Friday, December 29, 2006

You Never Bike Alone

Pedalin´ Positions
We arrived in San Rafael on the 27th at 4:30am to completely dead quiet streets. The 13-hour trip from Bariloche took us through cool mountains, hot dusty flatlands and into the hot desert of Mendoza province. We booked into Hotel Rex and slept for a few hours. When we awoke, we stepped out and into a pile of bicycles. Literally hundreds of them, parked everywhere, rolling to and fro on the streets, sidewalks, alleys and hallways. San Rafael has the most cyclists in Argentina, and that is abundantly clear in the morning hours before siesta. The bikes are mostly single-speed "beach cruisers" and almost all have canastas (baskets). There are no helmets, no bike-specific bits of clothing - the only piece of gear the locals use is a single clothes pin to clip back the trousers. And they all ride in style - from old men to women with two or more children with them, young boys with their girlfriends on the front handlebars and workers loaded down with wood and tools on their way back from the job. When there are more people than bikes, things get interesting.

Here is a breakdown of some of the many unique riding positions we´ve witnessed (and photographed):
- The Forward Seated Front Bar: mostly teenagers with their friends riding no hands or feet on the front bars. Often checking phone messages, smoking or chatting with the rider next to them - anything but paying attention to the road

- The Backward Seated Front Bar: usually reserved for smaller kids and their parent so the kid can look at mom or dad
- The Forward Seated Rear Rack: again, no hands or feet and usually preoccupied with other bits of life when getting a ride
- The Side Saddle: ladies, young and old, prefer this method when getting a lift from a man, often in combination with a Forward Seated Rear Rack
- The Standing Frame: A smaller child will often stand on the middle of the frame in front of their parent, holding onto shoulders and getting a good view of the road
- The Rear Rack Stand & Lean: Another child´s position, this time the youngster stands on the rear rack, faces forwards and leans onto the adult riding
- The Comfy Girlfriend: We´ve only seen this once, but it worked very well in late afternoon traffic. The girl sits on the seat, legs up and over the front bars. She is steering. The boy sits on the rear rack and does the pedalling. A true testiment to love (or maybe that´s faith?)

Of course, there are multiple combinations of all of these and sometimes you have four people on one bike, all looking comfy and sharing the duties of riding. This town is nuts for biking and it makes for some great people watching from café patios.

Bodegas on Bikes
So, we had to get some bikes ourselves. But we chose to get one each to buck the trend. Two old cruisers to take us out of town and into wine country. We hit the paved bike path under shade of the magestic sycamores and pedalled West to a number of Bodegas (wineries) for some tours and tastes.

The first one we hit was Suter, an older bodega started by a Swiss couple in 1897. We were the only ones on the tour and it was in Spanish so it was interesting. We got some of it, but since we had already been to some tours in the Okanagan, we were able to understand the processes. This place had an amazing underground brick tunnel and some wines in the cellar from 1924 and earlier. At the end we tried the "FritzWine" which was ok, but I think they held off on the Malbec due to our language barrier.
We then stopped at Fincas Andias, but they had no tours so we just admired the vines and moved on.
About 6km down the road we went to Champantera Valentin Bianchi, world famous makers of delicious Extra Brut Champagne. Again, this tour was en Español so we sat waiting for the start and were treated to a full glass of Malbec (pretty good) and a tall flute of their signature champagne (delicious!). I think they felt bad about us not getting an English tour so the extra wine was a bonus no one else got. The tour was great, very modern facilty producing thousands of litres, and at the end...more champagne! We stepped back out into the 30-degree sun and suddenly felt pretty good...
Next stop was Finca y Bodega La Abeja, the oldest bodega in the region, founded in 1883 by Rodolfo Iselín who also founded the town of San Rafael to bring the railway to his winery. Since then, dozens of bodegas have popped up and many are very well-respected in wine circles. This tour was done, for the first time, in English by Carla who, although only 17, knows a lot about wine. We were told more about the history of the area and the old-style of winemaking with wooden barrels, water-towers and shrines to honour the matron of the vines. We tasted some Malbec and bought a bottle, it was so good. This was our favourite stop.

