first match, 4-2, giving Veléz an effective 8-2 lead for the final game. Not quite a sure thing, but anything other than sound defeat would allow Veléz to move onto the next round.

I'm not sure how I decided to become a fan of Veléz. I had started by supporting Boca, but they're pretty popular, and have enough of real fan base as it is, the passion of which I can't match. I moved onto River, and I'm still into them, but I hadn't realized just how many of the teams in the Argentine Premier league come from other parts of BsAs. I thought it would be cool to find one of the squads that were a little off the well-established Boca-River axis, and a bartender suggested Veléz, which was so well off of the axis, it was almost out of the Capital Federal. I looked them up, and they had a good history, nice colours, and some success in the Copa Libertadores, so I decided to give them a go. Changing one's allegiances to a football team is tantamount to apostasy around here, so I suppose that I'm Veléz fan for life now, though I bought their jersey, so ensuring that my $100 pesos is well spent will likely be enough to keep my loyal anyway.

I made it to the stadium about a half-hour before things got started, which turned out to be a good idea, as we were slow-going getting in. The police were everywhere, and let only 100 or so people up to the entrance at any given time, where they were then patted down, and finally admitted after their ticket was scanned. Assigned seating doesn't exist in most of the stands, and certainly not in the cheapest seats, which I had chosen ($10 pesos was just too good a price to pass up). There are seats, sort of, but it's all first come, first served, so since I arrived near the start, I was off to the side a little ways. I expect that Boca games are well more packed, but there was a lot of room to move around at Veléz.

One of the most surprising aspects of the game is the complete disregard that the fans have for the sanctity of the pitch. At MLB games they have troops of men in dark sunglasses ready to eject any fan that snatches a blade of grass; at football matches here, the spectators are given more leeway. A staple in the fan's arsenal in stadiums across the country is the toilet-paper roll: compact, inexpensive, and effective. Simply hurl in the direction of the goal, and enjoy as it snakes along the pitch, getting caught up in the boots of whoever might happen to playing around it. The refs don't even warn the goalies when a roll of toilet paper slides behind their backs into the box; the attitude seems to be that it's your goal, and your responsibility to keep it toilet paper-free. Seeing a world class player try to shake toilet paper off of his boot is pretty amusing. I've been thinking that the Argentines must freak out a little when they go to Europe to play in the World Cup: "look how green the grass is, and the lights all work, and there's no toilet paper anywhere!" Beyond the toilet paper, other (probably improvised) projectiles are common enough, and in the 18th minute of the second half, someone from the Newell's side chucked some exploding noisemaker thing into the Veléz goaltender's box, which went off just as he was preparing to take a goal kick. That caused a two- or three-minute delay. It seems that every week there is at least one game that is called off partway through the match due to uncontrollable interference or violence by fans.

For the most part, though, everyone is well-behaved and just looking to watch the match and have fun. The singing is pretty well constant from one side or another; a few songs are adaptations of Argentine classics (an "ole, ole" chant that I first heard at the 30 años march was popular), though the catchy melody from "Pop Goes the World" also made its way in*, and a few that seemed to be originals of the Veléz hinchada (fans). Lots of noise too: the usual "oh" and "ah" whenever a player does something particularly skillful, the fanatic screaming of "gol!" when someone scores, and a lot of whistling, the shrill whistling that I associate with hailing a cab. The whistling is a convenient (and conspicuous) way to say "you suck"; one whistles when the opposing team takes the field, and when one of the players on the other side makes a poor play, that's a particularly good time to remind them that they suck.

The match was pretty good: Veléz brought a lot of offense in the opening 15 minutes, which surprised me, and seemed to surprise Newell's as well. They were looking, I suspect, for a quick goal to take the visitors out of it early, but were unable to take advantage of the pressure they generated, and the remainder of the half was a balanced and unexceptional affair. In the second half the action picked up considerably, however, and when Newell's scored at the 53-minute mark to pull within two goals of a tie, the massive delegation from Rosario opposite saw cause for optimism. That energy was sucked out of them just as quickly eleven minutes later when a Newell's player was sent off for what appeared to be rough tackle, though I'm uncertain that it was a red card-worthy offense. A Veléz goal on a penalty in the 77th minute rendered the prospects for a comeback rather grim. A goal per side in the closing minutes made little difference, and Veléz closed out the series victory with a 2-2 tie at home.

