Friday, March 28, 2008

Mexican Memories

I´m a bit shameless about promoting my blog and today is no different. What I mean to say is that two weeks ago I posted three blogs in two days and so I´m not sure if they were all noticed. One reason that I wonder this is because I thought I would get a few more responses to the "How Romantic Are You?" quiz. So if you count yourself among those who´ve been disappointed by the long time in between this and my last blog, make sure that you are up to date.

So I am no longer in Argentina. I arrived here in Mexico on March 10th. I would have liked more time in Argentina but we flew here for a very good reason. My Mom had her spring break holidays these past two weeks and sister Lisa also was available so we all met together here in Mexico for our first family vacation in many years. Luis was invited to join us as guide and boyfriend. (Lisa´s, not mine.)

Well my mom has already come and left but in that short window of time we saw and did a lot. I don´t have the time or inclination to write everything so I will put down a few highlights. They are in chronological order:

A visit to the symphony. We went to hear the Guadalajara symphony play in a beautiful, historic theatre. The venue was gorgeous and the music better. They played a Bach violin concerto and Vivaldi´s Four Seasons. It was great. The Bach concerto was really enjoyable and to you my readers, I will impart the secret of being able to always recognize music written by Bach. Ready? Each note is absolutely perfect. And as an added delight, the Four Seasons is a great piece of music and they came out for a double encore. All in all an amazing (alliteration) experience and all for the reasonable price of $20. (Front row of first balcony.)

A trip to the town of Tequila. Beautiful little town famous for, well I can´t remember at the moment. Luis has a friend who works for the Jose Cuervo tequila factory. The only day he was available to take us out happened to Friday the 14th so we spent Good Friday trying Tequila and enjoying cheap margaritas. Most people have a healthy fear of Tequila but I´ll let you in to another secret that the Mexicans have been keeping from the rest of the world. They´re exporting the lousy stuff. When Tequila is 100% from the Agave plant it is quite nice, and from what I´m told, doesn´t cause the infamous Tequila hangover. Jimmy Buffet´s "Margaritaville" flowed through my head a good portion of the day.

The Town of Mascota. A friend of ours is from this charming little town. It is located in the dusty hills of Jalisco. We stayed at his farm and drove around. I wore a sombrero. A nice little plaza built for flirting. At night the girls circle the plaza going one way and the guys the other so everybody could check everybody else out. Not that this was a highlight, I just thought it was interesting enough to warrant attention. An added bonus, now I can make fun of my friend for being from such a hick town.

The beach by Puerto Vallarta. I won´t say that I loved Puerto Vallarta. It was just too touristy although there are some beautiful areas of the city that overlook the ocean. Nice beaches too. We went to one a ways out of town to avoid the crowds and aggressive vendors. I went for a swim as soon as I got there but I foolishly choose the empty part of the beach. The sand gave way to rocks as soon as I entered the water. The strong current did a good job of dragging my carcass across the barnacle encrusted rocks. I wouldn´t have gone in the water so far if it weren´t for the fact that I had to pee so badly. Later we discovered the reason the two sides of the beach were so much busier. (Soft, beautiful sand all the way out.) I had a great time and managed to not get too burnt.

So that´s my story. There´s more to hear but at a later date. Signing out, Ed

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Best of Argentina

Sometimes it´s the serendipitous experiences that occur while traveling that are the sweetest. On our last full day in Buenos Aires Luis and I went to the outskirts of the city to explore a market that we had heard about. Our English friends Kate and Jane came along as well. We had heard that this market was less touristy than the one in the center and furthermore it was more of a weekly fair, with horses, live music and other interesting things. When we arrived at the market I was a little disappointed. It was smaller than I expected and there were no horses to be seen anywhere.

It turned out that we had been given some misinformation. The fair was at this time of year on Saturdays not Sundays and so there wasn’t too much to see. I did buy a couple souvenirs though, a couple of matte cups. They were available all over the city but marginally cheaper at this fair. Later Luis heard about a restaurant where there was live music so eventually we headed over to take a look.

The restaurant was a simple affair. The building was considerably longer than wide and so from the street there wasn’t much to see. We walked a fair ways towards the back of the restaurant where there was a small stage and the smell of smoky barbeque filled the air. Now it would have been funny to take Kate and Jane there if they were vegetarians, but they aren’t. They’re vegans.