So, four bodegas, three tours, five glasses of vino tinto & champagne and a leisurely cruise back into town just in time for the end of siesta and an exciting start to the night. San Rafael has been good to us, and we´ve stayed longer than we thought.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Feathered Friends and Food Follies

¿Donde esta Lynnette?
For those of you who don´t know, I have a very dear friend named Lynnette. A few years ago Lynnette started to get a little bird-brained on us, but I mean this in a good way. Her degree in Biology took a turn when she discovered birds, and ornithology has become her passion. Every summer she spends months in the bush all over Alberta listening and studying birds...and though she only visits Vancouver in the summers, she puts us to shame with her knowledge of the birds around the coast. So every walk we go on when she´s in town turns to us asking her to identify each bird we come across. On a recent hike in Parque Provincial Llao Llao, we saw some crazy-looking birds, to which Dave exclaimed "¿Donde esta Lynnette?!" (where is Lynnette?) A moment that had me in fits! Lynnette, your presence (and bird knowledge) is missed.

Las Comidas
We know everyone is curious about how a vegan and a vegetarian can survive in Argentina when the national dish (and pride) is steak, steak, and more steak (or, more generally, meat, meat, meat).

The answer lies in repetition, at least for now anyways. A typical menu in Argentina consists of a section of carne (beef), pollo (chicken), pizzas (with 2 lbs of cheese per small pie!), pastas and papas fritas (fries). For lunches and snacks you´ll often find empanadas (delicious, stuffed pockets) and tostadas (toasted sandwiches). So, it is often a case of ordering something fried which makes a nice green diet a likely situation upon our return to veg-friendly Vancouver. One thing I keep learning, is that "sin carne" may mean "without meat" but it does not mean "without ham" which is on every sandwich vegetariano, always unlisted in the ingredients, but, like pickles on a burger, it´s always there. The number of times I have pìcked ham off a sandwich is large, but I am confident we can now order "sin carne, sin jamón" and for Sandra "sin quesa" with no more waste. This morning in San Rafael, we had a completely perfect meal with no picking off, no papas fritas - just freshly-squeezed jugos (juices), delicious café and crisp tostadas.

Christmas in Argentina

Bariloche was the scene, and Hostel 1004 was the place to be. We arrived on the 24th in the late morning, and wandered the town getting a few items for the big party later on. It was a relaxing day, but the town was alive with families out and about - the streets and cafes were packed. We got back to the hostel around 5 and decided on a little nap to catch up on sleep (sorely lacking these days!). Our experience with dinners past were always "go late" so when we awoke at 8pm to the clink of plates and glasses it was a little shocking. 25 minutes to dinner! Luckily, our contribution to the 40-person pot-luck was a nice homemade, whole wheat pasta and some sautéd vegetables and textured soy (we hit a natural foods store in El Bolson) so it was ready in minutes. Dinner was grand, our dish was the source of intrigue as many folk had never had soy before. We shared and drank wine and when the food was finished, the tables went onto the balcony and a large dancefloor was created.
The disco ball lit up and the party really started. There was wine, dancing, more wine, conversation with people from around the world, and a lot more wine. It´s pretty easy to keep uncorking when some of the finest wines we´ve ever had are only 8-10 pesos a bottle. The party went ´til 4am and though the music was a little dated at times (as is the case everywhere so far down here) we still had a great time.

On Christmas morning, as we were eating breakfast at noon, the staff were busy taking down all the decorations and suddenly it was like it wasn´t even Xmas at all. The town itself was dead quiet, everything closed up, so we went for a nice hike to Lago Gúitterez and up to an amazing viewpoint next to Cerro Catedral, looking over the entire valley and surrounded by magnificent mountains. It was perfect.

That night, we got together with some friends we met in El Bolson - Carey and Colleen from Fort Mac, Esbjorn from Belgium and Isabelle from France. We dined at an incredible quasi-Italian restaurant called La Trattoria and ate like royalty. Gnocchi, pastas, massive steaks, lamb kebabs, and some amazing Malbec from San Telmo vineyard in Mendoza. It was a very different Christmas, but one to remember.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Riding in Style

Coche Cama vs Semi Cama
Argentinian buses are the best. Really. Everyone who has travelled the world says so. They are punctual, smooth and offer a variety of services depending on how luxurious you felt when you bought your ticket. The standard fare is called "Semi-Cama" (lit. half bed). There is economy but we have yet to see anyone buy such a ticket or had one offered to us. Semi-Cama gets you a very reclinable seat, a foot rest, some decent food and a movie or two. Today, we took Coche Cama.