I've since learned that Veléz fans are considered to be amongst the most tranquilo in the league, which is at best a benign comment when referring to football fans. And to be fair, the stadium was busy but far from packed, and the Newell's hinchada made considerably more noise than the home side. I'm a hincha tranquila myself though, so I'm perfectly happy to stick with Veléz Sarsfield for life, or until I go to another team's game, or buy another jersey. My pictures from the evening didn't turn out too well, as I'm not much good at taking pictures at night, but here are a few, which I hope give a decent sense of what was going on.

About 15 minutes before game time. Everyone started blowing up those funny little white and blue long balloon things, and just before the game started, they all threw them, pretty much right onto the people in next row. I'm not sure what the point of that gesture was, but it was cool enough.

Everyone has 'em and are just about ready to toss 'em.

During the game. Again, pretty tranquilo.

*Men Without Hats are Canadian? Oye. I guess the Montreal scene had to start somewhere.

April 30, 2006

Best Animal's Day ever

So I had another one of those experiences that every traveler has to try at one point or another: someone tried to rip me off. I've probably been ripped off a few times and not realized it, but this time I knew what I was looking for, and caught it. It was my first run-in with a dishonest cab driver, which is surprising, because as in other parts of the world, they have a reputation here for being less than trustworthy. There are three main scams that one has to watch for when taking a cab: the roundabout route, the juiced meter, and the dinero trucho (fake money). Fake bills are a problem for everyone, actually, and most waiters or cashiers will give anything higher than a ten a quick once over, but since a cab driver's customers are often inebriated, tired, or distracted, some cabbies can't resist availing themselves of the opportunity to slip a few through. The bills are quite obviously trucho, but if one isn't paying close attention, they're realistic enough to give the cabbie just enough time to get out of there. I always try to pay for cabs with exact change. The roundabout route is the obvious tactic of getting from origin to destination as indirectly as possible, or wading into evitable traffic when a more obvious and less congested street is available. Not much you can do about that one other than know your way around.

I've never been passed any dinero trucho, and as far as I can tell I haven't been taken to my destination via the scenic route, but last night I was the victim of a juiced meter. Our first stop was to drop off a friend, and when I got back in the cab, I noticed that the meter seemed a little high. Cabs are quite cheap here; one can travel for probably about fifteen minutes before cracking the $10 peso ($3.60 CAD) mark, and yet we were already at $9 pesos after just a quick jaunt to Villa Crespo. I watched the meter quite intently for the next ten minutes or so, and didn't notice anything out of the ordinary, though obviously it's difficult to gauge the rhythm of it accurately. Once it hit $17 pesos, though, the thing took off, and climbed three pesos in 15 seconds. I rather indignantly told the driver what I had seen, but he replied only with a "Qué?" I explained it again, this time far more directly and succinctly, but again, "Qué?" My Spanish certainly isn't eloquent, but I knew that I was being clear both times, so this guy was obviously determined to go down taking the fifth. I asked to be dropped off at the next corner and walked the remaining twenty minutes to my apartment.

Outside of cabs, the gringo doesn't have to worry too much about getting taken advantage of, though a little skepticism is of course warranted. The most common problem one encounters is dual pricing: one price for foreigners and one for locals (guess which is higher). Some places are quite brazen about it: a friend of mine was shopping at a feria (a little like a craft fair) the other day, and picked out a pair of sandals identical to that which an Argentine woman had just bought. The vendor had sold the sandals to the Argentine for $30 pesos, but quoted $40 to my friend. She put up a fight, of course, but the vendor was quite convinced of the logic of charging a foreigner a higher price than a local for the same product. My friend was able to work him down to $35, which was apparently quite a concession on his part. Inflated prices will also hit now and then when anyone thinks that you might not know the true price. I was buying mate the other day, and noted that the price was $4.10. I then had the following conversation with the cashier:

"$5 pesos please."
"I looked on the aisle and the price says $4.10; are you sure?"
"Yes, I am, it's $4.10."
"Oh, all right, I thought you said $5 pesos."
"No, $4.10."

