Friday, May 03, 2002

Bye to BA

Tackle it, I must. Dan and I have seen, done and thought much since our last email. Argentina has been a real experience, and we both want to spend more time exploring this country. On Saturday, we are flying to Rio De Janeiro, where we are meeting 2 good friends from San Francisco, Jimbo and Sasha, on their 2 week holiday. We are looking forward to familiar companionship and news of the Bay area. Our plans are to continue traveling in Brazil for at least another 4 weeks past their departure, then return to Buenos Aires, a city of unfathomable activity, and continue our travels through Northern Argentina.

The past 2 weeks have been rich and varied. Last we wrote, we were headed for Bariloche, Argentina's most famous lake district city. Dan aptly defined it as a small Swiss Las Vegas. Try to picture it. We wandered through the streets slightly shocked to see so much for sale (High quality leather goods stores, chocolate and pastry confiterias, massive cafes with coffee and edibles, gourmet marmalade, mustard, smoked salmon shops). The storefronts had elaborate window displays, many decorated with the Bariloche gnome, and were housed in alpine-style buildings. We had more meal variety (other than the staple pizza, pasta, and carne), and ate at both a Mexican and a Vegetarian restaurant. Our accommodation was a wood cabin-like hostel, with a playhouse and slide in the front garden. I'm almost 30, and feel a little out of place in bunkbeds, but still cling (precariously) to the 'backpacker' lifestyle.

We were inert...too mystified to do much but wander the streets. It was hard to motivate ourselves to get out and see the beautiful surrounding nature when the streets were providing so much eye candy. One day we took a gondola to the top of a mountain (Cerro Otto) to get a good view of the lakes, the park and the montañas. The next day, I convinced Dan to take a tour through some of the major sights of Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, like visiting Ventisquero Negro (one of only 2 in the world, black glaciers, due to a mixing with the local rock sediment). Oh, what an experience... I made the mistake of booking us on a blue hair carriage with aSpanishh speaking guide, which limited our understanding of the surroundings, and thus our enjoyment. Our guide was a big matronly woman with a deep melodious voice. She was apparently very clever because our bus was often filled with cackling laughter. Dan and I were the blank-faced gringos, staring out the window. One chiste (joke) was translated to us: Why doesn't the cock/rooster have hands? Because the chicken doesn't have titas (breasts). - Maybe it is better that we are clueless. After all our years of studying and past months in South America we are no closer to comprehending this language. We are trying to speak spanish as much as possible and not behave like uglyAmericanss who expect everyone to speak english. Our tour consisted of various pitstops for photos and torta (pastry). The few senderos (walks) were quick and short (for us). Otherwise, the hours were whiled away inside of the tour bus, listening to Kenny G and New Age music. Enough said.

Next on the agenda...El Bolson, a place that had been described as a 'hippy' town, due to its' artists, free-thinkers, natural-living, and anti-nuclear community. Upon 1st appearance, we were struck by the beauty of El Bolsons' location. The drive from Bariloche was a mere 2 hours, and of unequal beauty. We had stunning views of the Andes soaring above with snow-covered peaks, and the valley ahead filled with an autumn tapestry of lenga trees. El Bolson is in the midst of this, with a nearby lake and river, flanked by these mountains and trees. Our stay was one of forced relaxation, due to miserable weather,- rain that never let up. This is what we really needed - to slow down. As it worked out, we landed smack dab in the center ofhippiedomm. We scored on theaccommodationn front, and ended up with a sweet little rustic cabin with a wood burning water heater, all to ourselves for $6 a night. Our cabin was on the property of Augustin and Laura's chacra (home). Augustin, a local artesan, had approached us outside of the tourist information office, with pictures of his cabin. He seemed a little eccentric, wearing a scarf and beret, and driving a beat-upRenaultt with broken furniture pieces in his trunk. We were curious and decided to give him a chance. Upon arrival to his home, we knew we had made the right choice. His wife, Laura, welcomed us with a delicious vegetarian soup and rice, dressed in birkenstocks and peasant skirt. Their property was wild and untamed, with random rock sculptures, flowing streams, chickens in a hen house, a vegetable/herb garden, and dogs sleeping under trees, or pawing at our door. Augustin and Laura have 6 kids, with names like Sol, Luz, and Paz (sun, light and peace). We also met Augustin's brother, Gustavo, who provided us with some homebrew beer, made from locally grown hops. They attended a weekly community gathering to barter goods (beer for shoes, leather for food). The description sounds almost contrived, but it was genuinely authentic. El Bolson houses a true anti-commercial community of gypsies and mustachioed men in berets, who praise the 'simple' life. There was nothing phony about their lifestyle (an impression I sometimes get of similar people in the Bay area). We enjoyed our stay immensely, preparing home cooked meals, listening to music, reading books, and sipping wine or tea. We only wish we could have stayed longer than 2meagere days.

After El Bolson, Dan and I visited a series of towns established by Welsh immigrants - Esquel, Trevelin, Gaiman, Trelew and Puerto Madryn. Trevelin and Gaiman were particularly charming. Trevelin was a small village situated near the Chilean border, which had earnestly voted to be part of Argentina during controversial border disputes. Most of the residents are descendants from a group of Welsh immigrants who had landed in Puerto Madryn, on the Atlantic coast. They are very proud of their heritage, and encourage the gaelic language and culture. We met atravelingg Argentine couple, Lola and Gato, who visited a local heritage museum, the casa of John Evans and the gravesite of a his famous Patagonian horse with us. They performed the difficult duty of translators (much appreciated). We shared tea at a local welsh tea house, and made plans to meet again in Buenos Aires.

The act of taking tea, was once again repeated when Dan and I were in Gaiman, the following day. Tea houses are very popular in the Chubut region. Most people partake in a tea break around 5PM. It consists of a large platter of sweet cakes, pies, pastries, etc., bread, butter, jellies, and cheese, all accompanied by a delicious, carefully brewed tea, served in a classic porcelain pot with teacozyy.

Another claim to fame of Patagonia is dinosaurs. Before visiting Argentina, we were not aware of its' abundance of fossils and dinosaur remains. It is one of the most significant places in the world to study dinosaur evolution. In Trelew, we visited a museum filled with real dinosaur skeletons and casts of the originals.

In Puerto Madryn, we did it again, and booked ourselves on a spanish language only tour to the Peninsula Valdez. This was a case of having no other option to visit this region, which is famous for its marine wildlife colonies. April is a low season with not as much animal activity (no penguins:( ), but it is also the time when orcas can be spotted playing in the water or hunting seals close to the shore. We saw them! far, far, far away...misty sprays and black and white flashes. In addition to this highlight, we also saw many birds (like ibis and a smaller version of the rhea), guanacos, mares (similar to hares, but larger- libre patagonico), elephant seals, sealions, armadillos, and furry-tailed grey foxes.

Well, that is a recap of everything pre-Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires requires its own email, as it has almost felt like a new country. We are enamored of it. Dan is working up an email about the politics / economy in Argentina, which will hopefully answer some questions we have gotten from a few of you. That will be the intro to our city stories.

much love from Argentina,
Sarah (and Dan)


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