There are three seats per row (a single and a double) and they are wiiiiide. They recline even further back, come with blankets and pillows and are ultra-comfy for those long hauls (or in our case, a 2-hour trip where we were the only ones on the upper level of the bus). It was sweet, and if you request seats 1 & 2, you are above the driver with a perfectly clear view of the road ahead, and to both sides. On the longer trips, Coche Cama passengers play bingo for wine, drink and feast as they roll on.
And what would it cost to upgrade to such luxurious spoils? Maybe 5 pesos, maybe 15 for a longer trip. That adds up to $1.75-$5.00 CAN. Now that we have tasted the best there really isn´t any going back.

Time for a nap

(Imperfect) Timing
It´s taken some time, and we still haven´t got the hang of timing it just right in Argentina. But neither have most of our fellow travellers. We show up at a restaurant at 6:45pm for dinner, they say come back at 7. We show up at 7:15, they say 8. When we get there at 8:30 we are the only ones with a table and the cook is still rolling into work for the night. Dinner here starts at 9pm, but really, that´s too early for most people so it´s around 10 or 11 by the time eating begins (or in the case of the "Asado" at out last hostel, it´s almost midnight when food is served). As our Australian friend Rachel so succinctly put it, "by the time dinner comes I´m ready to gnaw off my own arm and fall asleep at the same time!"
If we find a place that´s open at 6pm, we end up missing lunch and dinner by trying to eat at that time. The lunch menu (the largest meal of the day for Argentinians) is over and it is way too early for a dinner menu, so it´s a choice of sandwiches, "papas fritas" and small cafeteria items, most of which are "carne".
You´d think we´d be able to cope by now, but years of eating at 9am, noon and 6pm (and only three meals a day) makes it hard to convert to their ways.

More imperfect timing perhaps, but a welcome idea. Showing up on main street in El Bolson on a sunny afternoon and the streets are completely dead. No cars, no people, heck, even the dogs are in slimmer numbers. Between 1-4pm (give or take) small towns, especially, take a siesta. If we were more in tune with the 4-meal day and proper timing, we reckon we could easily handle a 3-hour nap in the middle of the day. But, come 4:30pm and it is like a central alarm goes off and everyone is up and at it again, slowly getting ready for their extended evenings.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Movement, Perros and layin´ back with a mouthful of chocolate

Self-directed coach tours
Renting a car in Bariloche is easy and inexpensive. We gathered around three new friends (Sue - UK, Nancy - Cortes Island/Berkeley and Edmund - Austria) and rented a VW Gol (not a Golf, but a Gol). We spent the day bumping up the gravel road called La Ruta de La Siete Lagos (the seven lakes circuit) - a total of about 700km all told.

As is always the case, I (dave) was the driver and successfully navigated us up and over mountain passes, along treed rivers and down barren stretches of wind swept Gaucho country. And yes, we did see a few Gauchos (Argentine Cowboys) with their dogs and sheep. With us the whole way was the wind. In fact, in Patagonia this is the one constant so far. That and the very friendly folk. It is a stormy, rugged land and the wind ripping off the lakes creates larger waves than I have seen on the Pacific in Vancouver. Shot many a photo and unsuccessfully ordered a tostada I could eat in San Martin de Los Andes (tuna, whoops), then tried to fill the tank with gas - natural gas - before realizing gas is actually gas and gasoline is petrol. Coming back, the weather was bleak and turned the expanse into a glorious wash of light and mist. Lying on the highway in the rain and wind, I wonder what kind of escape from winter in Vancouver this is.

Oh, the dogs of Argentina. They are everywhere, under everything and generally quite lazy. They love attention, disregard affection and won´t eat your bread. And many are without homes or owners. They roam the mountain highways, lay around in parking lots and wag their tails with a little eye contact. If we stayed here, an animal orphanage would be an idea. Course, these guys seem to be a bit picky and may only feast on that famous Argentine steak.