The difference we're talking about here is between the words "cuatro y diez" and "cinco". So I doubt I misheard.

I suspect that I've been ripped off at least a few times since I've been here, but at least I'm getting wise, and my Spanish is good enough to call someone on it, as last night's incident demonstrated. I was coming home late last night because I had been at another excellent party hosted by SAE, this one a birthday/good-bye party for our intern Rosie, who is turning 25/leaving us on Tuesday. As if the Rosie-related festivities weren't enough of a reason to celebrate on their own, Saturday was also an Argentine holiday, the Día del Animal (Animal's Day).

OMG so cute!!!!

The Día del Animal is a day to recognize the animals in our lives, and the contribution that they make to our well-being. The holiday also commemorates the work of Dr. Ignacio Lucas Albarracin, who died on April 29, 1929 after a lifetime of work protecting the rights of animals. What I'm not so clear on is how Argentines choose to celebrate Día del Animal, though it was suggested that work animals would get a day off, and perhaps the lucky ones would get presents, like the little pooch in the photo above. I doubt, however, that many Argentines have thought to recognize the day as we at SAE chose to: by throwing a party in which everyone dressed up as animals.

Our Día del Animal party turned out pretty well; though quite a number made the rather uninspired decision to come dressed as a human, we were visited by a flamingo, a werewolf, a few mice, the odd leopard or puma, and a large population of cats. Many of the cats had arrived as humans, but were transformed in short order with a little liquid eyeliner. I'm not usually one for dressing up as anything other than a human, but I'm trying a lot of new things these days, so I decided the perfect choice for me was a Blue Jay: Blue Jays are dominant and territorial, which is a fun little alter-ego for a night, and obviously I get to show a little home-town pride. Naturally none of the Argentines knew what a Blue Jay was, or what they looked like, and they were similarly bereft of baseball knowledge, but at least one or two North Americans in attendance were able to put it together. Another great party, another good weekend, another good week coming up in BsAs. Now if only I can get the rest of this eyeliner washed off . . .

Me and Rosie the birthday girl and flamingo. There wasn't much else to my costume than what you see here; I had jeans on to represent my plumage, but that's about it. All in all, I think that I was a pretty fantastic Blue Jay, and if you disagree, I'll respect that, but still peck you relentlessly until you abandon my bird feeder.

I owe Jared a drink for this. We were harassing him because he hadn't worn a costume, and I casually mentioned that I might just have to sic my newly-developed aptitude with an eyeliner brush on him if he didn't make more of an effort. Five minutes later, this photo. To be fair, though, that's what you get for showing up at a Día del Animal party without a costume.

Rosie again on the left, Marcie the clubhouse manager on the right, and a lovely woman in the middle whose name or reason for being there is a complete mystery to me.

April 21, 2006

The selling culture

I often measure a city or country on how easy it is to move around without someone trying to sell you something. Toronto is fine, though degenerating, whereas Morocco makes for tough slogging. I've found porteños to be pretty good about respecting public space, on the whole, though of course one can expect to at least encounter someone handing out commercial pamphlets on busy corners. I find though, refreshingly, that sales efforts aren't too invasive around here, and there are only a few places in which one can expect to see a pitch.

On the Subte

The Subte is what they call the subway system here, and with such a great number of people of trapped for at least the minute to the next station, it's little surprise that a few people try to take advantage of some impulse shoppers. The dominant technique, by far, is to enter the subway car armed with one's collection of goods, walk down the car dropping the goods in each passenger's lap, and then make a return trip, collecting the dinero if the subject is convinced, and the goods otherwise. The funny thing is the reactions of the passengers: were I to sit on the subway - and I never sit - I would cross my legs and wave off whatever was coming. But most people react by ignoring the vendor's efforts; "I don't know what you have in mind, but there is nothing in my lap right now but my personal space, okay?" They simply look the other way, both when the product alights on them and when it is reluctantly removed. A few will take a casual look, flip it over, appear to consider it, but ultimately leave it for collection if it doesn't suit their expectations of what they were going to buy on the subway car today. A few will buy it.

