Not so chilly in Chile
- Santiago Dec 31st to Jan 13th
Valdivia (Paillaco) and Concepcion
Chillin' in Chillan, Viña del Mar and Valparaiso; last days at Suzie and Carl's
|Not so chilly in Chile:||Photos:
Ian Sortwell drove us to Warden subway station and we made
our way across the city to Pearson Airport. We flew
non-stop on the red-eye to Santiago and were picked up at
the airport by Carl and Suzie Hammond, who are slowly
approaching the end of a grand building project in the
Pudahuel region of Santiago, up a hill known as Lomas de Lo
They designed their new home "upside down" compared to prevalent architectural design. There is much to commend the design. The top floor has a wrap around balcony looking out over the city, and the interior is spacious and open concept. It accommodates Carl's music studio and grand piano at one end, a dining area, living area, a kitchen with an island, and Suzie's fabric studio at the opposite end. It is large enough for Carl to hold big band rehearsals of 17 to 21 musicians at a time, or parties for his music students. The bedrooms, a "guest kitchen" and laundry area are on the main floor below, along with an outdoor dog shower for Suzie's Samoyed Allegria who is being trained as a medic alert dog. That will also be an outdoor pool shower once the pool has been completed.
That very evening we celebrated the arrival of the New Year with Carl and Suzie and their friends Georgina and Alejandro, sons Philippe and Jorge, and the live-in gardener handyman Aurelio. We drank pisco sours and red wine, Carl played piano for us to sing along, and we watched fireworks all across the horizon from the barrios of the city. Jorge brought a long tube which was supposed to make a bang like a Christmas cracker and then spray out confetti; sadly (except for the person who would have had to clean up the confetti), it made a quiet little “Phutt!” and nothing more happened, which was almost more hilarious at that moment than the anticipated spray of confetti.
January 1st was a day of recovery, clean-up, and getting to know our hosts. Everything in the city was closed for a few days anyway. On January 2nd we had our first foray on the bus and "Metro" subway system, to a municipality called Puente Alto, which translates as "high bridge". The bridge isn't over water; it is an elevated subway track spanning a large number of stations. The track support pillars in the municipality have been decorated by a mosaic artist, numbering 84 in total. We took at least that many photos, but this video tells the story much better than my photos do.
The next day we went with Suzie to the Museum of Remembrance and Human Rights to learn about the overthrow of the democratically elected socialist leader Salvador Allende by General Pinochet, leader of the U.S. backed junta, and the mass murder of many Chileans from 1973 until 1998. The Truth Commission pointed a finger at Pinochet's wife who freely waved her witch's wand and caused many of the imprisonments and murders, but of course, those who carried out her evil impulses are ultimately responsible. We experienced the same heavy emotions that we'd had while visiting the killing fields of Cambodia, and avoided by choosing not to go inside Auschwitz. Part of the museum identifies the many dozens of similar violent upheavals in a hundred other countries around the world in the past century. Faced with the enormity of that overview and the trajectory of events leading up to each of them, we couldn't help but draw parallels with the personality of Donald Trump and the characters he has appointed to his cabinet. This is the basis of widespread dread over Trump's inauguration later this month.
In the evening we felt amazed at the pollution across the skyline, but Carl and Suzie recognized that this level of pollution was beyond normal. We learned that there was a terrible fire in Valparaiso, a hundred kilometres away down at the coast. Over two days, a hundred houses have been destroyed and thirty-odd people have died, if I recall correctly. We watched footage on Youtube that showed a fiery hell across the entire skyline. It was a forest fire probably sparked by New Year’s Eve fireworks in the poorer barrios up the hillsides. Valparaiso is famous for its fireworks out over the water, but unlike Toronto (generally) individuals are not necessarily content to travel to controlled sites to watch their fireworks. Many people insist on buying and igniting their own. Consequently, this is by no means the first year that they’ve had such a terrible fire.
Jan 4th: we spent the day shopping in Maipu, the site of a famous battle a hundred years ago, with a lunch stop for sushi with a South American twist - one kind of rice slice was topped with ceviche. Deb couldn’t help making a nasty joke about having sushi in “my poo”. We saw a haircutting salon for children where the kids get to sit in toy racing cars on elevated poles and pretend to drive while the barber is cutting their hair - pretty cool.
Jan 5th: on the J11 bus on the way to the Metro station, we always pass a cemetery on the right hand side. The cemetery is awash in colour at this time of year, filled with flowers, both real and unnaturally colourful fake ones, as people visit their dead and leave gifts. There are often large blue silk parasols to cool the residents, who were, one would hope and expect, well past caring about the temperatures that soar into the 30’s each day now. Perhaps the sun protection helps the flowers to last a little longer between family visits. The scene causes me to ponder, not for the first time, why people take flowers to grave sites.
Deb and I emerged from the Metro into a samba parade of
gaudily costumed dancers and drummers and a lady on stilts,
apparently raising awareness for various worker solidarity
groups. After that we spent the day inside the National
Museum of History
near the Plaza des Armas. We had an English audio
guide, and learned a great deal about the political history
of Chile as well as some of the cultural history. It
took a while, but eventually we hit Deborah’s wall, the
limit of her capacity to absorb more information. We
were close to the end, so we limped the rest of the way on
sore feet, saw everything and then headed off to find an
“empanada piño” for a lunch snack. I wasn’t impressed
with the snack, but it filled an empty hole, so perhaps it
is a suitable name, if you pronounce it “empty-nada”. [After months of empanadas, I
learned that some are great, but because they're not open
for inspection like a hamburger, as S. America's answer to
the hamburger they can often be a pig in a poke, so to
speak. The quality and amount of filling can be
Jan 6th: Carl learned that on the coming Sunday his students from both of his bands, the University of Chile and the Pro Jazz college band, intend to converge on his new house for a great party. He’s pleased as punch, and so are we because they’ll bring their instruments and we’ll experience a lot of jazz in his Great Room.
Today we went to the Museo de Bellas Artes and the adjoining Museum of Contemporary Art. The former was pretty good; the central foyer had a display of full-size copies of famous busts and sculptures and there was a display of fabric art by Eva Ek Schaeffer, a Saami weaver artist from far northern Sweden. Other exhibits explored human sexuality to such a degree that you might have mistaken the museum for an anatomy class at medical school. Parents were warned to consider whether they really wanted their children to view the images.
The latter museum had a display of Le Corbusier's sketches that didn’t warrant an entire first floor of such a fine building, and works by newer artists that had me (mostly) convinced that none of the modern art crowd in this town had heard the tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Mind you, at one point I couldn’t understand why a gigantic plywood structure had been built and painted to house five tiny screens, in each of which there was a digital photo of one of Corbusier’s sketches. Why wouldn’t they have simply made a full-sized paper photocopy, at the very least, and placed it on the wall for us to study (should we so desire…)? On the way out I saw two young ladies approach the tiny screens. I watched to see if they’d be as underwhelmed as me...but no, their first instinct upon approaching the tiny screens was to swipe left and right and thereby view all the other images contained on the tiny tablets. Did we suddenly feel old and foolish? Why, yes we did.
At lunch we met Kelly, an elementary grade 5 and 6 math specialist (yes, they employ specialist teachers that early, here) who has invited us to stay at her house on Monday. She’ll coach us in how best to attack Valparaiso, and we’ll see one further museum while we’re at her house. The fires only affected one small poorer section of the Valparaiso and they will have been extinguished for over a week by then. She assures us that there is lots to see there and all her foreign guests rate it very highly.
Jan 7th: although we’d planned to leave the house a bit earlier, we were on our way to the “feria” by shortly after ten this morning. It was a market with stalls set up on both sides of a narrow street for about a kilometre, mostly for fresh produce but also small sundries. It runs Wednesday and Saturday in that location, but it is held in other locations on the other days of the week, usually twice a week in each location. Costs for some produce was not a lot less than in a Toronto supermarket, but for other items was quite a bit less. Pricing was no doubt somewhat fluid according to the time of day and the weight of entropy. We ate our first really good empanada there, and then had a Peruvian ceviche with Carl. We came home with a trunk full of fresh fruit and vegetables. We got home by three, and Deb got back to work on a quilting exercise she has been engaged in for several days now. Suzie has taught her some fast and effective ways to make squares and create quilts with fabric scraps.
Carl has been trying to talk Suzie into having a nap this afternoon so they can go out to see a musician friend perform in a club around midnight, but he isn’t having much success. Neither Suzie nor Deb have had their nap and it seemed that a stalemate had been established, but it is now already seven in the evening and Carl has admitted defeat. Perhaps I’ll keep him company if he still goes out, and we’ll leave the ladies at home.
Jan 8th: Carl introduced me to a jazz singer last night, a lady from the U.S. who lives in Chile now. She did an hour of blues at midnight that was well received, in a great entertainment complex called Bellavista which contains numerous clubs. This evening he hosted a party at his house for the members of three big bands that he conducts. Wine, BBQ, good singing and jazz improv. I got to sing some jazz standards, and harmonize on others. I miss my instruments, but that’s the going to be the reality for almost 80 days more, unless I get lucky somewhere on our journey.
Jan 9th: today after helping with some final party clean-up and watching the excavator begin digging the hole for the new pool in Suzie and Carl’s front yard from the balcony above, we packed our stuff and took the main “red line” Metro all across the city to the other hills on the far side, to stay with Kelly “Spaetzle” Sepulveda. That took a couple of hours. Then we shopped for groceries, had supper, and spent the evening quizzing Kelly and doing internet research about traveling to Valparaiso, and after that, to Buenos Aires and Montevideo - hopefully in time for Carnival. Tomorrow, we’ll see a Metro station that doubles as an art gallery, and a museum of culture beneath it.
Jan 10th: after weighing the pros and cons and doing research, we decided this morning to purchase tickets on a bus across the mountains to Buenos Aires, leaving early Friday morning. It is not too expensive and the buses are comfortable. The scenery should be awesome, of course. It seemed to be rushing things to try to get to Valparaiso and back before Friday,
It’ll cost $260 CAD for the two of us, a 22 hour trip in semi-reclining seats, with several meals included. Bus and Metro fare here in Stgo, for interest, is only about $1.40 CAD, depending on the trip. Food and accommodation is expensive in Chile (according to Carl it is cheaper to live in BsAs and/or Uruguay); but labour is cheap, and labourers get around the city on public transit, so public transit has to be cheap.
We looked at the 14 oil paintings in the La Moneda station, on our way to the Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda museum nearby, under the palace. At the museum we arrived just in time to get the last of a book of free tickets to a Pablo Picasso exhibit featuring the life and original works of the artist (some of them - he was prolific!) There was an interesting app - it worked only in Spanish, unfortunately - that allowed you to use QR codes on a map to get audio guides to each significant point of the exhibit. There was some English translation on some of the signs, and for the rest, I practiced my slowly developing Spanish translation ability, sometimes with Deborah helping at my elbow.
The exhibit guards seemed quite concerned, and were watchful. They approached us and others viewing the works and told us to keep our backpacks (which we should have left at the door, but we hadn't been asked to do that) in front of us, because it would be too easy for someone to pull them off of us from behind. I guess there were some bandits that they know in the vicinity, or there had been an incident.
Jan 11th: Today after booking a small hotel in the university area of Buenos Aires (because we weren’t getting any offers of couchsurfing hosting and we didn’t want to arrive early on Saturday morning with no den to burrow into), we went off to the Cerro Santa Lucia. This was a nice stroll to the top of a hill (a “pimple”, Suzie calls it) through structures built by an early founder in the city with the surname of - oddly - MacKenna. That’s as weirdly un-Spanish as his contemporary Bernardo O’Higgins. The heat was a bit oppressive today, not so “chill” in Chile after all - about 33 degrees, extremely bright, but dry. It goes down to 17 or 18 at night, which allows you a good sleep.
Then, because it was next door, built on the grounds of a torn-down monastery and convent, we walked about in the 100 year old Biblioteca Nacional, which is architecturally grand. A “Palace for books”, they’ve always called it.
On the way home we picked up a few more groceries, just an extra day’s worth to get us through to Friday morning when we ride the bus across the border. One of our items was a mixture at the butcher counter called “pichanga”: chunks of ham, chunks of cheese, black olives, green olives, little pickled onions and small gherkins. The ham chunks go well with our breakfast egg. It would be a good import to Canada. There are a few more clever solutions here - there are always a few, wherever we go - including central poles to hang onto when you’re standing in a subway car that are split into three for the middle part of their length, to give many more standing patrons a place to grip.
We took Kelly for supper. Thai curry chicken was her favourite, so that’s what we had, but also Kunstmann Bock Negra beer, and she had Kunstmann Toro Bajo. These are two pretty good Chilean beers that exist here because of a large German presence in the 9th district, around Osorno, which is a day's travel south of here. Ten days, if you walk. There are fifteen districts in Chile, numbered from north to south. This beer says cerveza on the label, but also proudly asserts that it is “das gute bier”.
crema asada (creme caramel) for dessert. We arrived home to
a pleasant surprise: I had posted our onward plans on
Couchsurfing, a notice called a “public trip“. We haven't
had much acceptance to direct requests in this part of the
world. Kelly says Chileans are “shy”, which might be
true of Latin Americans generally. They are possibly
more polite than Canadians, as hard as that is to believe,
but are warm and friendly when you ask for directions. [Later I learned how to get
accepted by more Spanish-speaking hosts - I simply
translated my English requests using Google Translate, and
posted the requests and the public trip postings in both
languages. We got a lot of offers from our public trip
postings.] They are not shy
to tell you, however, to wear your mochilla on your chest. I
haven't seen any actual robbery, but Chileans seem convinced
that it is rampant. But their point is that with the
mochilla on your chest, nobody can mess with your zippers or
locks, or slit the bottom or side with a knife.