I was leading the way to through the restaurant feeling quite guilty the whole way. In the back of the restaurant was a small courtyard with a big barbeque where a wide array of meats lay sizzling. This was obviously the sort of restaurant where it was more than the language barrier that kept them from understanding the word vegan. However this restaurant was, as I pointed out, the restaurant that I’ve been looking for my entire life.

We sat down and took a look at the menu. Mixed salad and french fries. They were the only two items on the menu that weren’t meat. Not the only two items that didn’t contain meat, the only two items that weren’t meat. Luis and I ordered the special mixed parrilla; it was, after all, our last day. Kate and Jane each ordered a salad and french fries; they didn’t have any french fries. Our waiter brought us out the regular parrilla by mistake. We clarified that we wanted the special parrilla, with the better cuts, and as our waiter went back to change the order Kate, wondering about the huge quantity of meat, asked Luis, “You told him that that it was just for two people right?”

“Oh yeah,” replied Luis. “That is just for two people.”

Now the beer and barbeque alone would have been enough to make it a memorable experience, but then the band came in and began to play. There were two guitarists, and a drummer. The music was loud and catchy, traditional folk songs. They were all talented musicians, but the drummer was more than that, he was also a talented showman. He had one big drum that he wore with a strap slung over his shoulder. With that one drum though he did more than keep time, hitting the edge of drum for varied sounds and adding flairs, using tables and beer bottles for added interest musically and aesthetically.

The restaurant was soon packed with people although we were the only tourists to be seen. The other patrons were all gauchos, Argentinian cowboys, and their families. Argentina is perhaps the manliest country that I’ve ever seen. There’s the amount of meat that’s consumed, and most of the men sport tough looking facial hair, Buffalo Bill moustaches and the like. They manage to button up at least the bottom two buttons on their shirts, any more might hide the hairiness of their chests. Of course the men kiss each other when they greet which is a little bit brokeback, but they get away with it. I would have died before admitting to them that the week before in Brazil I had a manicure.

It was perhaps the best live music that I’ve ever heard. Everyone was having a good time. One of the older guys caught the eye of a woman and they began to dance some of the traditional dances. The songs and dance steps long familiar and their smiles genuine, they weren’t dancing for the enjoyment of tourists. Both lacked the beauty of youth but there dance was the most authentic and I enjoyed watching them dance more than the other professionals we had already seen.

The music was so good that it couldn’t be ignored. The couple began to dance, everyone would cheer at the end of the songs. One man stood on his chair singing along and gesturing wildly.

I was pretty sure that we were the only tourists there, I was positive when later the drummer came to our table and asked us our names and where we were from. He later announced our presence over the microphone, welcoming us. Everyone smiled and waved. It felt good to be treated as guests, rather than money carrying tourists.

When we left the restaurant after several hours we were brought back up in front of everyone for a picture with the band. Everyone in the restaurant smiled and clapped for us and waved goodbye as we left. The rest of the day I replayed the music in my head and hours later I still felt as full as if I had just finished Thanksgiving dinner. It was truly one of the most memorable traveling experiences of my life.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

When Good Vegetarians Die They Go To Heaven,

When bad vegetarians die they go to Argentina. While there we decided to flip the Canada Food Guide pyramid upside down, expand the meat and protein portion and then eliminate all the other food groups, except beer and wine.

I thought that I would be better prepared for Argentina. Often while still in Canada I would visit my friend Jason for a Brazilian style barbeque. Each time he would warn me, “Don’t take too much rice or beans, save room for the meat.” I learned that everything that isn’t meat is just decoration. I thought that I was well prepared for Argentina then, for I knew that Argentina is a country that loves eating meat, often and in large quantities.

Despite this I was surprised to learn that unlike the Brazilians, the Argentinians don’t even pretend to balance the meat with vegetables or fruit. For our first, and highly anticipated, meal in Argentina we ordered the mixed parrilla for two. It was a selection of different types of barbequed meat. The meal was brought to our table on a little barbeque with coals to keep the meal warm while we ate; as for vegetables or potatoes, nowhere to be found. It was delicious.