What sorts of products can one expect to see falling from the hands of previously unnoticed passersby? Oh, packets of coloured pencils, mesh laundry containers, notepads, an odd leather envelope that might have been meant to protect a passport, small plastic geometry sets. Most cost just a peso or two, though I've seen some go for five. The uniting theme, usually, is products that commuting parents might think to buy for their children. Not an unreasonable target market. Today a gentleman in his early thirties sitting in front of me purchased a small colouring book featuring Dora la Exploradora. He was wearing a Boca jersey and looked a little scruffy and tired. He very carefully slid the frail book into the front pouch of his backpack; it looked as if it wouldn't fit, but the pouch was just long enough, and he closed the zipper very carefully so as not to catch the book's cover in it. A gift for his daughter, no doubt.

During the summer the salespeople were kids, but now that they've returned to school, I hope, adults have taken over. While the drop-and-go technique is the most popular, some come in with a bit more of a hard sell: "a tape measure, a very fine tape measure, suitable for use in the home or office, five metres for five pesos, five pesos, nothing more, thank you very much señor, five pesos for this fine tape measure." Still some jump past the product entirely and straight into the sales pitch; once the tape measure fellow had moved on (one can transfer freely between subway cars, even while the train is moving), as if he had been tagged in, the man with the white cane and sunglasses stepped forward: "Ladies and gentleman, I'm sorry to disturb your passage. A workplace accident that struck just eight months ago has left me completely blind . . ."

The last group that has entered the Subte to make a little moneda - and by far my most preferred - is the buskers. While I'd happily dish over at least five pesos to any tango musicians who made the trip into the tube, that's just not their scene, they preferring to stalk the floors of smokey, crowded bars, and the asados of fortunate gringos. Most buskers play what I assume is a charango, and accompany it with a bamboo panpipe, looking like a Peruvian translation of Dylan with his guitar and harmonica. Traditional songs are standard, of course, but without exception these gentlemen will play one song and one song only that I recognize: El Condor Pasa, which I had always just thought of as "I'd rather be a hammer than a nail." Apparently the song is based off of a traditional melody from the highlands of Peru. You know, you learn something new every day. You really do.

In clothing stores

The clothing salesmen here definitely look to make the most of your presence in their store. I did a lot of shopping when I got back from Patagonia, as I had only packed city clothes suitable for the sweltering BsAs summer, most of which I spent in the particularly un-sweltering south. I had few opportunities to wear all that linen, and when the temperature dipped below 20C, I found myself pathetically unprepared. I take jeans shopping pretty seriously, and since getting jeans that fit demanded spending more than any sane Argentine would rightly consider (Ben Simon's biggest jeans came down barely to my ankle), I asked for three similar pairs, with slightly different cuts. When I had tried them on, and picked out the pair I wanted, I brought them all to the desk, pointed to mine, and said "these." He then packed them up with the other two, and said "these two as well, yes?" Right, I want three pairs of very expensive, nearly identical jeans. Of course. No, just the one pair, thanks. He then asked which shirts I'd like to throw in, in the same tone that the waitresses ask whether you'd like fries or salad with your carne. Perhaps I've been spoiled by the exemplary clothing salesmen with whom I've mostly done business, but still.

In restaurants

The drop-and-go has made its way into restaurants as well. You'll be sitting there, eating your pizza that tastes suspiciously like an empanada (I'm eating cheap these days), and before you even notice that someone is walking by, there's a pen on your table. One of those pens with five different colours of ink loaded in it, which takes me back to that time in my academic career when it seemed practical to have such supplies, like a complete highlighter set, or a compass. Grade 6 or 7, perhaps. So you go back to eating your pizza, and the next time you look up, it's gone. More aggressive salespeople might give you an inquisitive look before moving on, but I've never seen anyone try to push the sale. No reason to, I suppose, as they make sales frequently enough as it is.