We'd received an invitation out of the blue from an
Australian named Lionel Euston living in Montevideo with his
Uruguayan wife Sylvia. He'd read my public post to
Montevideo hosts about our impending arrival. He’s a retired
teacher, my age, and an experienced Couchsurfing traveler
So, after four nights in Buenos Aires at the probably
misnamed Esmeralda Palace hotel, we'll take the ferry to
Montevideo and explore that country first, and Argentina
Jan 12th: From Baquedano metro station we walked past Los Miserables taco stand (which, since their tacos have shrunk to half their size when Suzie and Carl first discovered and raved about them, is probably a far more appropriate name) and up the street to the castle-like entrance to Cerro San Cristobal. We’d chosen the funicular to get up the hill rather than the newly reopened teleferico, but the line for tickets was quite long. At the information stand a Chilean girl with a very German accent told us to walk partway up the hill and visit the zoo first, and get on the funicular train at that point, about a third of the way up the hill. She assured us we’d skip the line-up that way, and she was right.
The zoo wasn’t spectacular but there were some fun moments, including a harsh spat between two Orsos Pardos (brown bears). Their enclosure had several sprinklers running to keep them from overheating, but apparently it wasn’t enough. The male began feeling spunky and amorous, and the female rocked him harshly back on his heels: “It’s too hot for that sort of thing, get lost!” He was insistent, but she was more so, and gave one final loud, angry bellow at his backside as he was retreating, which delighted the zoo patrons beside me. I have pretty good photos of that fiery exchange.
She was right though, because it was a brutally hot 33 degree day. Fortunately we’d prepared our “neck-cool-chiefs”, as I’ve officially named them. They are filled with mysterious beads that are very small when dry and packed, but plump up when soaked in cold water, and can be tied around your neck against the skin, where I suppose they cool not only your skin but also the blood circulating up to your brain. The zoo was kind enough to provide a drinking fountain - rare in this city, where vendors sell bottled water every few feet. God knows how much Chileños are contributing to the plastic island in the middle of the oceans. We were able to drink cooler water, replenish our water bottles and our neck-cool-chiefs, and even soak our Tilley hats, which cooled us down considerably as we toiled further up the hill.
We saw a white Bengal tiger at the zoo. That’s a rare
sight. We took photos from the top of the hill and on
the way home we ate lunch once again at Taco Bell, which has
a box lunch that feeds two for $10 CAD. In the back
room where the air conditioning is best, I startled Carl who
was there with his friend Ken Shields. Ken told us
that the origin of the turban is Afghanistan, where it was
created as a long scarf that could be soaked at any well or
oasis and then wound up on your head to protect you from the
sun while providing a cooling evaporative reservoir.
Sikhs in Northern India count it as one of their seven
religious identifiers, but I always suspected that they
created the list to differentiate themselves from the Hindu
population into whose midst they’d inserted
One sees all sorts of impromptu concerts here, some more tuneful and welcome than others. Saw a guitarist today jump on our bus by the back door (the driver is helpless to prevent it) and start playing with his harmonica taped to the top of his guitar. Later, another one on the Metro played guitar and pan flute simultaneously. There are rappers on the subway cars with portable p.a. speakers, sometimes with bluetooth and backing tracks from their phones to sing or play along to. Two young fellows dressed as batman and the joker did some sort of skit which involved a lot of strutting like dancers at a strip club for ladies, and hanging muscularly from the bars on the subway car. Endless variety. We’ve never seen the same act twice, and we see them on every ride we take. Apparently it has been a tradition on the buses and the Metro administration is dismayed to see it spread to the subway cars, so these guys are always on the lookout for Metro security, but there isn’t enough security to put a dent in the practice. Passengers are fairly subversive about it; many of them slip coins to the illegal buskers right beneath the placards that discourage the behaviour, while the others turn a blind eye to the donations.
Jan 14th: Last night Kelly surprised us with “humitas” for supper. They are made of corn flour, and are half-pudding and half-bread, wrapped and boiled inside the leaves of a corn cob. We ate them with avocado and tomato, and hot pepper paste. She also opened a bottle of Carmenere, which confirmed my suspicion that it is now my favourite red wine.
|Buenos Dias, Buenos Aires!||Photos:
Argentina customs was unarguably the worst I’ve experienced in (now) 49 countries. This was 2017, but we waited 4 hours in a line of buses to enter a hangar one bus at a time. We saw one agent in combat boots threaten an entire bus load of passengers, telling them that if they didn’t produce all electronics for inspection, any that they had tried to hide would be summarily confiscated.
We went to use the washrooms, since bus washrooms are unpleasant for several reasons. The men’s room was closed, with no instruction about the fact that there was another one on the other side of the hangar. When I finally found it, the toilets were in third world disrepair with missing seats and broken mechanisms. They'd clearly been that way for a long time, because they were well rusted inside the tanks. There was a bathroom agent, as there always is, whose job appears to be to wash the cans, flush them with buckets of water, and dispense scant sheets of toilet paper in return for a contribution to his tip jar. One assumes he gets paid by the state or the bus companies, but perhaps not.
When our bus finally got into the hangar, we experienced quite an astonishing "customs comedy". The bus driver went down the line of passengers waiting timorously with their shoulder bags open on a long table, as several “aduana” agents made a show of digging through the suitcases and selected a few for examination. The driver held out two styrofoam cups and collected tips as the agents watched. The agent at the x-ray machine poured the tips, without counting them, into a white plastic shopping bag in a nearby drawer, as brazenly as hell. Then they continued to make a show of shifting bags around, pulled out only a few, x-rayed even fewer, asked for one to be quickly opened and closed for inspection.
The agents then assembled across the long table from where we were standing to show the contents of our shoulder “mochillas” (backpacks), but our agent simply looked at our dorky beige Tilley hats and asked, “Where you from?”
“Canada”, we answered.
“Never mind,” he smiled. “You can get back on the bus.”
A young family of three had a problem with documentation that forced them to stand aside as we were getting our passports rubber-stamped, and they caused a further one hour delay but were eventually allowed to continue the journey with us.
The only real mishap was when I climbed the nearby hill to take a photo of the customs parking lot with the buses and cars lined up. The rarified air had me gasping, and there were strange plants with yellow blossoms and long tendrils studded with the most aggressive thorny burrs I can recall seeing. Presumably that’s how they disseminate themselves, by clinging to the fur of the very few critters one could find so high above the tree line. The burrs sting in thin human shin skin. On the way back down I slipped on loose soil and scree and arrived back to Deborah with blood threatening to stain one sock from one small puncture and several small scrapes. Deborah did not miss her opportunity to say, “I told you so” as she pulled out paper napkins, wet wipes and alcohol. Another lady came rushing over with an iodine spray and kindly stained my shins, and Deborah had a band-aid at hand for the puncture. I don’t know if the scrapes stung, or the iodine did, but the stinging gradually dissipated over the next few hours.
Our gps showed that we hadn’t gone far as the crow flies in
9 hours, but after a sandwich and pepsi, while the engine
ran in the parking lot to keep the air conditioning going,
we were finally underway again. I began to understand
why, after a bus ride that actually took 25 hours by the
time we disembarked in BA, we were still in the same time
zone as Santiago! Deborah was joyful, however, because
she is a rock hound. She was ecstatic about the
contrasting colours and textures of the layers of rocks in
the Andes, and kept snapping photos from the window while I
fretted about how many I’d have to go through and edit (and
Dusk fell. We were already seeing the horizon level out. I don’t know what the cheaper bus would have been like. They all look the same, but one was discounted about 17%. However, we paid what appeared to be the going rate for a straight-through ride to BA with no change of bus at Mendoza. Breakfast on departure and the following morning was only a cookie and a half-cup of sweet coffee, but supper was an airplane style hot meal with red wine for those who wished it. I did. The seats were fairly plush “semi-cama”, (part-bed) which reclined to about 145 degrees and had a calf-rest that folded down from the seat in front. Oddly, there were signs in the washroom encouraging passengers to “show your culture” by not leaving any solid waste in the toilet! (Really! What do they expect a bus full of passengers to do for a 25 hour journey with no other options!)
I slept for about four hours, Deborah longer, and when the sun rose we passed through hundreds of kilometres of agricultural parkland, green and fertile. As we arrived at the Retiro station in BsAs, we came through an expanse of suburbia that included tree-lined avenues and older mid-sized apartment buildings, and I got a good sense of how the majority of the population lives.
We arrived at our hotel, which was far from the palace indicated by its name, but ok for the $45/night we’re paying. It includes a buffet breakfast, and food costs a lot on the streets outside. We haven’t seen the Jumbo supermarket yet, but in our neighbourhood (which, granted, is within the most dense collection of tourist attractions), nothing is cheap to eat. Meals in the most modest restaurants are more expensive than in most of Toronto, and so is food in the “kioskos”, the convenience stores on every block. I thought that the only fruit seller near us had her thumb on the scale as she weighed out our single apple, single pear, single nectarine and two bananas, and pronounced that we owed $4.50 CAD for this bit of joy. “They can recognise the tourists in this neighbourhood from a mile away,” I thought to myself. Later, after seeing posted prices on fresh fruits and veggies in four or five other produce sellers, and reflecting on the heft of a kilo of water, my suspicion dissolved.
The only cheap eats appear to be in the Galleria Pacifica mall food courts (McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, etc) but they still cost more than in Toronto; and maybe the odd choripan (sausage in a bun) or empanada stand. There’s a guard at the door of the upscale mall that presumably turns away anyone who looks like a down-at-the-heel resident of the city. I am befuddled: how can a country with such astonishing agricultural fields that we saw for hundreds of kilometres before we arrived in the city, and such a low income population, have to charge so much for food? Even the beef and the wine, both of which Argentina is famous for, seem more expensive here than at home - although I haven’t yet tried to buy wine outside a restaurant. What do the majority of the population get to eat?
I’ve also learned that there is a hefty special tax on airfare within the country for foreigners, so all-in-all, I can see tourists staying away in droves from a country that ought to be a mecca and a wonderful foreign exchange opportunity for Argentinians. However, I won’t take it personally. It isn’t breaking my personal piggy bank, and we’ll only stay here long enough to see some of the architecture, a few museums, a tango experience and maybe a short train to some coastal communities including Tigre. I’ll eat a bit less, make the most of our breakfast buffet, and warn fellow travelers to consider the costs if they come here. Perhaps it has something to do with the devastating topsy-turvy effect of the rampant inflationary crises they’ve had in the past few decades.
Jan 15th: our breakfast buffet turned out to be fine.
It included buns with ham and cheese, so we got our
protein, plus fruit salad, coffee, yogurt, hot milk and some
sort of chocolate powder that you could stir into it.
Breakfast is over at 10:30 but there’s hot water and
cold water available and a microwave, and a frig in the
room. We only eat two meals a day at home or while
traveling, so we only have to buy supper somewhere - this
evening it turned out to be right next door.
I’d miscounted the nights we needed - I forgot that counting forward from 14th to 17th is only three nights, not four days - so we went to the desk to book an extra night. “800 pesos,” the clerk said.
“Wait a minute...that’s more than double the rate we paid to book online.”
“Oh, you can have that online rate...but you have to go online to do it.”
Seriously? Someone has to explain to me why the desk clerk can’t extend a rate for a fourth night right on the spot, and can only quote the rack rate. We had to go through Hotels.com, Booking.com, or Despagar, so we went back to our room and used the hotel wifi to book the 4th night, right from within the hotel. Of course the hotel lost out by having to pay the fee required by the online booking service.
This anomaly is right up there with the need to find someone to explain Argentinian economics and food production and distribution to me.
We left the room hoping to visit the Museum of National History, but the bus driver let us off too soon and we went by accident into the Museum Casa Rosada - the “Pink House” is the presidential palace here. It was a pretty good museum in its own right, built within the foundations of the original customs house, and free. Then we wanted to walk to the other museum, fifteen blocks away. We began our walk and suddenly a lady came scurrying in the opposite direction.
“Don’t go that way,” she said, breathlessly. “There are four guys in front of the church robbing people!”
A few obvious questions popped into my head: did they have guns or knives? Why was no-one who saw it happen calling the police to put a stop to it? The streets were full of police for the Dakar 2017 Rally half a block away from where we were standing, and here the police (and every two-bit security guard) have sidearms in open holsters. Never mind. There were four of them, and I had no desire to poke my nose in any further, so we went a couple of blocks north and melted into the crowd on Calle Defensa. At the foot of this street was the museum we wanted, but there was a fería every Sunday that stretched for a couple of kilometres. Lots of items were interesting to see, so we ambled along, and then it began to rain.