Argentina is truly a great country. We spent several days in Buenos Aires which proved to be one of my favourite cities that I have visited. The comparison isn’t valid for obvious reasons, but what it most reminded me of is Europe fifty years ago. I mentioned this to some other travelers though and they agreed with me. The buildings are all fairly old but charming. Truth be told the streets are quite dirty and a little smelly; watch where you step because the Porteños love their dogs but not cleaning up after them. Perhaps because it is so far from the United States, there are very few international franchises in the center of Buenos Aires. I saw perhaps one or two MacDonald’s but I don’t remember seeing any Starbucks.

Or maybe another part of the reason for the lack of Starbucks is due to the fact that there are countless little cafés already, each so inviting that I desired to stop at all of them. I think that these cafés are what invoked the comparison with ´50’s Europe. Each café was different and had its own unique charm which is tough to say about Starbucks. The one thing these cafés did have in common is that they were all really cheap, which is also hard to say about Starbucks.

Actually everything in Argentina is cheap which is a plus for someone is traveling for an extended period of time. We took cab a couple of times and sometimes I was wondering if the meter was broken it would rise so slowly. From Puerto Igacu on the Brazilian border we bought bus tickets for Buenos Aires. It’s about a fifteen hour trip so splurged a little and bought tickets for the luxury bus: three commodious, fully reclining seats to a row, and includes meals all for about seventy dollars. How was it you may ask? I don’t know. We had a bit of bad luck with a time change and we missed the bus by a few minutes. We bought tickets for the next bus, losing our money and getting inferior seats. Such is life.

On our first full day in Buenos Aires we met up with some English girls that Luis had met while he was in Africa. By coincidence they happened to be in Buenos Aires at the same time as us. Our first stop was an artisan market. I was tempted by an instrument, similar to a ukulele and to a painting of a tango scene but I left with my wallet as full as before.

We then headed to the cemetery where rests Argentina’s most famous citizen, Eva Peron. The cemetery was unlike any that I had seen before. Certainly only for the rich and influencial, the tombs were like small houses. A large percentage had glass doors so people can look inside. None were identical but the majority had shelves where the coffins lay in plain site. Often there were pictures of the departed and many had steps to the basement where presumably other less important family members were kept. The doors to the tombs were locked although it was unclear whether this was an attempt to keep the living out or the dead in. Some were huge, in one I counted eighteen coffins but with shelf space for a few more. Another had a huge dome that towered at least three stories high.

After seeing these I was somewhat surprised when we came across the tomb of Evita. Much smaller and in a place of little prominence it was however, the most photographed it was the only one that I saw with fresh flowers placed reverently by the doors. We hastened our exit though since it began to rain.

We made our way to the Museo de Bellas Artes, a promising name to be sure. It didn’t disappoint. Entrance to the museum was free, as I feel all museums ought to be. Sometimes when I see works by “great” artists I wonder what makes them great. Here the opposite was often true, I would see works by some unknown artist and wonder why he hadn’t achieved greater fame although to be fair perhaps in my ignorance I was admiring works by an artist who was famous.

I myself have a fairly simple method for judging if a painting is great or not. It is great if I would like to have it in my living room and by this standard there were a lot of great paintings. There were several by the most famous of painters, Rembrandt, Degas, Renoir, Van Gough and one especially lovely painting by Monet, but then I’ve never seen a Monet that wasn’t especially lovely. The gallery was big enough that it deserved multiple visits but due to the brevity of our time in Buenos Aires we never again returned.

After leaving the gallery we stumbled across a couple of street performers. They were performing different tangos and they were great. We watched them for some time. Buenos Aires is the home of the tango and so that evening we went to a tango show. I don’t know if it was poorly advertised but there were only the four of us and then another four people watching the show. Two guys played guitar, one sang and there were a couple performing dances. Despite the small audience they all put lots of heart into the show and it was very enjoyable.

The show went late into the night. At around two in the morning we walked the girls back towards their hostel. We were speaking English and a woman overheard. She asked us where we were from and then proceeded to give us a ten minute history lesson on Argentina. I’m not sure if she was a little bit crazy or if she was just passionate about the origins of Argentina but she definitely added a little colour to the evening.

On the way back to our hostel we decided that the best way to finish the day would be to eat a steak. The nights in Buenos Aires start and end late so it was no problem to find a little restaurant that served up giant slabs of meat at two thirty in the morning. We returned to the hostel tired, full and happy. There were times after that when I didn’t feel tired, but the rest of the time in Argentina I almost always felt full and happy. I would love to return.