I used to get a little riled up at this kind of stuff. I got quite irritated in Vegas with the ubiquitous advertising cards that young gentlemen would practically flick at me as I walked down the strip, or the struggling actresses in New York who approached me to discuss some adventure travel scheme. Even more galling were the invasive tactics that I witnessed with increasing frequency in my last days of employment in downtown Toronto: the choir clad in Rickard's Red robes at King and Bay belting out a beery ode set to a melody from the Carmina Burana; the imitation revolutionaries in Union Station skipping right past social justice in order to vehemently campaign against halitosis. I didn't stop to check, but I'm pretty sure that Listerine was behind that one. I don't hold anything against the instruments of these pathetic shenanigans (every city needs a use for its struggling actresss); I save my vitriol for the profiteers in the background - the suited "entrepreneurs", the geeks and poseurs - who imitate legitimate businessmen, but offer nothing but a willingness to sink lower than their predecessors in poisoning whatever remains of public space.

Here, at least, one sees the face of need behind the sale; those who benefit and not their agents. The work isn't demeaning either; I'd spend a year hocking something in the Subte before I'd spend a week wandering through Toronto's underground with a rediculous artificial tan rolled in a stripe across my face, as another struggling actress that I saw a year ago was asked to do. She had spent too much time watching her Delissio pizza rise in the oven, you see. For the most part, I've observed here that the customers respect the vendors and the vendors respect their customers. There's a demand, for one, and for another, it's difficult to dismiss the needy when they make up a little more than a third of the population. I still haven't bought a tape measure on the Subte, but to these guys I'll at least give a little respect.

April 15, 2006

Patagonia: El Bolsón (Feb. 26-Mar. 9)

At the very fringe of the Lake District - Patagonia's barren steppe gaping to the south - two hours from Bariloche (the favoured sojourn of porteño socialites), El Bolsón rests between two ranges of mountains that run parallel like railroad tracks down the continent. The town became famous in the 70's as a hippy hangout, and while its founding spirit has since been mostly paved over with the inevitable commercial imperatives, El Bolsón still offers some opportunity for an alternative lifestyle. Every other day a craft fair springs up in the Plaza San Martin, with plenty of homemade trinkets, toys, and clothes on sale, as well as waffles and veggie empanadas. This is probably the only town in Argentina in which it's difficult to get a bottle of Quilmes; most restaurants stock only their cerveza casera, which is home-brewed beer. What's more, numerous organic farms and occasional communes have settled in the outskirts of town, so the souvenir shops and overpriced bistros haven't completely denied El Bolsón its hippy cred.

In my first few days in El Bolsón I was finally able to get up in the mountains, and took on a 3-day hike. The trails in the area were well-suited to a hiker with my profile (capable but lacking equipment), as the mountains are dotted with refugios, which are cabins where hikers can eat, sleep, and have a little mate. The first day was tough: a 5.5-hour ascent from the mountain's valley to nearly its peak, covering about 1.2 vertical kilometres, done in just enough rain to make the trail slippery. I made it by the late afternoon though, and was greeted by the first of two spectacular refugios: this one nestled in a lush valley overlooked by the Cerro (peak) Hielo Azul, neighbour of both the valley's forest and its river, a river that flows from the glacier at the mountain's peak right down the pitch I had climbed to the river I had crossed at the mountain's base. The refugio was simply a two-floor cabin, the downstairs housing the eating and sitting areas, the upstairs one big room where up to 40 guests could pick out their spot on the floor, throw down a mattress, and sleep. It was hardly private, but naturally no one had any difficulty nodding off.

The next day was comprised of two legs: a return trip to the Cerro Hielo Azul, and then onto the next refugio, the Refugio Cajon de Azul. The cerro topped out at 2270m, which isn't especially high in absolute terms, but it was a long way up from where I had started and from the refugio. The glacier and glacial lake were a little disappointing, but the views along the way more than repaid the considerable effort required for the climb. After a brief break, I set off for the next refugio, and arrived about five hours later, though at least this time there wasn't much climbing left to do.