We’d left our plastic ponchos and umbrellas at the hotel. Deborah was pissed at being pissed on by the sky and was afraid of getting soaked and cold with no jacket, so I convinced her to buy a 10 pack of 80 cm x 110 cm garbage bags. We made make-shift ponchos out of two of them to cover us and our mochillas, put our hats back on and continued in comfort and security: we were dry, and as a bonus, we were obviously even less susceptible to pickpockets.
Getting hungry for supper, we headed toward home but couldn’t decide what to have so we had our normal daily nap in the air-conditioned room and then went back out looking for protein. Right next door was a buffet-by-weight place, about a dollar per 100 grams, so we concentrated on the protein items and ate very well. I’m not sure that we each had over a kilo of food, but that’s what the cash register claimed, so that’s what we paid. We met a really nice younger couple of fellow Couchsurfers, Polish and Italian/Israeli. Elad sensed our hesitation and spoke to us at the door of the buffet to encourage us to eat there. We had a long conversation over supper and lingered afterward, promising to host them some day in Toronto.
“Oh,” she said, “That’s the online price. You can’t pay that here in the office. You have to buy it online with your credit card.”
So we stepped across to the Buquebus Bar in the same building, where there was free wifi, selected our passage and made payment online with our credit card. It was a glitchy website, but it worked. Then we went back to her to ask why the invoice that came back to us didn’t have our departure date on it.
“Why, certainly, it is here,” she replied, and simply swiped the screen down, which (once again) we hadn’t realized we could do. It reminded me of the museum experience only ten days earlier, where we hadn't realized that we could swipe through photos of Le Corbusier's sketches on the museum touch screens until we saw young people come in and do it automatically without having to puzzle over it. Now we could see the entire invoice. But a printed copy is always safer, than an e-copy, so she kindly printed it out for us as well.
Now, here’s the thing that gives me a headache: how does an older Argentinian who isn’t computer savvy or doesn’t have a credit card get the price we paid? And if they can’t, how do they get to Uruguay? By the same token, how many young shoestring travelers have been ripped off at the agent’s counter because none of the agents would tell them, and there was no signage about the online purchase method? We know that two agents kept mum about it and the third only mentioned it when we showed her the screen on our tablet. It was a repeat of the Esmeralda Palace hotel booking quandary. It's some sort of financial madness enmeshed in the new world of internet payment systems. How many other examples will there be, once we start looking?
We walked past part of the harbour but museums and the ecological park were closed on a Sunday and Monday. Some would not even open until Wednesday. A tourist info guide recommended the Teatre Colon. Seniors get a special price on Mondays, about $4; but only Argentine residents, it turned out. We would have to pay about $44 for the two of us.
“I’m not paying that much just to look inside a building”, said Deborah. I agreed that for that price we ought to get to watch a show, and she said, “I wouldn’t even pay that to look inside the Opera in Paris, which has a painting by Chagall on the ceiling.”
Of course, part of the problem was that we had no idea what we’d see inside. It was a pig in a poke. No information was presented about what would make the tour of the building worth the price.
So we walked back down Tucuman street to a famous and very popular empanada shop called Buona Giunta where people line up to buy their lunch. They are baked fresh in a masonry oven in the front of the store. We took them home for lunch. They were the best we’ve had so far. A girl in the wine shop next door to the empanada shop had given me a free tasting of two Mendoza Malbec wines and one Shiraz Malbec, and told us about the place where they were grown. Sadly for her, the wines were a bit sharp and didn’t have much body, and the Shiraz was a bit sweet, so I told her that I still prefer Carmenere. She laughed and didn’t take it too personally. She said that she was Brazilian anyway.
We had a nap in our air conditioned room. Our room costs the same as a private double in the many hostels nearby, and they are more run-down and don’t have air conditioning. Then we went back out for a walk around the famous Recoleta neighbourhood and cemetery. Now, you might find it odd that we’d want to tour a cemetery. We aren’t very morbid - we’re not even Goth - but this is a special tourist attraction. However, our plans were scuppered by our nap. The cemetery had closed at 5:30, and we couldn't go in. We saw a massive fig tree bigger than the banyan tree in Maui, and the iconic obelisk of Buenos Aires. We decided to go back the next day.
Jan 17th: Recoleta is an upscale neighborhood, populated decades ago largely by Italian immigrants, judging by signage and by the deeper voices of some of the women who helped us find our way. I swear that I heard an Italian accent come through the Spanish, just as you often hear a special treatment of language sounds by Jewish people speaking English in North America, even in the third generation. Speaking of Jewish people, BsAs has an enormous Jewish community and more tourists from Israel than any other nationality, I'm told. And BsAs has the only kosher McDonald's outside of Israel. I kid you not.
The number 17 bus carried us from the obelisk back to the
Recoleta cemetery. Only photos can do it justice, and of
course there are many that should be captioned, but I don’t
know how to do that with my android tablet photo software
yet. Maybe something online. Of course I took
too many, so I put them in a separate folder, here.
Of note: there’s one photo where I walked up behind a
very large Dutch guy and said, “That’s why there are
zombies...” He bust a gut. You might figure out
which photo that is. Another caption could be “He is
Risen”. And there’s a photo of Evita Peron’s
sepulchre. She’s revered to this day as “the heart of
Argentina”. You’ll remember the song “Don’t Cry for
Me, Argentina”. 34 years after her death, many people
come every day to bring her fresh flowers.
After a rest and a cool-down in our room, I wanted to go to
La Boca and Caminito, but that neighbourhood was too far
away in the wrong direction, so we decided to save that
destination until our return to BsAs after a side trip to
Uruguay. Instead, we went back to Recoleta and toured
the Centro Cultural, which had some cool exhibits. One
was titled Imagination, and it was the kind of modern art
that I actually like - kinesthetic, interactive, and
colourful. Some photos of the exhibit are in the BsAs
photo album, as are a few photos from three days BsAs
in early February.
|Mellow in Montevideo||Photos
50! - fittingly celebrated in a “no-name country”...
50 countries, that is. My tally. Not many to go before I match my age. The ferry we were on was small but there is a whole fleet of different sizes, looking much like the B.C. ferry fleet. Once across to Colonia and on the bus toward Montevideo, Deborah couldn’t help grinning her contentment at how smooth and efficient the customs process had been, and how clean and green the countryside looked. Except for some of the vegetation, we could have been in the slightly rolling farmland of southern Ontario, and the air was clear.
Our host Lionel picked us up at the bus terminal and drive us home to meet his wife Silvia. They treated us to a nice dinner and talked about what we should try to see in Uruguay. Well into the evening, we asked about finding an Airbnb or something similar when our three nights with them was over; Silvia said, in her British/American/Australian Spanish accent,
“Well, we rather think we’re going to like you, so you probably don’t have to leave our apartment until you’re quite ready to move on and see something outside the city.”
Their apartment is small but they’ve made us comfortable; they’ve just taken it over from people that it was rented out to for four years, so there was a lot of cleaning and setting up for them to do. They just arrived back from Australia on Dec 27th.
Jan 19th: Silvia took Deborah to her zoomba class on the
beach while Lionel and I chatted about sports and literary
pursuits. Deborah got
interviewed by a local tv channel;
it is in Spanish, but she got her 30 seconds of fame, about
one minute into the clip. (I was astonished to
discover that the clip was still online four years later.)
We took a walk in a park and looked at a photo exhibit that featured Marshall McLuhan, sponsored by the Canadian embassy, while Silvia was at a hydrotherapy session. We took a tour of the Legislature building, a sumptuous bit of architecture that employed 52 kinds of marble and 70 kinds of granite, all local Uruguayan stone. Then we went to the Mercado Agricola de Montevideo, a fine market in a hangar-like building made of glass. The same model exists in other cities, but the only markets of similar grandeur we’ve seen ourselves to this point are in Singapore, and the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto.
The neighbourhood is called Pocitos, which means “little pockets”. It got its name because on the beach where Deborah was doing her zoomba, more than a century ago the washerwomen would dig little holes in the sand, letting them fill with water and using those depressions to do the laundry. It was sweet water from the Rio de la Plata just before it reaches the ocean, even though it looks as far and wide across to Argentina as some parts of Lake Ontario to the U.S. from Toronto. There was no danger of affecting the clothing with salt in the water. They’d rinse well, and the suds would float away with the river current. It is the largest, widest river delta in the world.
In the evening Deborah and I made our first foray on local
transportation. We took the local bus downtown to the
main square where there is a giant statue of Artigas,
and stood at the starting line of the Carnaval Parade.
My little shirt-pocket Canon doesn’t do low light
situations well, but the photos I managed to get are here
amongst the 307 in the Uruguay album.
20th: Trump’s inauguration day. There was a derisive
entry in the Carnaval parade with a guy pretending to be
Trump. He's derided world-wide. Today we’ll go
to a feria to buy local cheese. Most foods are more
expensive here than Toronto, which, once again, puzzles me
given the apparent fertility of the soil and the great
growing climate. However, oranges and cheeses are less
After that we’ll visit a museum underneath the main square,
beneath the statue of Artigas. This small country of
only 4 million people, a goodly portion of which appeared to
be in the parade last night, or lining the main street to
watch it, has had a slightly complicated history.
Their very popular national hero was banished and went
into self-exile in Paraguay. It was an emotional time
for the populace. Their most recent popular hero is Mujica,
the elderly statesmen who refused to take a salary when they
made him president. He continued to drive his old
truck to work, spurned the security detail and picked up
hitch-hikers whenever he felt like it. This attitude
fascinates me as much as the fact that Costa Rica disbanded
their army seventy years ago, with positive results for the
country and its economy.
The parade included many organizations that care for mentally disabled people, find jobs for physically disabled people, protect and celebrate gender-ambiguous people, etc. Abortion has been legal since 2012, which is very progressive for a Latin American country (but in this country they are mostly only nominal Catholic - Silvia calls them “just in case” Catholics). Church and state have been strongly separated since 1917, and most of the presidents, who can only serve two 5 year terms (and not consecutively) have been Masonic. Here is an interesting write-up on the topic that Silvia provided: http://www.pewforum.org/2014/11/13/religion-in-latin-america/#religion-in-uruguay
Church weddings have no official status. They are “pretty”, but only a civil ceremony counts for the gov’t. Divorce has been legal since forever. There is a good public health system, and the current president is a physician whose first laws were to limit smoking and to take salt shakers off the tables in every restaurant. Gay marriage has been legal since 2013, and marijuana was legalized in the same year. It is distributed in a controlled manner but its use is accepted, yet in that whole crowd of people last night there was not a whiff of marijuana. There was a fair bit of beer drinking from one litre glass bottles that could sometimes be seen smashed on the sidewalk, but perhaps they'd been dropped accidentally rather than intentionally smashed, since residents keep their city pretty clean. Public education, since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985 which had jailed some teachers and replaced them with officers’ wives, has been pretty good. Every child in the entire country is given a basic laptop and all schools were supplied with wifi access points. In the little towns, the students and their grandmothers go and sit around the school houses to use the free wifi, so the school has become a social magnet outside of school hours as well. Public schools are for poor kids, and there are private schools for rich kids, but the gov’t pushed their wifi and laptop program out to the poorest areas and all the public schools first, before doing it in Montevideo, to ensure that the program wouldn’t peter out when it was time to expand into rural areas.
So, all in all, this is one of the smallest and yet one of
the most progressive countries in the world.
It’s like an extra province of Canada in the southern
We took the #62 bus from the apartment, which is a block
from the beach, to the Plaza Independencia. We
photographed the statue of Artigas and paid our respects at
the mausoleum they maintain beneath the statue. After
150 years, Artigas is still the soul of Uruguay. We
walked down the pedestrian street to the Mercado de Puerta,
the market at the port, and around the corner we went into
the museum of Carnaval. It reminded me of the Mardi
Gras museum in New Orleans.
We had a delightful tour of the Teatro Solis by a young
university student of International Affairs named Alison.
Unlike the $22 tickets to see the Opera House in BA, the
tour tickets for this one were only $3 and we were the only
two lined up for a tour in English, so we got an exclusive
tour. Alison explained that the theatre was a public
institution which offered many free programs to people from
outlying towns and villages, to ensure that they could have
the same experience as the city dwellers. All of the
top rated shows one could see there from around the world
were $10 or less. The theatre has wings that were built by a
later architect, and they are extremely well integrated into
the original design.
We came home to order an iconic Uruguayan meat sandwich inexplicably called a chivito Canadiense, and muzarella pizza (that’s not a spelling error). After supper we taught Lionel and Silvia to play Farkle. Later they've threatened to teach us a card game called Poo Head.
Jan 21st: Montevideo is a very livable city. The air
is kept clean by ocean breezes, and the streets are kept
clean by an ingenious system: the Catholic church has a
charity that hires disadvantaged youth, and some older
people, to take responsibility for a given block or set of
streets. The cleaners get a small salary, demonstrate
responsibility, and earn an employment reference. They
take pride in their work and leave collected garbage in bags
at intersections where trucks come to pick them up. A
big part of what fills the bags is leaves from the trees -
it is a very green city.
Men who are barely employable for other jobs (or shut out of
the labour market because there simply aren’t enough jobs)
are given responsibility for parking along the streets of
the city. They watch over the cars and sometimes wash
them, in return for a tip from the owner of the car.