Did I mention Bariloche is a chocolate lover´s dream? There are about 8 very good handcrafted chocolate shops along one block here and though I seem to be hooked on a certain square of Tiramisu chcocolate, when we return to 1004 Hostel in Bariloche for Xmas in a few days I intend to do my duty to you, friends and known fellow chocolate fiends, and sample some of the others.

El Bolson
They call it a laid back place where folks go to get back to the earth. First impressions upon arrived at the 100+ Feria Artesanal (artisan market) is that, yes, this is true. Lots of dreads, beads and long garments. Like a folk fest market but with delicious samples of homemade beer (black stout, cherry ale, lemon ale), cheap and very filling veggie empanadas and a variety of fruit products to knock your socks off. We got a place about 3km outside of town in a log cabin, surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Andes and tucked into a grove of eucalyptus and beech trees. The fire is warm and the homebrew is chilling as we prepare for an Asado tonight - a great BBQ feast over an open pit out back. We´ll be here for 3 days of mountain biking and hiking, then we´ll check out a Mapuche woman´s cooperative making lovely things out of wool. This is a fantastic part of the world and we feel quite at home right now. Life is good. Til soon...hasta luego.

(edit) Sitting on a ridge above the Valle Azul after a long bike ride outside El Bolson.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Heat, Electricity and the Long Haul

The last day in B.A. (for the next 6 weeks anyways) was insanely hot. Like 40 degrees. Humid, blasting like a furnace, and in the city you all know it makes things intense. We rode Autobus 53 to La Boca, a colourful neighbourhood on a colourful river (pollution...) to take in some tango and the artisan markets.

Didn´t take long to get wiped out, sunburnt, and thirsting and by the time we were back at the hostel the sky was rumbling and the most torrential of rainstorms began. More than 12 hours of non-stop lightning streaked the sky every second second. The wind howled and the hostel leaked (but only in the inner courtyard). It was actually a little frightening, the intensity that is, and kept us up all night from the noise of the rain on corrugated plastic.

Weighing on our minds was the epic journey across the Pampas to Bariloche. A 20-hour bus ride. Luckily, in Argentina they know how to ride in style. Well, comfort anyways. Food service (no! vegetarian is not chicken!), movies, refrescos and toilets. And a lazy boy you call your seat. Not bad - someone get Greyhound on the line. But 20 hours is still 20 hours. And when you are rolling past flat grasslands and estancias for 8 hours into what looks like another epic lightning storm, well, sometimes comfort is more than just a fine seat.

In the morning, we awoke to a different scene. The Andes! What a glorious range! Just 2 hours outside Bariloche the canyons are deep, red, and towering above are pillars of rock so narrow they should not be upright. Greenest river grasses and winding roads along the desolate edge of the Andes and suddenly smack into....British Columbia? Yup, Bariloche´s scenery is striking, stunning even, but a little reminiscent of home. And that ain´t bad considering what we are blessed with. But within an hour or two´s drive from something totally new, it was a little odd. And hiking around today reinforced that feeling. Though instead of ferns, there was bamboo, and instead of cedar we saw the cinnamon-barked Arrayan trees (but even those bore a resemblance to the Arbutus of the Pacific coast).

The town itself is like Banff or Jasper. It´s an alpine village, more popular in winter when skiers from around the world come for powder on Cerro Catedral. And more English than we´ve heard since before landing in Los Angeles. Luckily the hostel makes up for it - 1004 Hostel. Check it out if you are in the area - it´s the best around. And the chocolate....mmmmm. Hello Mamushka! We´ll be seeing you later. And tomorrow. And before we split for El Bolson.

Bariloche may be in Patagonia - that sense is everywhere and the mountains and lakes surely attest to that - but what it comes down to is the feeling that maybe, somehow things would be a little better if it weren´t such a "resort" and more like the quaint little alpine town it still is underneath the tourist sheen.

It´s raining inside

More random thoughts on Buenos Aires...

Is it a leaky condo crisis like we have in Vancouver? A testament to the rebuilding of the Argentinian economy? Or perhaps just a long time coming, but many of the gorgeous colonial structures, especially in downtown Buenos Aires, are under tarp and scaffold. The famous Pink building Evita spoke from, government facilities, even the massive obelisk that marks the centre of the microcentre all dug up, fenced off, under wraps. Too bad for us, but in a few years when they are restored to their original splendor - and that´s an understatement - this city will shine once again.