Friday, March 7, 2008

So long Brazil.

It would be really hard to say what goes faster while traveling, your time or money. Well the time in Brazil went quickly, I am now in Argentina though I`ve already been considering when I can return to Brazil.

Our last week there was spent with some great friends. We didn`t do a lot of touristy things but visiting with friends proved to be as enjoyable as anything else that I`ve done here. After leaving Sao Paulo we made our way to Foz de Igaçu, famed for the famous waterfalls just a few kilometers away.

The Cataratas do Iguaçu are incredible. I have never been to Niagra falls but I don`t know if I`ll ever make the effort. Iguaçu is a group of over 270 waterfalls, many large and powerful. The falls are on the border between Brazil and Argentina and we spent a good portion of a day on either side. I for one am certainly glad for the invention of the digital camera. Around every corner it seemed that there was a new and better view that I just had to capture. At the end of the first day I had taken over forty pictures, the next day I took another forty or so. Some of them are bound to be good.

A good portion of our last week was spent in buses traversing the immense distances in between the major South American cities. From Sao Paulo to Foz de Igaçu was a twelve hour bus ride. Normally I can sleep almost anywhere but that`s assuming a normal temperature for human life forms which on this bus was assuming too much. It was freezing. I suffered through a couple of hours and until a brief reprive at a bus stop. I don`t know what time it was, probably close to midnight. I really wanted to sleep. We started driving again and I enviously noticed the lady in front of my had brought a blanket. I began to wish that I had a blanket. A short while later I remebered the almost unused sleeping bag that I`ve been packing everywhere. It was stowed under the bus.
The next stop, several cold hours later, I retrieved my sleeping bag and then made my way to a rickety old washroom. There were several people in the washroom but somebody pointed out a stall to me and said something in Portuguese that apparently meant that I could use the stall. I opened the door to find a man sitting on the toilet. Apologizing profusely I shut the door. I was pretty embarassed but people do look pretty ridiculous sitting on the can.
We arrived short of sleep and then almost imediately headed out to the falls. Later that day we bought tickets to Buenos Aires for the following day, Thursday. The company had a sale on so we got a good price for great seats. Instead of four seats to a row, this bus was equipped with three seats to a row. The seats recline almost entirely back allowing for a good night sleep.

Thursday we went to the falls on Argentina´s side and returned to discover that there is an hour time difference between Argentina and Brazil and that we had missed our us by moments. We bought new tickets, for inferior seats and then consoled ourselves with beer. Not a huge deal though, good seats aren`t that important on short journeys such as the fifteen hours or so that we traveled.

Well Buenos Aires is great but you´ll have to hear about it another night because it´s really late and I am tired. This blog needs editting but I need sleep more so that`s that.

Monday, March 3, 2008

So Many Lives to Lead...

It´s happened again. I´ve had another panic about what to do with my life. Before this trip I was sure of what I wanted to do. Take a trip, work for the summer, and then study in the fall. However, after traveling a while I remembered how many other things in life there are that I love. I love traveling. I love meeting new people. I don´t love, but it´s a nice change, getting sunburnt in March. Who would have thought it possible. I like learning new languages, sort of. Jokes are funnier in other languages.

The confusion over what to do with my life isn´t the only thing that is bothering me. Traveling in Brazil has got me thinking about how good I have it in Canada. I always was very thankful for what I had. More than once I have been reminded of how easy my life really is. I was reminded of something that Luis once told me. He commented that in Canada there is nothing stopping a person from achieving any dream. So all I need to do is find a dream. My problem is that there are too many things that I think I would like to do. So I need to find a worthwhile dream and then put all my heart and soul into achieving that dream. I want it to be something bigger than snakes, treking and topless women.

My guts are twisting inside myself and it isn´t food poisoning. I feel stressed out even though I´m on vacations. The question of what to do with my life. Que pena. I´d like to write a good blog tonight but I´m too tired, no lazy. Plus there are other things on my mind as well. Traveling expands the horizons, sometimes broader than one is prepared to see.
The pictures in this blog are irrelevant to the subject but I wanted to post a few things that I´ve seen. The first picture is me and Luis at the top of Cachoeira da Fumaça. The second is Rio de Janeiro. The third is the port of Salvador and the last is another of the waterfalls that we saw on the trek.