The tips are not huge and not a specified amount, but
they add up. The city derives no revenue from this
system, but reaps huge rewards by keeping the poorer
residents gainfully employed, and it provides security for
parked cars. A lot of those vehicles are Volkswagens,
both beetles and kombis. It is fun for us to see those
all over the city, since they've largely disappeared from
You might notice that some of the showgirls/dancers in the
parade photos look rather manly. There's a large trans
presence in the city. There’s also a photo of a safe,
discrete space created behind some buildings and a sign that
proclaims it is for “sexual diversity”. It is an
enlightened alternative to the repression of gay prostitutes
near the port area, if I understand the situation
correctly. Silvia is reluctant to believe that the
name of the square is anything more than a celebration of
the city’s liberal attitudes, but if that's the case, why do
they need an entire, semi-secluded square to celebrate the
Silvia is proud of the attitude of residents toward voting and elections. She says voting is mandatory but it isn’t considered onerous. The voters love elections. They march on opposite sides of the Rambla street and never fight, and they wait happily for up to four hours in a line up a set of steps to vote. They love their democracy and treat the event like a big party.
Today Lionel and Silvia drove us to a small art museum, and then to the top of a hill called Cerro, which literally means “hill”, to view the Fortaleza Military Museum and have a great view of the harbour and city. Montevideo means “I see a hill”, and Cerro is the hill. Parque Batlle has been created on the hill. Speaking of which, they laugh about the fact that this is the only “no-name” country in the world. The full name just means “that region to the east of the river Uruguay”. We had coffee and smoothies and masitas (cookies filled with dulce de leche) on the way home to Lionel’s chili, in honour of which we read out Peter’s River Camping Chili Recipe, and Lionel responded with a hilarious poem of his own which he performs as an Ozzie bush poet. It’s like cowboy poetry, but has a stronger emphasis on recitation and performance than the written format.
In the evening Lionel made a chili and showed us many of his bird and wildlife photos. He recited a few more poems, and he gave us a cd of his poetry performances. We don’t have a cd player on our tablets, so we’ll have to wait until we get home to fire it up.
Jan 22nd: Deb’s birthday. We went to a restaurant on the beach called Restaurante del Club de Pescadores de Montevideo. It was the venue for Lionel and Sylvia's wedding celebration, if I understood correctly, where there was a large contingent of the local Couchsurfing community. They met through Couchsurfing themselves, as did a few other couples we've met. We had swordfish teriyaki with grilled veggies, salmon in pasta pockets darkened with squid ink, with dill sauce; and sauvignon blanc. Then we toured the local yacht club, which is within a short walking distance of Silvia and Lionel’s apartment. We considered whether to book a room there. The rooms have bunk beds. They are for crew members of visiting yachts. They aren’t very cheap but the grounds are as beautiful as yacht clubs generally are. There’s a nice cool breeze off the water, and a swimming pool. They might sometimes be the only available accommodation in high season, which it is here now, when all the locals head to the beach on vacation. Those rooms aren’t available to the general public, but I had my Highland membership card with me. For dessert we had excellent ice cream a block and a half from the apartment. Now we’re looking to see whether there are rooms at Punta del Este, in a very upscale yacht club in a rich resort area just east of here.
After a nap, we headed to the 18th of July street. It seems a typically Latin American thing to do, to name major streets after the dates of important historical events. We watched some resident tango and milonga dancers while Silvia waited in the line-up across the street for free tickets for a music concert. The concert was given by two groups of visiting Brazilian musicians. I enjoyed them both. I learned a surprising new (for me) rhythm and can clap it, but it’ll take some time to find a song that uses it that I can learn to play. With so many African-based poly rhythmic elements to latin music, there are some that aren’t intuitive to westerners. They make you feel at first as if you’re rubbing your tummy while patting your own head, or vice versa.
Lionel wasn’t enjoying the music as much as I was, so after a few songs by the main act, we left and gave our seats to some eager young people who were standing at the back. We went home, where Silvia and Lionel taught us to play “Poo Head”, a game of cards with the goal of eliminating your hand and small piles in front of you. We played perhaps five or six rounds, and Silvia was the only one who wasn’t a “poo head”.
Jan 23rd: In researching what to do today, I came across this rather good write-up of the essentials for a short visit to Montevideo, from the perspective of someone who sails in and presumably takes a slip at the yacht club we visited yesterday.
I learned that the New Year’s fires in Valparaiso have been followed by very dry weather and up to 100 fires (about 39 now still burning) in other locations within the past week. The bomberos (firemen) are volunteers, and donations are being collected to make their lives more comfortable as they battle the blazes, which is hot, dirty, exhausting work. Some large fires were just south of Santiago, and I can only imagine the air quality in the city right now.
We were up late last night so got a late start today, but in the afternoon we visited the Museo Torres Garcia. This painter has been considered an equal to Picasso, whose works and life story we saw on exhibition in Santiago. He’s not, in my eyes; but he is an original on his own and has a distinctive style that you sometimes see without knowing who is its originator. At the Spanish Cultural Centre we saw an exhibition of very fine black and white photographs by Jose Suarez in the middle of the 20th century. Then we came home so that Deb can whip up a curried chicken stew for dinner.
Jan 24th. We got up very early and did some onward bookings online, and then Lionel drove us east of Montevideo to a famous summer haunt of wealthy Argentinians and Uruguyans called Punta Del Este. Apparently it is a ghost town half the year. On the way, we toured the home and museum of Carlos Paez Vilaro, which is a great place to spend a few hours. The construction is fantastic and his paintings and other creations are very good, more appealing to me than Torres Garcia who we learned about yesterday. Carlos had a fascinating life, and a strong connection to Africa.
In Punta we met Robert Montreuil and his partner Sonja, who hosted our lunch and then went for a walk with us on the waterfront. Robert is a transplanted Canadian, a propeller-head (I hope he doesn’t mind me describing him that way) who is fascinated by robotics and other hobbies, and is interesting to listen to and share ideas with. He’s a warm, friendly and typically polite Canadian. His partner Sonja seems to be even more gregarious and cheerful.
In the evening we went to a nearby Armenian restaurant for “Ozzie night”, but many of the regular Ozzies couldn’t make it, so the crowd was smaller than usual. We met John, who is from the U.K. but also got his Australian citizenship, and his wife Stella, a Uruguayan. I didn’t take photos at the restaurant.
Jan 26th. Deb changed a bit more money so we wouldn’t run out of Uruguayan pesos, and after a lunch we hugged Silvia goodbye and Lionel drove us to Trez Cruzes bus station. We were sad to leave because they are such congenial hosts. They invited us, out of the blue, to stay for three nights based on our public post, and then just kept stretching it without complaint, even encouragement it seemed, day after day until we’d been there for seven nights.
We bought tickets, perhaps the last to be had for the 1:30 bus, because we had the back two seats beside the toilet, but it wasn’t bad. It was quite a good toilet, for a rocking bus. Oddly, there were people who climbed aboard and paid the conductor from their seats rather than buying their tickets in advance. I'm not sure how that works, but maybe you can book a seat online and then pay for it once you sit in it. There were two women and two small children who had to stand until the conductor went down the aisle and checked everyone else’s ticket, and got paid for several of them.
I suddenly realized that we had wifi on the bus, whenever they had strong signal, and discovered that we’d been accepted by a host in Tigre, which is one of the places we certainly wanted to visit. We cancelled the small hotel we’d booked in BsAs - luckily they had a free cancellation policy up to a day before arrival.
We arrived in Colonia by 4:30 p.m. and hiked to our hostel by 5. It was a funky, very old hotel that is part of the International Hostel Association, but is at the total opposite of "high end" - very run-down, quite noticeable in the decrepit furniture and paint-peeling walls. Like most countries in recent years, the hostels are often more expensive than three star hotels, which is weird but explicable if you think it through in terms of the backpacking clientele they serve and their linguistic limitations. At least we have wifi and a kind of common area to meet fellow travelers. I was disappointed, but Deb is content and has told me to suck it up, so we’ll hang out here for the first night at least, and tour the historical district of Colonia.
We went out for our first meal from the only street food stands that are allowed in Uruguay, which are trailers parked on side streets with water for washing up and with stoves and fridges built in. We had a Milanesa Con Carne Especial, which was essentially a bit of breaded veal in a bun with egg and ham, tomato and lettuce. We each ate one and split a litre of Pilsen beer for $9 apiece, which is about what it would have cost in Toronto. When I got back to the hostel I discovered that Silvia had contacted Christian, who lives just outside of town, to see if he would meet with us. She and Lionel will house-sit for him in early February. He agreed, so we’ll get out to his property for part of one of these two days, I believe.
Our hostel would be a great business opportunity for
someone. For 15% more than they charge for a decent,
clean hotel with twice as good a breakfast in the major city
across the water, Buenos Aires, this place has not had any
money poured back into it for decades. Toronto hostels
are cheaper and cleaner. We stopped into some hotels
on the strip to compare prices. The next hotel up from
this one is double the price, it would seem. Occupancy
is high enough - somebody is making a killing.
There are two courtyards. Our room opens onto the
first courtyard, with an open transom over our door that we
can’t close. With concrete walls, tile floor and
balcony overhangs in the courtyard, our room with its open
transom becomes an amplifier of booming voices at night when
the younger crowd comes back with a few beer behind their
belts. There’s a posted rule against noise after midnight.
The night clerk’s open lobby is connected to the
courtyard, but she just chatted with one of them until 2:30
a.m. herself, and did nothing about it. In the morning
they told us we “should have come out to tell her”.
When we emerged at breakfast, mind you, the courtyard
was filled with older guests who spoke so quietly we
couldn’t hear them from inside the room. A lot of older
motorcycle touring travelers use these kinds of hostels
because they can park their motorbikes inside the enclosed
courtyards, for better security.
On the third night, two girls sat right outside our door
with a bottle of Johnny Walker and partied with each other,
laughing and sharing amusing videos on their phones.
Sometime after midnight, Deb says she got up to
complain about the two drunk girls keeping her awake. She
referred to the signs behind the doors of the rooms that
expressed the rule that there should be no noise after
midnight. The night clerk acted shocked. She said she
didn't know about the rule, and then was surprised to hear
about the signs in each room. Possibly the same girl as two
The second courtyard has rooms that open out onto a garbage
dump, as you’ll see from my photos - which are, I can assure
you, not the ones that appear on their website or on
Tripadvisor. There are three showers for the whole
complex; they all have hot water, but only two have shower
heads, and only one has a mount for its shower head.
The shower head is broken, and the water comes straight down
instead of outward.
So there you have it: without even charging any more money, anyone at all could set up a competitive hostel, more strictly managed and with furniture that is, at the least, clean and freshly painted. Unless there is (and who knows?) some sort of mafia presence in town that locks out honest entrepreneurship, this could steal business from the more expensive hotels. There’s a bit of urban renewal and much nicer businesses surrounding it, so it is probably time to tear it down and set up a fresh, clean alternative in Colonia, managed by someone with drive and imagination. Or more effort simply by those who own private homes to step up and get paid a fair price to provide accommodation for budget travelers. This one is very poor representation for Hostelling International, says me, who has stayed in many hostels in my day, including castles in Scotland. I even run one out of a circle of trailers in western Canada for a summer, and ours was neat, clean, sociable, appreciated by our hosteling guests and yet properly policed. Here, the guests look glum and there’s no sociability.
Postscript: as we sat here for breakfast on our second
morning, one of the rickety tables in the courtyard
collapsed while one of the owners sat at it with his
daughter. We rushed to help him correct the problem
and remove the patio umbrella - the light, rotting wooden
tables all have patio umbrellas stuck through holes in the
centre and are not anchored at the bottom with anything at
all. Not a sand base, no concrete, not even a concrete
block, which I occasionally use at home. The umbrella
was removed and the owner fussed with some screws trying to
repair the table which was falling apart (it was these
exertions that had caused the whole thing to collapse in the
first place, like a house of cards), but he had no electric
drill or drill bits, no power screwdriver, and no glue.
Later some hostel guests sat at the table, perhaps bumped it
slightly, and it collapsed again onto their laps, spilling
their hot tea and all their breakfast onto them. Again
we rushed to help out. The owner did nothing.
What a cheap bastard. They don’t even wipe down these
tables before breakfast. Deborah had to ask the
breakfast girl to come over and rub away a sticky spot with
a sponge, but the girl didn’t do the rest of the table, as I
would have done, and didn’t go near any of the other
tables. Perhaps she was afraid they’d collapse on her
just as easily! She’d certainly have had a problem
getting them back up by herself.
Finally - just after I finished writing the above paragraph - another set of guests arrived and sat down with their breakfast, two young guys but one with a baby barely standing, not even yet walking. They also lost their entire breakfast on the tile floor, and it is lucky that the baby wasn’t hurt. This time they didn’t even jostle the table, from what I could see, and I saw it happen right in front of me. Why do guests in a place like this act guilty, as if they did something to create an accident when a crappy table collapses on them? Again I jumped up to help, and insisted that they sit at my table instead, which was safer. The kitchen staff came out to clean up the mess, and finally folded up the crappy table and put it aside. Still, I won’t be surprised to see it back in its position of prominence tomorrow morning.