Cheap stuff is not only for Las Turistas
Buying a pair of Brazillian sandals off the street outside the train station may seem like it was tailored to you, the tourist, but in fact it happens to be where everyone gets their gear. From Mate gourds to sunglasses, sandals and organizational binders the place to pick up your daily needs is almost always on the street. We could not count the number of these sandals we saw being worn, all of them sold only on the streets.

The appearing goods
Sitting in a cafe on a plaza or minding your business on the subway, it suddenly appears before your very eyes. That pen you have always been looking for. That singing, gaudy xmas card wrapped in plastic. Or those very convenient (and well received) organizational binders. One minute your lap or table is empty. The next you have a shopping opportunity. Then, in a minute it´s gone again. Or yours if the price is right.

Random surcharges
It took a while to figure out why your bill is always just a little higher than it should be. Well, that´s obviously because you pay a few pesos for bread and cutlery. What´s a meal without those after all?

Hearts vs. Whales (or cows, or bears, or pigs)
While other cities seem to make replicas of mammals and have them decked out, often hideously in the case of Vancouver´s bears or Seattle´s pigs, by local artists to "beautify" the streets, in B.A. they have taken this idea to heart. Literally. Enormous, and very well designed and decorated, the heart campaign puts to shame any other street-art fundraising in the northern hemisphere. They are stunning.

Inside is outside again
It is not uncommon for shopkeepers and restaurateurs to simply hose the place down at the end of the night, or in the middle of the day, or anytime really, shoppers or not. This seems to be the case in many places - where inside is really not much different than out there. Windows? nah.. A roof that keeps out the rain? Why bother...? Hostel del Sol became part of the great outdoors during what was sure to be a not uncommon rainstorm (to us tho - wow!). And what did the proprietors do? They move their chairs back out of the way and fill their mate gourds up and watch it come down.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Buenos Aires in a few words

First impression of Buenos Aires

- man, is this place huge!
- when will i be injured by a motorcycle or bus or car or taxi or cyclist?
- what's with the heat?
- how can i possibly get by in a city of 13 million where no one seems to know english and we can only "hablo en poco castellano"?

After a few hours these questions seem to sort themselves out, as we have now ordered food in a variety of restaurants and bars, taken el subte - subway - and made it through customs, taxis, buses and grocery stores. It's all good here. You cross streets when others do regardless of the lights, the heat is less extreme the more you sleep in it, and it's actually not that big (haha) when you walk and take el subte.

Specifically, tho, we've noticed a lot while wandering the cracked tiles they call sidewalks in B.A.

Bus Decoration
Unlike any public transport we have ever seen, each and every bus route - and there are hundreds and hundreds - have their own specifically painted - and themed - buses. Certain silver statues on the bumpers, curtains on the front windows, stylized drawings and words on the side, the colour of the bus itself, all painted permanently to identify the bus. Very cool! Getting from one end of the city to the other is another story - you'll have to see the guide to believe it. I think HotWheels may have a future here.

Federal Policia Argentina
They are everywhere, standing on beat on corners, smoking, eating empanandas and taking their own cars! and the subway! to get around. They also have huge "tank-like" vehicles that sit with officers sleeping inside while any variety of protest, or street party, goes on. Generally, they are ready for anything, at any time, and erect barricades almost randomly within the microcentre of B.A.

Lemon Popsicles
The best way to beat the heat, other than a $2.50 liter of Heineken. Why we have never had these before...who knows?

Miscellaneous dripping liquids
Ok, we know it is water, but because most of the buildings are very old and have balconies above, filled with plants, it is quite common to feel a drip or two every block you go. Sidewalks are narrow and frequently treacherous with missing tiles, so avoidance is not possible. Besides, it's just water...right?

Monday, December 4, 2006

A few more days...

We signed up for a new on-the-road email address and while we were at it, a blog as well. Hopefully we'll have a chance to update this as we travel around Argentina with possible stops in some of the other "Southern Cone" countries. Pics, thoughts and ancedotes will keep us in touch with you, our friends and family, as we embark on our first big international trip together.

Til soon,
dave and sandra