The Refugio Cajon de Azul, in contrast with the Hielo Azul's awesome setting, was more of a ranch where gaucho types took in hikers to support their horse rearing and daily steak asados. While this refugio was a little bigger and more elaborate, the use of space was similarly devoted either to food preparation, food consumption, or sleeping. We had a sociable evening - thanks, no doubt, to the ample supply of cerveza casera and vino casero - followed by a shorter walk out the next day. Since the weather was so nice, we decided to spend much of the day milling around, planning to catch the 5:30pm bus back to town from the trail's base instead of the more popular 1:30pm. After a relaxing morning and a beautiful hike out, we arrived at the bus stop promptly at 5:40pm, and hailed a cab. Good finish.

The bridge over the Rio Azul where the trail commences. It was a little on the rickety side; somewhere in between complete confidence and Temple of Doom.

A little ways up on Day 1.

The view from the Cerro Hielo Azul, overlooking the valley in which the refugio is set.

Me at the cerro, with the glacier and glacial lake in the background.

View of the valley on Day 3. El Bolsón is a little ways off to the side, out of the picture.

Another look from Day 3. So very nice.

Upon my return I decided to settle down in El Bolsón for a little while, as I had made some friends on the hike who were around for a few days. I had found an interesting place to stay: the Chacra el Cielo, which my friend from Junin de los Andes had recommended. El Cielo is run by Rosa and Nano, the former an ex-pat from Pennsylvania, the latter pure Argentine. Rosa had wanted a farm, but didn't think highly of her prospects in the U.S., and Nano had a farm, but needed some help. At some point they met, saw the compatibility of their situations, and promptly got married, despite barely knowing one another. Their son Dante turned three when I was there, and Rosa and Nano seemed quite happy. Theirs was neither the first nor the last marriage-for-citizenship arrangement that I would encounter in Argentina.

Chaca el Cielo is an organic farm about an hour's walk outside of El Bolsón, the last twenty minutes of which is right uphill, so if I hadn't found my hiking legs after my first trip, I certainly had by the time I left. Guests staying at El Cielo had a choice of how to pay for their accommodation: $10 pesos ($4 CAD) a night, or four hours of work around the farm. At first I took a capitalist approach to the decision, and confident that my labour was worth more than a dollar an hour, I just paid. Later I came around to a socialist perspective, and thought it would be fair if we all pitched in to help, and all shared in the benefits. Before I got around to actually getting in some work, though, my laziness overcame both ideologies, and I decided that I'd rather just hang out. I spent about a week at El Cielo, occupied mostly by making trips into town and studying Spanish.

I went on one additional hike; a day-trip to the top of the Cerro Piltiquitron, a little less than 15km each way from El Cielo, covering about 1400m in elevation. No pictures from that one, as my view was often blocked by clouds, especially as I reached the cumbre (summit). What made it worthwhile was my first run-in with the famously volatile Patagonian weather: as I neared the top, the weather shifted from a typical grey day, to a light drizzle, to very high winds, to hail and heavy clouds, all in about twenty minutes. This all caught me a little off-guard, and I was still in my shorts, though at least I had my MEC raincoat on at this point, which held up admirably. Just as quickly as it had started, the weather dissipated as I crossed over a ridge, and I could see more than 10m in front of me, and walk without having to fear getting knocked over by gale-force winds. The Patagonian winds really are legendary; one reads stories of car doors being blown off, and more than one veteran of the Torres del Paine hike in southern Chile has reported seeing people literally blown off their feet. So I got off all right.

A week to the day after arriving at El Cielo, I said my goodbyes to Rosa, Nano, and Dante, and hopped the 5:00pm bus to the south. El Bolsón isn't even in Patagonia proper, really, and I was eager to get on the road; that travel itch again that sent me down there in the first place. I would arrive at my next destination - more than 48 hours later - desperate to settle down somewhere for even just a few days. Such is the effect of crossing the vast and empty steppe that runs from the 39th parallel to "the end of the world"; remembered by travel writer Bruce Chatwin as the safest place to be in the event of nuclear attack; largely uninhabitable and nearly uninhabited; barren and flat and unknowable. Patagonia.

A cute little farm near where I first stayed in El Bolsón.

"Yo soy la vida" means "I am the life". Apparently there was some confusion about just who the subject is in that clause. Nice spot for some religion regardless. Evangelicals are very rare in Argentina, a country that is 92% Roman Catholic.