We walked through the historic neighbourhood of old colonial Colonia today. The heat spell broke during a wind and rain storm on our last day in Montevideo, and today’s walk was quite comfortable. It is a bit charming, and I took about thirty photos in good sunshine. This territory has changed hands numerous times, being under the control of Spain, Portugal, England and even France at one point I suspect, since one of the tile maps on a wall of an old building shows all the place names in French. It has been a little football between superpowers until gaining independence.
There are a few small but decent museums. We bought a general ticket to six museums which can be used over two days; we saw two of them this afternoon before coming home and will see three tomorrow along with the aquarium. We ate lunch at a nearby restaurant and learned that we shouldn’t have changed so much money. The hostel wanted U.S. cash, and restaurants don’t have to charge you their 18% tax if you use a foreign credit card, so our meal in a restaurant, at a “promo” price, admittedly, turned out to be a better deal than the street food trailers. In fact, we’re actually further ahead to charge meals to our credit card and change our Uru pesos back to AR pesos when we get back to Buenos Aires. Live and learn.
I almost talked Deborah into choosing a different hotel for
our third night, but we got mildly scammed by the clerk when
we suggested that we might only pay for two nights here,
using a math trick that I knew made no sense but wasn’t in a
position to refute. So I was forced, as Deborah had
told me to, to ”suck it up“. Mind you, I’ve stayed in worse
places, both with and without her. It was probably more the
sense of insult that has me wanting to be somewhere else.
Jan 27th. We hadn’t heard from Christian by last night, either from emails or text, so I finally insisted that Deborah phone him, and he answered. We’re to meet him this evening at a café, where we’ll meet his family as well, apparently. The timing is ok, because we’ll see museums that don’t open until 11 and an aquarium that doesn’t open until 3 but closes at 5. There are very strange very short hours for such things here, which leaves you long stretches of a normal day to fill with reading, strolling, using the wifi. That can be a bit of a curse for someone who wakes up at 6 a.m.
While using the wifi, I remembered that we’d never checked Airbnb for Colonia, partly because Deborah had tried to book an Airbnb in BsAs and the company has a new step which involves taking a photo of your passport or some other gov’t issued ID, but the software they had in place to photoscan it didn’t work. In any case, I had a look to see what might have been available. Now, there’s one small, charming neighbourhood in Colonia, and it is high season, but nothing I’ve seen prepared me for some of the prices on Airbnb: one house listed for $4,139 CAD per night plus a $267 “service fee”! Now granted, that’s the entire house with 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms to accommodate, they claim, six people; but still, somebody is clearly dreaming in technicolour. The photos show a modest bungalow by Canadian standards, with blankets over the couches. Another listing for a single room with one bed for two guests at $674 CAD per night has, as its main photo, a picture of the toilet. There are 27 listings, and only a few seem reasonable in terms of pricing. I’ve traveled enough to know how regions compare in terms of quality and pricing. The sticker shock I experienced here is rare and only to be found in the most desirable and fashionable of locations around the world that are well maintained. The only explanations I can fathom for these prices is that it is high season, that there is some sort of wide polarization between wealth extremes and that these prices are aimed at the wealthy few, or that the website can’t translate currencies and shows some prices listed in Uruguayan pesos or Argentinian pesos with a CAD sign accidentally because it has identified my table browser as belonging to a Canadian traveler, which is highly possible.
Pricing here is quite bizarre. These are my own
observations, backed up by a discussion with Christian in my
next paragraph. In spite of great agricultural
possibilities, when we go into the grocery store nearby,
fruit is three times the prices that we see on Toronto
supermarket shelves. In a place where bananas ought to
grow very well, we see two bananas in a little mesh bag for
$2 CAD. At home they are flown in from places like
this and cost $1 for a bunch of six or less - I’ve often
seen them for 56 cents a pound, or just over $1 a kilo.
Deb knows her prices really well in Toronto because
she is an “extreme shopper” and compares all the promotional
flyers once a week before her main shopping trip. We
have apples, pears and peaches at similarly low prices in
Toronto, even through the winter, but we also have avocados,
which have to be flown in, and other tropical fruit.
There has to be some explanation involving more
efficient farming methods and distribution channels, and
perhaps Uruguayan import regulations which ought to allow
them to bring in these products at the same price - from
nearer - that Toronto does, even if they can’t figure out
how to grow them cheaply themselves in this wonderful
climate. Are there import duties on the machinery they’d
need? Would that also boost the cost of construction
and renovation materials, and explain why there are so many
“skeletons” and decrepit empty buildings, even in places so
full of charm and economic promise like the “barrio
historico” of Colonia? What is the situation with
regard to unemployment, and wages? What do the staff
earn at this hostel from the $40 U.S. per night for a
double, and much more income from individuals in a dorm
room? Are Airbnb prices high because the cost of
living is outrageous, or because it is seen as a lottery
ticket? I stared at real estate offerings, and there
are pretty nice bungalows available for a quarter of the
price of my modest bungalow in Toronto. How much rent to you
have to demand from one of these to make it worth your while
to rent it out? So many questions, and so few answers,
at this point. But this place is definitely
encapsulated in the description “third world surroundings at
first world prices”.
We met Christian, Silvia and Lionel’s friend, and his
mother, father and one grandmother. They are staying
on the farm with him, which is just ten minutes outside of
town. They get a bit stir-crazy, so they insist that
he brings them into town twice a week to hang out in a
pretty park in the old city. Christian maintains a
place called Los
He talked with us about his plans for the future and
about Uruguayan prices and food culture. He says his
Helpx visitors are always shocked. Girls from Tokyo and
London each told him that a coffee and a small piece of cake
cost them more here than in their own cities. Uruguayans
cannot afford to eat out in their own restaurants, but they
don’t grow gardens of their own and eat healthy food.
He says they’ll exist on mate tea and crackers before
they’ll do that, and sometimes push aside the tomato that
comes with a restaurant meal.
It blows my mind because I have a massive vegetable garden
in a very small suburban back yard every summer in
Toronto. If I had a home in a year-round growing
climate like this, I'd eat like a king all year. A
basic semi-skilled worker’s salary might be $250/week CAD,
and rental housing would cost them half of that, but if
Christian employs them on his farm he also has to pay their
social security and other costs. For that reason he
limits his own production to what he can produce himself,
with the help of Helpx guest workers, just as I do in my own
garden in Toronto. He keeps chickens for eggs, honey bees,
two cows that he hopes to begin milking, and some fruit
trees; he also has two horses, a donkey, five dogs and a
couple of cats.
However, Colonia is a pleasant town. We saw the remaining three museums, and the whole collection of six was well worth the price of admission. The aquarium was definitely not. We also employed a familiar trick in a new town, taking a map and hopping on local transit buses to soak in the sights and atmosphere of the neighbourhoods, and the residential architecture and parks. Today we saw mostly bungalows roughly the size of ours in Toronto but without basements, we assume; and a bull ring that had its first bullfights with bulls from Spain in 1910 and had seating for 8000 spectators. It is closed, and becoming a ruin itself. The city may turn it into a sports stadium at some point.
Deb and I had a good last
supper, a chivito for two on a platter (no bread) with a
mountain of fries, potato salad, fresh and pickled
vegetables. The chivito itself was egg on cheese on ham on a
steak. It was a lot of food, but we packed it all away
with a pomelo soft drink, which is a bit like grapefruit.
We’re off on the 10 a.m. ferry to BsAs tomorrow but
will make a sharp left turn when we arrive and head directly
Jan 28th. Sometimes when you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind. We ate a quick breakfast and humped our bags down to the ferry. One hour later we were in BA. We made a stiff hike to Retiro-Mitre station, followed by a train ride for sixteen stops to Tigre, where Javier Feit met us, walked us to his house, made a cheese pizza in his oven before you knew it, and had us on the water in his motorboat for a tour of the delta by early afternoon. Three or four hours later we returned for a beer in the back garden, and then he went to bed for a nap before his night shift at a medical dispatch centre while I downloaded and cropped my photos from the afternoon. This place is very photogenic, so I had lots of photos to work with. Then he went to work, and Deb and I fell into our own bed, exhausted.
Jan 29th. I got up at six after a solid sleep on a
comfortable mattress. Javier arrived home from the
night shift before 8 a.m. and I went with him to retrieve
his boat. Last night the water level was too low to
haul it out. The delta water is sweet water, but
affected by the tides in the ocean it flows into. I
walked into the silty water to attach the winch hook from
the trailer to the boat, and it was like a warm bathtub.
It is easy to see why there are so many people
swimming from the end of their docks. There are no
alligators or cayman, or any other sort of dangerous animal
or creature here in the delta.
Javier says that the water isn’t drinkable, and that veggies
have to be grown in raised beds because the soil might have
too much water for them, especially when it rains, and when
the tide is high. However, the natural vegetation
seems to love it. There isn’t much local food
production. Even lemons, which are a major export for
Argentina and used to be grown here were more economically
grown inland once the train tracks were built. There
are a few local produce sellers that sell from their baskets
on the steps of the local market, which is still called “The
Fruit Market” in spite of the fact that it sells everything
but fruit. Instead you see household furnishings and
sundries, some crafts and local baskets woven from hollow
grass that grows here, and cheap goods from China.
Food, fuel and water supplies to the homes are
delivered by supply boats that go from dock to dock up the
river channels. Some channels are not navigable,
especially at low tide. Residents have to walk or
cycle down to a larger river dock to buy what they need, and
many have small powerboats, canoes, rowboats and all manner
of other small craft.
You’ll see in one photo a kind of canoe parking lot on steps
leading down to the water near the centre of town.
They are left quite safely there. No-one here has much
concern about theft. Boats and motors are not locked,
and Javier leaves his car unlocked and the keys in it for
his daughter to take whenever she wants it. There is
barbed wire at the back of his house and bars across the
windows, but Javier says that the bars are an insurance
requirement based on crime in other parts of Argentina, and
also a sign of the general anxiety of latin people which in
his own half-century here he has found unwarranted.
Much of the delta’s early popularity rested on groups from
Europe setting up rowing clubs. Before trains, and
even afterward, they’d row from Buenos Aires to their
seasonal and weekend homes in the delta, or to their rowing
clubs, which had rooms for sleeping as well as restaurants
and bars. Different countries in Europe are represented by
the different clubs, so you see, for example, Norwegian
flags on some boats.
We saw lots of derelict larger boats. When companies go bankrupt they abandon their ships along the river banks, and the ships remain there locked in legal limbo for decades with claims against them by former employees and creditors. They can’t be removed or cut up for recycled steel. There were also concrete ships, built after the war when steel plate was too expensive, over steel mesh. They age, and concrete chunks pop off the mesh. Although one would imagine that they could be repaired indefinitely, which was the promise of many sailboats built of concrete in the ‘70s which are still afloat, they are heavy and perhaps burn too much fuel to compete with the steel ships, so they have been abandoned as well.
During economic downturns, many of the larger clubs and the more ostentatious homes were purchased by labour unions and other groups to provide vacations for their members and employees. Churches and schools on the island are all accessed by boat. The wealthier owners each have their own dock. In other neighbourhoods there are collections of houses without direct water access, and they have a community dock. On hot days you will see many people hanging out and swimming from these community docks, socializing and purchasing supplies from the supply boats that cruise past.
It is a very fine lifestyle, I have to admit. Javier describes a typical day as being one of waking to glorious sunshine, going for a swim in that natural bathtub, or a row or a paddle, fishing off the dock for fun (the fish taste kind of muddy, they’re more for cat food than for most humans), eating asado (BBQ - meat is cheap in Argentina, he claims; maybe you need to know where to buy it) washed down with beer or wine made in Argentina, then snoozing off the meal on an air mattress floating on the river. You may end the day with a beer, socializing with friends. A pretty cushy existence.
The Museum of Arts opened at noon, so we hiked a couple of
kilometres and got there by about 1 p.m. It was a good
museum with lots of fine paintings and a surprise temporary
exhibit of an artist, Hernan Dompe, who combined materials
and ideas in unique and surprising ways, with a wide range
of materials. The building is the old Tigre Club, once
for the rich aristocrat crowd, but they’ve been swept away
in tides of economic chaos over the past century. The
building is still quite beautiful. You’ll see lots of
interesting art including ceiling murals that depict ladies
playing pan flute and harp while their companions extol the
virtues of modern CD’s.
We hiked almost another kilometre to the Reconquista museum which should have taught me something about the history of the town and the delta region, but it was closed, so we went to the naval museum instead. That was well worth the price of entry. It is quite a phenomenal collection of artifacts including many excellent hand-made models of early ships - Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek, Roman and European ones - which always interest me because of their configurations and sail plans. We saw modern naval exhibits including Torpedo Alley and a room bristling with artillery and anti-aircraft guns. There was commentary and some photos of the war with Britain for the Malvinas, which the British won and call the Falkland Islands, so I guess that’s what they’re really called, but the Argentinians continue to call them the Malvinas so I guess they haven’t given up hope of winning them back.
That’s about all we could handle for one day of hiking and gawking in museums, which kills your back after a while, so we hiked back home and picked up two hamburgers with ham and cheese from a burger shack that Javier had recommended. They were very good, especially washed down with a litre of dark stout called Qilmes, which has “the flavour of chocolate and the aroma of coffee”. It’s quite sweet, and Deborah, who is not fond of beer generally, likes it. I added some lovely hot peppers from a plant in Javier’s back yard to my burger.
