28 January 2006

2005: Valparaiso, Chile; 13 Jan

This is a view of the magnificent hill city of Valparaiso, and certainly one of the greatest cities I've visited in South America. My roommate and I decided to spend one full day in Valparaiso, choosing it on a whim over the more touristy and beachy Villarica, an hour up the coast. We found one of the two Irish bars in Chile, and I bombarded the transplanted Irishmen bartender/owner about life in Valparaiso. Danielle lied to him and said, "What would you do if you had two days to spend in Valparaiso?"

His response: "Well, the first day you should cry. Then the second day you should walk around the hills above the ocean and think about staying a week." We ended up staying almost four full days, and the place made such an indellible impression on me that it: 1. rescued my opinion of Chile from ambivalence to admiration, and 2. planted a small seed in my head that this might be a great place to live.

The climate is marvelous (absolutely no rain to speak of), the population is youthful, vibrant and intelligent, the Pacific is at your feet, the streets are a maze of crumbling stairways and cobblestone spirals, and the architecture is inspiring. And then there are the murals. The City of Valparaiso invited a number of Chilean artists to paint the sides of buildings, walkways, any flat surface with broad splashes of vibrant color. Along the maze of hillside streets you will be lead past dozens of these murals, as well as some inspired and uncommisioned graffiti to complement them. Here is a very small sample of the pictures I took in Valparaiso.

Pablo Neruda's Valparaiso Residence.

27 January 2006

2005: Rio Mapocho, Santiago, Chile; 11 Jan

This is the Mapocho River, which runs through the center of Santiago, Chile. The shadows belong to me and my roommate, and the fascination with a dead river dividing a major metropolis is solely my own. I must have taken a dozen pictures of this horribly polluted river, in this culture-rich (though anti-pedestrian) city.

2005: Argentina/Chile Border near Santiago, 10 Jan

This is what I will call the world's most dangerous highway. The ride from Mendoza, Argentina to Santiago, Chile appears on a map to be no more than an hour-and-a-half's drive. When the woman at the Mendoza bus station told me it would take 7-hours, I huffed and puffed and got on the bus anyway. When we reached the Chilean border, which was no lower than 16,000 feet above sea level, I knew why. Our bus spent four hours climbing and 1 descending. The descent, your first taste of Chile, takes place on a brilliant S-curving downward slope with corners so sharp you believe the bus is perpetually driving off of cliffs. The road actually disappears from your window view at every turn, only to arrive again after your bus completes its nearly 270 degree rotation. This goes on perpetually, and after a while I thought I could feel the earth rotating on its axis.

26 January 2006

2005: The Andes, Northern Argentina: 10 Jan

In the north of the country, by the Chilean border, the mountains take on this barren desert-like appearance. I remember learning in 9th grade earth science about the windward and leeward sides of mountains, and it helped to explain for me why we went from lush vegetation and vineyards to bone-dry wasteland. The Andes are a huge range of mountains, rendering all of the mountains in North America mere foothills. This leeward side is mighty dry, and littered with empty or dwindling riverbeds. I have dozens of photographs of bridges to nowhere. They are mostly railway bridges no longer in use. The immensity of the landscape makes a steel span look like an abandoned children's toy.

25 January 2006

2005: 16th Century Juice Extractor, Mendoza; 9 Jan

From the vineyard we visited in Mendoza. The early winemakers of the region juiced the harvested grapes by turning a cow inside out and filling it full of grapes. They would stand on the grapes. A small spout is visible on the bottom left.

The juice was collected in buckets also made of cow.

2005: Merlot Grapes, Mendoza, Argentina; 9 Jan

20 January 2006

2005: Rio ?, Southern Patagonia; 8 Jan

Left El Calafate on the 3am bus, which took us four hours in the wrong direction (but toward southern Patagonia's only main highway) to Rio Gallegos. The town is famous for being the supposed site of a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid bank robbery. The place has never recovered; it's bleak. But when the connecting bus pulls out, en-route to Bariloche, it is a brilliant sunny day, and we get a full 12 hour dose of beautiful scenery (we don't arrive at our destination until well into the next day). One of the highlights is this small river that the road follows. It starts as a deep blue mountain stream. There is not a person nor a residence along its entire length. I keep thinking, "Why can't we stop off and go swimming in this beautiful water?"

But the stream widens gradually, and the pace of it slows. Finally, what we're driving alongside has grown so enormous I can't fathom how it could be a river at all. Yet it just keeps going and going and going. We drove alongside it for four hours, and finally, when it looked as though we'd reached some kind of ocean, when the horizon was nearly all water, we turned a corner and never saw it again.

Whatever this body of water is called, it is absolutely majestic. I love how this last image shows water that is bluer than the sky. A perfect blue.