We met Javier’s fifteen year old son Ramiro. By 7 p.m. I had finished downloading, reviewing, vetting and cropping almost a hundred photos. I wrote today’s diary entry and we headed upstairs for a nap in our air conditioned third floor room. When we woke up we popped across the street to the store - which was closed - and had to dart through a major traffic jam. There’ve been horns and sirens for a solid half-hour - must be a terrible accident or something on the only bridge into the heart of town, or just past it.
Jan 30th. We met Javier’s 22 year old daughter and 18 year old son Tobias last night, and ate Chinese food with them. We learned that spring rolls can be directly translated, but they are also called “chinese empanadas”. They ate very late, after his daughter got off her work shift, and at the hour when he usually begins work, but he is off for a few days now. He works three days one week and four the next week, like firemen do in Toronto.
Today is Monday, and on Mondays everything is closed, even the burger shack, so it was a low key day. In some ways it was a good day to walk to the Puerto de Frutos, the fruit market that doesn’t sell fruit, and whose name baffles Deborah because it violates her understanding of gender in Spanish - she wants to call it Puerto de Frutas, but we learned that frutos means the fruit of plants generally and could include, for example, nuts, while frutas means sweet things like apples and pears. In English we use the single word fruit with both separate meanings.
The street of artists was completely shut down, and most of the other markets, including Chinatown, but we didn’t have to deal with crowds of people. It was an energy-sapping forty degrees in the shade and felt hotter in the sun. We even stopped, on a fairly short walk and return, at the three story casino to ride the escalators up and down in air conditioned relief, and to soak our hats and our "neck-cool-chiefs" in the washroom sinks. We returned to the ground level where we’d been required to leave our mochillas, and told the backpack locker attendant that we’d already lost all our money so it was time to go. We came home and had a veal sandwich and Brahma beer and green grapes for lunch. Brahma beer is a funny name for a beer here, where they admire the Brahma bull but they also eat it.
In the evening we had a BBQ in Javier’s backyard - an asado on his parrilla, as the terminology is. In a restaurant you’ll see a parrillada for two advertised. Javier was the asador, and he coached us to say, when the meat is delivered at any subsequent BBQ/asado we are invited to join, “Un aplauso para el asador!” - i.e., “applause to the BBQ chef”. We were joined by sons Ramiro and Tobias, and Tobias’ friend Mattias. All of them practiced speaking English with us, but Tobias is quite good at it.
After extensive mulling over the logistics of a trip to Iguazu Falls from here, we decided this morning that we would save that for another winter escape. We live near Niagara Falls and we have seen it and taken visitors there numerous times; we’ve seen Victoria Falls (one of us more than once) and a number of other less famous falls including various African ones. We learned from online travelers’ reviews that it would be a 24 hour bus ride to get to Iguazu from BsAs and then we’d stay in crappy overpriced accommodation in the town called Puerto Iguazu, which has been described by professional travel writers as “a dump”. We’d pay for an expensive Brazilian visa for one day if we want to do that side of the falls which includes the Bird Park, (and some travellers appear to have had to pay more at the border crossing than for the normal tourist visa), on top of the various park fees and local transportation costs. We intend to visit Brazil within the next three years, and our Argentina visa is good for ten years of re-entry, so it seems logical that we might come to Iguazu from the Brazilian side later on, perhaps in a small rented camper so that we aren’t at the mercy of local hoteliers. It’s still a thousand kilometres compared to 1300 from BsAs, but the bus ride is only 15 hours and costs a third less, so with both visas in our pocket we’d be better off even if we do have to stay in a crappy motel. Tough choice, but it seems the most practical choice to delay seeing Iguazu Falls until we have all our ducks lined up.
Jan 31st. The heat wave of the past few days broke overnight, and we awoke to claps of thunder and some rain. I got an overdue haircut across the street. We picked up some supplies, and then Javier loaded us in his motorboat, in the rain, and dropped us off at the dock for Casona del Rio. Stef and Carolina own this property on one of the islands of the delta, and we will stay here for four nights, doing little chores to make ourselves useful and becoming the latest in a list of almost one hundred and fifty Couchsurfers they have hosted. On weekends it tends to be quite a busy bed and breakfast, and the volunteers help with food prep and cleaning.
Until the rain stopped and the sun came out, we chatted with Stef and with Jenny and Matt who are Couchsurfers who’ve been here for two weeks already and really know the routine. I walked the garden and took a few photos, and then began taking some old loungers apart for Stef. Carolina is a fledgling diplomat who has to work in BsAs Monday to Friday. We’ll stay until Saturday morning, so we’ll get a chance to meet her before we go back to BsAs ourselves. There are pecan trees in the yard and we’ll be snacking on those for the next four days, and enjoying a very quiet break after our hectic pace of the last month.
After I’d spent a little time sweeping and repairing a few lounge chairs, Stef came back from a raid on a local store where he says the owners are going on vacation and have to sell all their leftover produce. He covered a large kitchen table with veggies and grapes that he’d bought for only $15. We (mostly Jenny, Deb and Matt) processed all this food and then Deb taught them to cook swiss chard, which they aren’t familiar with, because we had a garbage bag full of it. There’s fresh bread cooking in the breadmaker, and we have two enormous bags of grapes for dessert. I’d already filled up on a beer and tons of pecans, which I quickly learned to crack by holding two in one hand and squeezing them together. One of the two always cracks, with surprisingly little effort.
There are a few mosquitoes, but not disease carrying. Sometimes a tide with storm surge, i.e. wind from the right direction, can cover the island with water, even partway up the walls on the ground floor. When the tide drains away they have to clean out a thin layer of silt, but apart from that there’s no permanent effect on the building. Stef left shortly after giving us our tour of his property, to spend a couple of days with his wife in BsAs.
Feb 1st. We breakfasted with Jenny and Matt - Jenny’s toasted fresh bread and our blue cheese. We made ourselves busy with a few chores. I constructed a weight for the tensioner for the bow line of the boat, and Jenny got herself wet positioning the boat and feeding the rope from the weight through a pulley near the top of the pole and back to a clip on the bow line. The old weight had disappeared into the murky depths. Basically the boat is tied between two poles but has to allow for significant tide differences and for the wash from other boats which speed up the river channels. There are no “No Wake” signs here. It takes an hour to get to where a lot of the boaters have to go, so they all just go full tilt, but they do throttle back for small craft like canoes, rowboats and kayaks. I’d like to puzzle out a system that allows the boat to be drawn over to the steps of the jetty but then returned to its place between the two poles, but I haven’t figured that out yet and I don’t think there’s enough rope on the property to make it happen. As it is, you have to climb down to the boat from the seawall, which may be difficult at low tide. Jenny suggested constructing a ladder, which makes sense if one had enough time and knew where all the tools were. Stef mentioned that he’d like legs constructed for a table top somewhere behind the shed, but I haven’t seen the table top and I don’t know where to find his electric drill or power saw. His shed is a terrible jumble.
Deb and Jenny made a fine quiche for lunch, and in the afternoon they made a pecan pie, which just made so much sense since we have boxes and boxes of pecans from the trees on the property. Stefan occasionally sells a kilo or so at a time but the whole process of advertising and then delivering them is generally too much trouble for him, so chances are most of them will never get sold. We snack on them all day and don’t even make a dent.
I wanted to cut up some wood from fallen trees but I failed to get either the gas or the electric chainsaw to run, so I just helped Matt re-bed a wobbly concrete step coming from the jetty to the path to the front door. Tomorrow we’ll move some eyesore furniture from the front balcony, and mow the lawns ahead of the weekend crowd. The BnB is booked solid on weekends during the summer, with only Argentinian clientele from BsAs. It is very cheap, and therefore popular. For that reason, Deb and I will move on by Saturday morning and go to BsAs for a couple more nights, staying at the Esmeralda once more. On the day in between, we’ll see the museum that we missed last time, and probably also the famous street El Caminito in La Boca neighbourhood. Then we’re headed to a new host in Necochea.
Feb 2nd. I cleaned up sticks in the yard so that Matt
could mow, then I cleaned up the balcony area to make it
pleasant to sit out there. The balcony was filled with
old broken lounge chair frames, parts of a bed frame and
other junk, and it needed a good sweeping. I did that,
and managed to get rid of some of the junk and reorganize
the rest so that it became habitable. Stefan came back
from BsAs in the early afternoon and seemed pleased to see
how the place had been spruced up in only two days. It
was basically a spring cleaning in mid-summer, largely
instigated by Matt who insisted on digging dirt and cobwebs
out of corners wherever he could find them, and wiping down
Stefan praised my boat bow line tensioning system and was happy to see the four useful loungers set up on a freshly mowed lawn, and all the tile floors swept and mopped. We had a late afternoon lunch/supper of pork chops using Jenny’s Mom’s recipe - courtesy of Stef having defrosted the freezer and then forgetting to plug it in again. We had potato salad and a tomato salad to round out the meal, washed down with a beer from the island store next door at prices 20% higher than a ten minute boat ride away, and homemade pecan pie with homegrown pecans for dessert. Yes sir, that’s livin’ large in the delta!
Feb 3rd. I’ve realized how the tides work here in the delta. They’re almost completely unpredictable, and don’t create a sine wave on a graph. They’re affected by the volume of rain upstream, the ocean tides pushing back on that volume of water, and storm or wind surge. We found a tide table that said we’d see low tide yesterday morning, but it was high, which got me to thinking through the reasons.
We taught Jenny and Matt to play Farkle last night, and they told us the harrowing tale of how they were robbed on the street in Quito by a man with a knife, and how incredibly incompetent and dismissive police were even after the thief was caught. They spent two days jumping through ridiculous hoops trying to get their belongings back, and the police, one suspects from the way they behaved, were colluding with the prisoner who would be back on the streets a day later. It matched up perfectly with explanations we’d heard from our friends and hosts in Quito, who’d described how the catching of thieves was a source of revenue for police, who’d get a cut of the theft or a pay-off in return for doing incompetent paperwork, being unable to gather sufficient “evidence” for prosecution, and then releasing the prisoner the same day. Both Jenny and Matt studied Spanish at university, and Matt read the phone messages over the shoulder of the lady policewoman who was taking his statement, where she appeared to be describing their case to a friend and said “they got the least they deserved”, implying that they were stupid young tourists who deserved to get robbed.
Today I repaired one of the lounge chairs I’d repaired two days ago. I’m guessing one of the guests put their foot on a bottom rung and because the wood is old, the nails gave way. I replaced the rung by cannibalizing from another chair. Then I sistered an old table top made of boards to secure the loose ones, pulled off a few rotten bits, and helped Stef cut legs for it from the logs he was cutting up with his chainsaw I got each person in the house to hold one leg upright, and spiked the board top into the legs to make what he calls a “rustic table”, which actually looks quite nice and will stand up to the sun much better than the brittle old plastic table that it has replaced. We had dinner on it this evening. It looked fine with a red checkered tablecloth thrown over it. But Stef also found an old patio umbrella fabric and threw that over the old round plastic table, which created a perfectly fitted tablecloth for it as well.
Random things to remember about Casona del Rio: magnolia trees blooming outside our window; a gardenia bush with fragrant flowers; the calls of mourning doves and subtropical birds (we’re at 34 degrees latitude south); green parrots in the palm trees by the front door; blue white-chested hummingbirds chasing each other around the feeder; tonight’s guests from BsAs, the two daughters each catching a fish from the river out in front of the house; the constant sound throughout the day of boats going by like vehicles on a busy highway; fig trees and orange trees (unfortunately the fruits are not quite ripe yet); pecans...and pecan pie.
Getting water: the method is
simple. The crew of the public taxi boats that ply the
river have 10 litre jugs of potable water on their roofs.
You hail them with empty jugs from your private jetty
and they stop long enough to swap full jugs for empty ones.
The story we’ve been told is that the water is free,
but you give them a 10 peso tip for each jug, which works
out to less than a dime a litre. Now, the way Deb
explains this process is, “You just stand at the end of your
dock and wave your jugs at them, and they stop for
you”. And so they should, wouldn’t you think?!
|Bye-bye Buenos Aires - Nice to See Ya, Necochea||Necochea
Sun, Surf and Sea Lions
Feb 4th. After breakfast and packing, we had a quick meeting
with Carolina, and arranged to meet for lunch in BsAs
tomorrow. Then we rode the Jilguero II river ferry to
the centre of town and caught the train to BsAs. We
checked into the Esmeralda Palace where we’d had to pay
$5/night extra but found ourselves assigned to a larger room
with a separate sitting room and couch, and a terrace
balcony outside the door. It was worth the extra few
We rushed off to buy bus tickets to Necochea for Monday, and fired off a few more emails. Then we went to the patriotic history museum, which is situated in a nice park at the foot of Avenida Defensa. It wasn’t extremely interesting for those who aren’t nationals and patriots, but we saw a few cool things. I took photos of a lovely guitar with mother of pearl inlay all over it, built at a time when gentlemen still wore tights and ruff collars, and a chair constructed of deer antlers. There were also some hilarious cartoons of ladies in very wide hats which must have been the height of fashion in 1834. One guy at the theatre said, “I might as well sleep - I can’t see the play.” Another gentleman was poked in the eye, and a workman was knocking an entrance way wider to accommodate the hat of the lady of the house.
Something else we saw that was cool was in the park on the way back to the bus - an entire tree of blossoms that reminded me a little of the colours of some orchids, but with blossoms a bit more like hibiscus.
It’s raining hard outside on the terrace. Luckily we
only have steps to go to eat at the pay-what-it-weighs
buffet next door.
Feb 5th. Our day is complicated by rain and high
winds, for the first time in our trip. We’ve had just
a little rain before now, perhaps two days out of
thirty-five, so we’ve been lucky. Today we met Stef
and Carolina at a Peruvian restaurant, where we shared a
ceviche for lunch. After lunch we went El Caminito, a
relatively safe and famous couple of blocks of La Boca,
which is otherwise said to be quite a dangerous
While waiting for the rain to diminish, we toured the museum
of Benito QuinQuela Martin, an artist who was in love with
colour and whose large home, which was his workshop, looked
out over the quays. He created a museum housed in his own
home in 1938, using the light and high ceilings to display
his own work and that of other artists of La Boca, and other
friends. The ships at the quays were the main theme of
his paintings. He rarely left his home, but he founded the
Order of the Screw, which added new members year after year,
including Charlie Chaplin in 1960. The museum also
displays young current artists. He collected the
figureheads from the prows of old boats, and painted objects
in his home, such as his piano and his entire kitchen, with
the colours that he loved.
In the photos of El Caminito you'll notice lots of life-sized statues, and larger, which seem to be a favourite decoration of the residents, and you’ll see riotously colourful buildings. One cool thing I saw was a stand set up by BsAs tourism, which has a shared bicycle rental system, to provide free air for bicycle tires and free tools on steel cables for people to adjust their bicycle seats and handlebars, and bars to hold the bike up off the ground for other repairs.
Feb 6th. I took a few photos of a statue of Don Quixote, and Eva Peron singing into a microphone on the side of the radio transmission building. If snakes give you a thrill, there’s a guy completely wrapped up in one. There’s a patriotic martyr being taken to heaven by an angel, but as you’ll see, the horse is clearly not that eager to go. And there’s a nude on the side of a building next to our hotel. We don’t know why.
Deb got a bit incensed at the way the Esmeralda Palace overcharged her. Essentially, they tacked on the 21% VAT which the President of Argentina had exempted from tourists using a foreign credit card in a law passed in September of 2016. It was in a bid to encourage tourism, since foreign visitors were, quite obviously, balking at travelling to a place that imposes a 21% tax on them! Deb checks her credit card balance regularly, and noticed the overcharge immediately. The hotel blamed Booking.com, who claimed they don’t make the charge and they turned the blame back on the hotel. The hotel hadn’t charged us the VAT on the previous two transactions we made with them, and it is possible they would have rebated it this time as well, but the fact that it appeared on her credit card statement at all sent Deb into a little tizzy, since they’ve had our foreign credit card number and passport on file for two weeks now (and we produced both once again when we checked back in two days ago) and the accountant should have known better than to charge the VAT-laden amount to her card. Ya gotta watch these guys…
Our bus ride to Colonia had us assigned to the two rear-most
seats on the bus. This one to Necochea had us in the
two front-most seats, upstairs on the double-decker, with a
picture window to view the scenery. Better yet, it was an
“executive class” bus, with fewer, wider seats, and further
apart. Consequently there were fewer passengers, and
our comfortable seats reclined to a full 180 degrees with a
curtain between for privacy if we wanted to sleep. We
napped a little, but mostly we watched the incredibly flat
countryside slip by. This is prairie Canada mixed with
a bit of Holland, and they call it pampas. Like what
we put on babies, but with sort of a British accent. (Ba
Our cab ride to our host’s home was short and the cabbie was honest and used a meter. I’d avoided taxis like the plague in BsAs because of so many horror stories about their tricks of legerdemain turning large bills you’d handed them into small bills, and claiming you hadn’t paid them enough.
Our host is Marta, a retired bank employee with three grown sons in their thirties, but she lives alone with a cat and a dog. She lives in a small beach town with few opportunities to practice English, which she learned from the age of 5 or 6, encouraged by her father. She is pleased to have us here and pleased that we turned out to be ok people. We’re only the second couchsurfing guests she’s hosted, and the first was a girl from Spain so she didn’t practice much English. I’m reading Spanish and beginning to employ occasional single words in conversation, sometimes a phrase or two; but for her, I’ll give back by focussing on English.
Marta is a collector of small things. She has crystal and crystals (two different things), tiny tea cups, shells, tiny bottles, tiny souvenir items that we sometimes call kitsch, frig magnets showing travel destinations, rocks in a bowl and rocks in a bottle, multiple photos in a single frame, sample sized bottles of perfumes and essential oils, airline liquor miniature bottles - really old ones! - things like that. She has an old Brownie box camera, and old telephones, like the old cradle-set dial phone in our living room that came from Deb's grandfather. She is Deb’s kind of person, for sure, and they got on well for a couple of hours after we arrived, as we ate thin crust pizza hot from the oven which she’d prepared for our late arrival. The bus had pulled into town around 10:30 p.m.
In the morning Marta went to a hair appointment and we went to the only real tourist attraction in town, a beachfront park with a museum in it. This town is a complete contrast from the bustling metropolis of BsAs, and we’ll enjoy resting here for three nights as we plan the next part of our trip.
Feb 7th. We began our exploration of Necochea with a trip to the tourist information at the beach, where “Samanta” was incredibly helpful in both languages. She thought of every possible thing that we might wonder about before it even occurred to us, and wrote every detail on a tear-off city map for us - bus numbers and schedules, museum opening days and times and costs, and many more details. What she didn’t know, she asked her colleagues in the same office. We ended up leaving her our card and a little Canadian flag pin, and an invitation to couchsurf at our home in Toronto.
Deb was concerned that she had unused credit on her SUBE
card from BsAs, but we discovered that the SUBE card can be
used on local buses here as well, six hours away from the
capital. The streets here are on a grid, and all
numbered. The odd streets run perpendicular to the
beach, and the even ones run parallel, so from 59th street
where we got off the 514 bus, to 63rd street, which is
Marta’s, we actually only walked two blocks. The 514
took us to Quequen, the neighbourhood just across the
biggest river in town, where we saw high sand dunes, another
beach and some murals on the breakwater that Necochea is
proud of. We were too early to see the hydrological
museum, which turned out later to be a sad little collection
of bones and dried or bottled sea creatures with placards to
illustrate their place in marine science.
I had thought I’d see live seahorses, but I was wrong.
So we went home, showered, and then Marta, who was going to meet a friend at the beach anyway, drove to the foot of her street and dropped us at the top of the other breakwater, where we spent a lot of time soaking in a colony of sea lions instead. These are called “lobos” in Spanish, and they are the main attraction for me in this town. These creatures are the bachelors. Samanta explained that one bull is enough to maintain a harem of thirty females, so these guys are the ones that “aren’t needed”. Seems a rather sad reality to me. On the other hand, they do get to hang out and be “buds” while lying around on beach sand all day and just going in for a dip when that gets too hot or boring. They share the beach with humans rod fishing, taking selfies and meditating in front of them with babes in arms. We didn’t notice any aggressive response at all from the sea lions.
You may know the inspirational quote from Etienne de Grellet, “I may only pass this way but once…”. For me that seems a certainty since I always travel to places I’ve never seen before, so I have a new tag ending for that introductory line. Mine is, “You may only pass this way but once...so take a lot of photos!”
We watched athletic bachelor humans enjoying the surf on the other side of the breakwall. Short boards for surfing are popular here. Wet suits are a must - it is the Atlantic, after all - and swim fins are helpful. There were dozens of surfers, but nobody stayed up long enough for me to get a shot; they were too far away for my little camera anyway. There are two long breakwaters to protect the river mouth, which is a deep-water harbour for bulk tankers that ship grain all over the world, and deliver fuel and various kinds of fertilizers.
Necochea is a town of about 100,000 people, and almost all seemed to be at the very wide, flat beach yesterday, which was a Tuesday, either through the day or in the evening after work. They played a game with flat wooden discs that works like bocce ball, and they played paddle ball, flew kites, drove their dune buggies over the dunes, and drove their vehicles right down to the water’s edge in one section where that was permitted.
We saw three surfers bowing deeply, perhaps even grovelling, in obeisance to Poseidon before braving the surf. The beach was extremely clean, in contrast to some of the countryside we’d seen from the bus. The people in this town take good care of their treasure. A few people were kayaking further up the river, which we saw from the bridge. They are blessed with a fine, wide freshwater river as well as a saltwater shoreline, and there was even a fleet of small sailboats there on moorings, near a very attractive campsite called El Gringo.
Argentinians are carnivores, by and large, and proud of it. I’ve wondered in the past how they can afford it, but this evening I could see why. We took Marta to a restaurant - or rather, she took us; we merely paid. It was an example of why local hosts are so important in a town. It was a very popular restaurant on the edge of town. The parking lot was packed with cars and the restaurant was packed with people. We had a platter of beef and pork, three different cuts (and they know their cuts, here!), a salad, fries, gassy water and a ¾ size bottle of Malbec for me, and the bill was only $50 CAD for all three of us. We ate on wooden plates, which appears to be the custom here - Stef used them in his BnB as well. You have to know where the locals go. Marta claimed the same experience would cost four times as much in BsAs.
When we came home we had “postres” - dessert. Our English word “pastries” must have the same origin. In this case, we had small pastries provided by Marta’s eldest son, who works in a bakery here in town. She also has a daughter working her way around Mexico, and a youngest son with a night shift job at a hostel in a nearby town.
Feb 8th. Marta recruited Deb to force me to speak only in Spanish today. I cheated for a while using google translate on my tablet, but they were both onto me pretty quickly. Now my utterances are rather short, and probably will be for the remainder of the day.
This was a gray day, best quickly forgotten. The sky was gray, to begin with. We bought bus tickets to Puerto Madryn, but could only find an overnight bus trip that leaves at 11 p.m., so we’ll have all day tomorrow to kill first. Marta dropped us at the Parque museum which was so-so, a bit interesting, and free, but in two parts, and the second part closed fifteen minutes early just as we arrived at the door. Everyone here seems to take a three hour lunch break. The park was large, 640 hectares, but there was nothing exciting there except for a forest of gum trees. We lined up to ride a little train and after ten minutes someone thought to tell us that the train was not working, so we strolled through the park toward the beach. We stopped for lunch which turned out to be a real let-down in spite of a waiting crowd and the other seated patrons who assured us it was delicious. We ordered from El Amanecer Comidas Rapidas, which had its own English translation on the window: “Stop! Fast Food”. Only the “Stop!” was correct. The food took 45 minutes to arrive and wasn’t what we’d asked for and had been assured that we’d get: a slab of veal with melted cheese, with fries; instead, we got a paper-thin slice of shoe leather inside a thick bun with consolation slices of ham and of cheese.
The 514 bus took just about as long to arrive to take us home as the food had. The grocery store was closed when we got off the bus. We walked to Marta’s and had a nap. What a bleak day.
In the evening things suddenly improved. We booked three nights accommodation in Puerto Madryn. No Couchsurfing hosts have stepped up there or in Bariloche yet. Restaurants always close here in the afternoon and reopen at 8 or 9. Marta followed up on a recommendation from a friend, and we went to a dining experience inside a house, called “Hidden House”. This was very good food by a chef who really knows what he’s doing. Afterward Marta drove us around the beach area to see Necochea at night, which is a different experience. There were lots of people in the “peatonales”, which are a couple of streets closed off to make pedestrian malls. And there was music. We talked in the car about her favourite musical artists.
When we first arrived, I had examined a broken charango in our room, but it wasn’t fixable or playable. When we got home this evening, however, Marta suddenly remembered that she had a guitar stashed away, so she dug it out and got us to play and sing a song for her. It is an interesting dusty guitar, a brand called “Hidden”, which was quite a coincidence. It has a polycarbonate back like an Ovation, and an electric pickup. No info on where it was made. Perhaps it was Chinese. All it said inside apart from the name was “Handmade Musical Instruments”. It needed new strings and a set-up for the neck, but it sounded pretty good and the action was easy to play. The neck was comfortable in my hand. We sang You Are My Sunshine, and Marta sang along.
Then suddenly, as Deb talked about our ukulele group at home, and Marta thought she remembered that she might have a ukulele somewhere as well. She disappeared, and reappeared with a gorgeous teardrop instrument, in like-new condition, called a “Ukelina”, made in Cordoba. Then she also found another traditionally shaped one, a Stagg. Both sounded excellent, and she was delighted when Deborah began teaching her to play ukulele chords. She turned out to be a natural - she’s smart as a whip, a very “quick study”, which we’d noticed when we taught her to play Farkle. We began with You Are My Sunshine, then sang Beatles tunes because they are Marta’s favourite group, and we ended the night with one of her favourite non-Beatles tunes, Frank Sinatra’s Something Stupid.