2005: Lake Argentina; 7 Jan

A three-hour flight south of Buenos Aires. Just before landing, Lake Argentina is every direction you look. The lake is created by the melting of a number of glaciers, one of them the breathtaking Perito Moreno Glacier. The viewing platform gives you a quaint little view. But if you exit the viewing platform and hike the short hill directly in front of the glacier's face (you'll have to hop two "Do Not Enter" signs and some chains) you can walk right out to a cliff with the glacier beneath you. Even the people who paid for the tour boat ride didnt get this close. You have to see this thing, the pictures do nothing but I tried.

18 January 2006

2005: Patagonian Skyline, Argentina; 7 Jan

Patagonia has a variety of impressive landscapes, but the sky itself is an ever-changing palette of colors and textures. The weather changes drastically, and when the clouds roll in mid-afternoon you think, as it is January and it should be winter, that night is upon you. But daylight lasts so long down there that mid-afternoon clouds mark only the halfway point of the day. These clouds are astounding: forming and dispersing like old memories, humbling you every direction you look.

2005, El Ateneo, Buenos Aires; 5 Jan

El Ateneo is a bookstore fashioned out of a long-dormant theatre. There is a cafe on the stage and an art museum in the top balcony. The rest of the orchestra, mezzanines, and balconies are reserved for books. Its unassuming entrance on Avenida Santa Fe promises you the pleasures of one more labyrinthian bookstore. Buenos Aires certainly has its share. Once inside, you feel as though the bookstores of the world finally have their Mecca, their one holy shrine.

17 January 2006

2005: The Port of Montevideo, Uruguay; 2 Jan.

Oftentimes my vacations begin with conflicting signs of good or bad fortune. I remember my flight to Seattle, before I drove to Alaska, featured several of these. First, the flight was delayed two hours ON THE RUNWAY because the pilot was, according to the crew, "stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway." I said to myself, things don't look good. I took out my laptop and watched the Cary Grant / Katherine Hepburn film Bringing Up Baby. It attracted the interest of the elderly woman sitting next to me. Within minutes we were sharing a set of headphones and she was laughing so hard, passengers several rows away were craning their necks back to see if we were okay. At one point she spilled a glass of water in her lap, and began drying the spill with a napkin. But her eyes never left the screen. When the movie ended, and with remarkable comic timing, she took out what she thought was the white earpiece of my headphones and set it on my tray table. As she thanked me, I stared blankly at her earring, which laid before me. I gave her the time to figure out the mistake. When she discovered it, she let out the grandest laugh of the flight. I thought to myself, "This is going to be a great trip."

When my roommate Danielle and I left Buenos Aires last year, bound for a short 4-day trip to Uruguay, contradictory predicators presented themselves. The first was the advice from travelers at our hostel. "Oh, don't go to Uruguay. It's okay, but don't waste time there. Stay in Buenos Aires." Or "It's kind of boring, you won't like it after being here." We booked an afternoon ferry (its 4 hours by boat from Argentina) and two hours before we are to depart, Danielle realizes we've left the power converter at the hostel. We hail a cab.

She jumps out, runs into the hostel. Two and a half minutes later she leaps into the cab, basically crashing into me. Her excuse: "I'm drunk!"

Between the time it took to explain to the clerk in broken Spanish that she needed the key to our room, get it, retrieve the adapter, and get back in the cab, she: ran into a group of freshly arrived Swiss hikers who were doing tequilla shots (its maybe 12:30pm), takes a shot, gets the converter, takes another shot, participates in a grand cheer (mostly in her honor), and gives the desk clerk back the room key.

We enter the port of Uruguay's capital city at dusk. A beautiful sunset over the Rio Plate spreads out before us. And our four short days in Uruguay turn out to be an early highlight to a spectacular trip.

15 January 2006

Happy Ought Six

So its 2006, and I can safely say that 2005 was a pretty spectacular affair. My travels took me from the bottom of the South American continent to the top of North America, ending the year in the middle of the two. I finally had the opportunity to embrace the Western Hemisphere, in all its spoils and superlatives.

I rung in the year at a restaurant in Buenos Aires. I was munching on venison carpaccio with raspberries; the town was absolutely shut-down by a major concert fire the night before which killed 300 people. Everyone stayed home. A city of 12 million deserted. My roommate and I ended up going back to the apartment of our waitress, who spoke no English and drunkenly commented to me on the balcony, "I am a mother." Then she pointed to her plants. I didn't know what the hell she was talking about, it was either heartbreakingly sweet or not what she was trying to say. Then we left, found a bar, ordered drinks. Left before the drinks came, walked halfway to another neighborhood, then went back to the bar for the digital camera we bought 4 days before, ordered drinks again after they brought us our camera, then left before the drinks came again. Then it was 6am. Woke up at noon and walked smack into the city morgue, a block from our hotel, where hundreds of polaroids of the body-bagged unidentified greeted our monstrous hangovers. Later broke into a city park and took pictures in fields of roses with no one to share them with. The entire city was closed for the first 3 days of 2005.

I concluded the year in a town of 200, tiny Santa Catalina, Panama, Central America's premier surfing spot. With the 7 other residents of The Cabanas Rolo - two Roman lads, two Japanese girls, a kid from Buenos Aires, Rolo and his wife, we ate cheap chicken and drank cheaper beer, then rolled to a party on the beach. A reggae band, a DJ, more $1 beers, and a town of chilled out Panamanians and a small community of international surfers, we just plain rocked out in the remote recesses of Panama's Pacific coast. The stars are better only in the middle of the ocean. I've never seen such an impressive array before.

In between these two days, 365 days apart, I:

1. spent a month crisscrossing Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and Peru. Traveled by bus, plane, car, boat, horse, bicycle, train, subway, taxi, and golf cart.
2. took a busride from Rio Gallegos, Argentina, just north of Antartica to Lima, Peru. The 135-hour ride included many stopovers, but proved to be the most physically and mentally challenging traveling I have ever done. I have never heard of anyone who has made this kind of trek, especially in such short a time. My roommate and I traversed 40 degrees latitude in 17 days. Like boarding a bus in New York's Port Authority and riding it to Panama.
3. drove from Seattle through Washington state, British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska, making the drive in 3 days. Most people take five days just to do the section I did in 18 hours.
4. hiked the impressive Denail State Park and Wrangell-St Elias National Park. Not hiking I met gold prospectors, one-eyed pilots, squatters, hitchhikers, botanists, fishermen, and a slew of Midwestern retirees. Hiking I met moose, bears, wolves, and caribou, but not a single person. I spent three days above the tree line and only passed out once.
5. drove back to Vancouver and stayed for a week in a basement apartment just outside of downtown. Basically detoxing from Alaska.
6. drove to Chicago through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa. This brings my "Total States Visited" to 40.
7. visited the majestic Little Bighorn Battlefield, the depressing Wounded Knee, the cartoonish Mount Rushmore, the absurd Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
8. participated in a rousing 4 car accident in Billings, Montana, which made the drive to Chicago (with no driver side window or door access) a tad miserable in the hot, thunderstormin' Great Plains.
9. chilled in Chicago for a weekend at the K-Man's house.
10. took a meager 19-hour ride back to New York on the good old Greyhound.
11. flew to Panama City, Panama and drove west to the Costa Rican border in a single evening.
12. Swam in the Atlantic and the Pacific in a single day.

1. The world's largest glacier (Nabesna Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park)
2. 9 of North America's 15 tallest mountains in a day (also Wrangell-St. Elias National Park)
3. The Andes
4. The Canadian Rockies
5. The extraordinary Mount McKinley
6. Machu Picchu
7. The Bridge of the Americas, spanning...
8. The Panama Canal
9. The world's largest motorcycle rally (Sturgis)
10. Flamingoes, ostriches, llamas, and wild horses in Patagonia (all within 10 minutes)
11. The world's second most polluted city (Santiago, Chile)
12 Arguably the world's worst road (The McCarthy Road, Alaska)
13. Kyle Hubert
14. what might be the gravesite of Crazy Horse, though its never been proven.
15. undoubtedly the gravesite of Jorge Luis Borges and Eva Peron in Buenos Aires' Recoleta Cemetary
16. the beginning of Interstate 90, in Tacoma
17. a tennis ball strike an eyeball at 100mph
18. the new Wong Kar-Wai film, 2046
19. a group of 11-year olds (3 of them students of mine) stage Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" in Brooklyn Heights
20. The incredible Perito Moreno Glaciar, Patagonia, Argentina.

In the next few weeks I'd like to show you some of the pictures I've taken. I'd also like to recommend some places you should go. As far as 2006 is concerned, I'd like to spend the summer in Alaska, as I made a contact with an old miner who is looking for help prospecting a gold stake left dormant since WW2. I'm sure there is time for a stopoff in Panama sometime in the spring. And if Brazil doesn't beckon me back down there, a trip to Southeast Asia in December is hard to top. Let me know if you are interested. Guatemala comes highly recommended from the backpacking community. Colombia even moreso. You wouldn't have to twist my arm.

Also there is the small matter of tending to the ten remaining states I've yet to visit: Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, North Dakota, Minnesota, Hawaii, Tennessee, Oregon, Kentucky, and Michigan. Aside from Hawaii, I'd say the others we can save for 2046.

Welcome Home, Slugger.

On January 24th, 2005, I rolled back into New York from Lima, Peru. It was 90 in Lima and 27 in New York. There was 10 inches of brand new snow all over Harlem, and the wind was turning it into an unbreakable crust of concrete.

On January 14th, 2006, I rolled back into New York from Coro, Venezuela. It was 90 in Coro and 51 in New York. Within 12 hours the temperature had plummeted to 22, a fresh 2 inches of sleet covered Brooklyn, and the wind was steady at 20mph. The Weather Channel reported, "Feels like 7."

Colon, Panama "Feels like 94." I can't "Feel my face."