How had these instruments remained hidden until this evening? We were astonished. Apparently she also has a keyboard hidden away somewhere. This is a woman who lives alone, retired eight years ago, and loves to sing but appears to have no musical outlet in her town. Deb searched online for a Necochea uke group, without success. We’ve urged her to begin her own, using the online sites that we’ve introduced her to, and the two ukuleles she came up with. She probably has a few friends who would join her. We’re hoping we hear that she managed to get one going. She has no trouble envisioning how much fun such a group would be.
Feb 9th. This morning we saw the other small zoological museum that was closed yesterday. It is really just for kids, and painted to suit the purpose. We saw a preserved Minke whale, with balleen intact and a small mirror positioned so that the viewer can see the blow-holes - there are two, that function like two nostrils - on top of its head. I got a better photo of the main museum building, with its two enormous anchors, one at each corner; they had a flood in Necochea in the ‘80’s that took out a pretty big bridge across the river, so I guess they want their museum to be well secured.
On the way there through the park we saw a colony of “cachorros”, green parrots as common as pigeons, with an eagle nearby assessing one of their nests with a cold eye. In Portuguese the word "cachorro" means dog, so it seemed a weird name. The parrots were making a lot of noise, and eventually the eagle made an assault on the nest, trying to land there and get access to the entrance hole, which the parrots build facing downward. The loose straw construction would not hold his weight; he lost his grip, fell backward and had to fly off empty-taloned - proving that a straw house may be the worst house for three little piggies, but the best house for little green parrots. The world is not one-size-fits-all.
We liked last night’s “Hidden
House” so much that we decided on a return visit this
evening, after a second ukulele session. Marta has
pretty good rhythm and says she played guitar for a while,
so she catches on quickly. We played a few more tunes,
and she played one on guitar that involved a very fast list
of animals that each told the one before to “shut up”, and
the human was the penultimate, but he was finally bested by
his mother-in-law. After that we loaded our packs in
her car and she delivered us to the bus terminal.
Tomorrow we’ll be in Puerto Madryn, spending our first
night at a hostel and the next two at a BnB that Deb
discovered after already having booked the hostel. We
haven’t been accepted by any CS hosts yet, although we do
have one lined up in Bariloche ten days from now.
|Puerto Madryn - Wales but no whales||Photo
Feb 10th. They speak Spanish in Argentina, but the country is filled with other immigrant groups as well. There’s a Danish group with its own language school and cultural centre in Necochea and we spent some time chatting with Brita Sorensen at the small museum in the park, who was happy to practice her English. The founders of Necochea may have been Basque, since Marta has French Basque ancestry and says that the name of the town comes from a Basque word for “house”. BsAs has a lot of Italians, as earlier noted. Bariloche has Swiss and German architecture, food and culture.
Puerto Madryn, however, was founded by 153 Welsh settlers in 1856. There is a Welsh village 15 miles from the port and children compete in performing Welsh language poems at poetry recitals. You can read a lot about this community online at various sites.
The bus ride was a bit intense. By the time we bought tickets, the “full cama” beds downstairs were sold out, so we rode in the “semi-cama” beds upstairs, which recline to about 135 degrees. It was a decent bus, judging by the washroom, which is a significant point of comparison for long distance buses. But it was raining when we left at 11:15 p.m. I fell asleep pretty fast, but Deborah watched sheets of lightning that seared her eyeballs, and high winds rocked the upper half of the double-decker bus, which was already in a state of rock-n-roll from the uneven pavement. I finally woke at 2:30 a.m. thinking about the cradle “in the treetop; when the wind blows, the cradle will rock...when the bough breaks the cradle will fall”. I fastened my seatbelt. Then I inflated my neck pillow, put in my earplugs, pulled my hat down over my eyes and fell back asleep again, as sound as a baby on a clothes dryer, until 7 a.m. We dozed a bit until “breakfast” at nine. Breakfast was two cookies with the usual variations on wheat and sugar squashed together with dulce de leche for the middle layer, and coffee in a tea bag that somehow had a residue of mud in the cup when you got close to the bottom.
We began stopping at various towns along the way, where we were able to get down and stretch our legs. I watched our progress by gps map on my tablet. There may have been Viking settlers here, or at least Norwegians. At San Antonio Oeste, we stopped outside the Viking “Olaff” restaurant. I snapped a photo of an unusual amphitheatre. The stage was built on a small island in a water reservoir, probably fed by salt water from the bay, and was separated from the bleachers by a moat, perhaps to protect them from an unruly audience if their performance was boring. The bleachers were up the sides of a small hill, possible the earth that had been piled up in digging out the reservoir, which seems like a thoroughly practical construction technique. There were sturdy roof pillars and it looked like there might have been a roof for shade, originally. The actors got to their stage across a small bridge. I could see it as a prime location for a dramatic presentation of “How Horatio Held the Bridge” against an angry horde who wanted their ticket money refunded.
We followed some slow traffic through road construction,
through low scrub over sand dunes to a flat horizon that
begins at the seashore and extends inland for thousands of
square kilometers. We rolled into Puerto Madryn at 2
p.m., hiked to our hostel, La Tosca, and had a debate about
whether they could allow Booking.com to say that we could
book with our foreign credit card (to avoid paying the extra
21% VAT) and then be asked for cash upon check-in for the
full amount with VAT included. How incredibly greedy
However, the hostel is being updated. They’re putting a lot of work into sprucing it up and it seems pretty new. The whole town is a giant step up from Necochea in terms of apparent prosperity. It has newer buildings, cleaner paved streets, and everything is freshly painted. Drinking water comes from somewhere far away. We’ve been asked to be conservative in our use of it. Our room is tiny and we’ll sleep on two bunk beds (“Dibs on the upper!”, says Deborah) and share a bathroom accessed from two rooms, one on each side of it. We were issued towels and little soaps, and have wire lockers under our beds to secure our luggage, which is a first for us. Hostels are to be avoided if you have luggage that is speculatively attractive to thieves, which is one reason that we rarely choose to stay in them. Deborah carries a cable and locks to join our packs in iffy places, so she used that to lock the wire lockers shut. Since we’d already been spooked about the booking and pricing process and were a little gun-shy about it, we’d booked a cheaper Airbnb for the next two nights. We picked up some deli from a nearby supermarket and had lupper in the common area/dining room, which was quite nice, with red tablecloths, a high definition large screen TV with a show about Iguazu Falls playing, a book exchange shelf and kitchen for our use. It had a good atmosphere.
Feb 10th. Last night we were invited to a typical Argentine dinner - in terms of the time of day, at least - at the house of Mariano, a couchsurfing host who is also a property owner and Airbnb manager in town. His wife Analise, an Italian Argentinian, served us spaghetti with a delicious tomato sauce. We ate at around 10:30 p.m., which is the normal hour for dinner here. An hour later, walking home to the hostel, we saw families gathered around tables in other homes having their evening meal right up until midnight. The hours that everything happens seem so strange to us, and also to a Finnish lady we met named Helli, with her son Adrian. Like us, she eats dinner around six at home. I’m wondering if northerners eat earlier because it gets darker in winter months. Here it is hot until late in the evening so you might not have much appetite until then, and in Spain where they have the same late dinner hour, it must usually be the same.
Mariano told us quite a bit about P. Madryn, including the fact that the town’s prosperity seems to rest on an enormous aluminum smelter which has its own hydroelectric source 700 kilometres away in the Andes. The smelter uses about 95% of the electricity that comes in and gives the rest to P. Madryn for free, but if there’s ever a power shortage, the city goes without before the smelter does. The smelter employs 2500 workers and accounts for 30% of the economy. There are also factory fishing vessels and fish processing plants. Shrimp fishing and processing is especially important, and tourism accounts for a small amount of income. There is a little agriculture in the vicinity, particularly sheep and cattle - there are even 57 private ranches within the protected area of Peninsula Valdes.
In the morning at the hostel we had a “typical argentine breakfast” - coffee, orange juice, corn flakes and yoghurt, and cakes called “pastafrola”, each smeared with a different topping: dulce de leche, sweet potato paste, quince jam or apple slices. And there was a nice unlabelled cake that might have been a coconut cake. We have to give props to this hostel for effort. Our room is difficult for an older couple. The top bunk is too high, the ladder to the top bunk is dangerously vertical and the hand grip is not in the best position. There is no chair and no luggage table. But the rest of the hostel is staffed with smiling people and lots of workmen trying to make it as shiny and new as they can. Signage is good, it is clean and well-organized. I wouldn’t have felt too badly about paying the price with the VAT tax, but they were as good as their word and struck off the tax this morning. Mariano, who manages Airbnb properties, explained that the Argentinian law had changed six months ago but no procedures had been put in place to make the process simple and transparent for accommodation operators. And it bothered him that it didn’t apply to restaurants, souvenir sellers, tour operators, etc, who all still have to collect the extremely high VAT from Argentine and foreign customers alike. Whereas in Uruguay, I’ve mentioned that we save 16% by using a foreign credit card at restaurants; but not, so far as I know, at hostels and hotels.
Mariano finds Booking.com to be a major pain for operators, unlike Airbnb he says, which responds quickly and tries to do its best for both host and guest whenever there is a problem. We have found the same, from our end as guests; but we’ve also seen 10% online price fluctuations and 140% increases in service fee quotes on the same property (the one we’re in now) from one moment to the next, literally back and forth, and different prices on different screens. It’s almost as if Airbnb has an AI program that messes with you like a fisherman jigging for cod, based on how interested it thinks you might be in the property. Their price is not what the host gets, even though they claim their only compensation is the service fee. We know that for a fact because our current host was quite open about the process from her end, and showed us her screen. Booking.com also lies about how much they get, and who the ultimate seller is. They say the hotel collects, but if there's a discrepancy over the price quoted and subsequently charged upon check-in, the hotel blames Booking.com and says they are the ones who collected the fee and we have to go back to them for redress. Neither will own up to any responsibility, but when push comes to shove, the hotel has more to lose in terms of reputation and they usually cave. And as I previously described, the hostel in Colonia made up a bit of BS about what fee Booking.com took in order to justify not giving us a full refund for a third night if we wanted to go somewhere more salubrious.
In the same way that Facebook reads your clicks to provide you only with the newsfeed items they think you want to see, Tripadvisor and Booking.com ads mess with hotel prices and ads, stupidly filling your screen with ads for ones you’ve already been to or even just looked up once, when you’re already in another country and looking for hotels in new cities you’re going to. Every hotel ad claims that there is “only one room left!”, or two rooms left, time is running out. It seems very obvious that Airbnb is up to some version of the same tricks. Clearly, except for big data (Cambridge Analytica) running profiles of American voters to tailor Trump’s talking points and get him elected in spite of spewing contradictory nonsense, “artificial intelligence” is completely artificial but not intelligent at all. One thing is for certain, and we’ve stumbled over this detail before: the advertised price is often not the one you’ll see on the bottom line after you’ve agreed on a price and given them your credit card number, so you have to be very careful and allow yourself time to raise a holy stink. We’ve had fights with vacation airline companies over this issue. In one case they advertised in CAD on a Canadian site with a Canadian flag banner, but tried to charge us in U.S. dollars. We had to go a few rounds over the phone with a higher manager to get the trip for the price they’d offered it, in Canadian dollars, which was obviously 30% lower.
In any case, except for the tiny closet of a room and weird temperature fluctuations in the shower, this placed is more than ok, as hostels go; but we moved on this morning to a private room in a high rise apartment closer to the beach, for less cost. Airbnb can be hit-and-miss in terms of quality and pricing, but sometimes it beats any other form of accommodation except for staying with Couchsurfing hosts. Our new host Manuela, a 20-something marine biologist who works for the local fishery, has a spare bedroom in a lovely apartment on the fifth floor of her building, and we were extremely comfortable here immediately. Within the first hour we’d agreed to stay for a total of five nights instead of two, and we’ll be very content here even if we run out of things to do in P. Madryn. Manuela lived in Vancouver and has an aunt in Edmonton. She has a ukulele and a guitar in her living room. She greeted us at the door wearing a t-shirt with angel wings on her shoulder blades. How could we want for anything more?
In town we saw evidence of a prosperous, clean but still laid-back beach town. We saw many examples of graffiti elevated to fine counterculture art. We saw barnacles in the doorway of a building far from the water’s edge, which puzzled me. Manuela claims people laboriously glued them to the entranceway of the vacant building just to mess with peoples’ heads. After walking about the town to get a sense of the place and gather intel, as we always do on our first day, we napped and then rushed to get to a presentation at the Welsh cultural centre. We read the brochure wrong. We tried to arrive at 5 for something we thought ended at 7, but it started at 7 (blame my poor Spanish skills) so we stopped at Portofino restaurant which had menus from another restaurant called La Abuela Dorotea (“Grandmother Dorothy”), and ordered up two “piadinas” because we’d never had them before and they sounded good for a snack. Pretty tasty: chicken, peppers, cream cheese and pesto in a soft tortilla shell with arugula, plum tomatoes and avocado. At the Welsh presentation (which, in typical Argentine fashion, actually started at 8 although advertised in print for 7 - but at least we got good seats by being on time...er, early) they topped it off for us with “picados” (chunks of ham and pepperoni and cheeses eaten with toothpicks) and a glass of cerveza.
The Welsh people all speak Spanish down here, but they dress in traditional Welsh costume (at least, the ladies do; the guys might have a couple of Welsh words on their t-shirts, if you’re lucky). The ladies learn traditional dances, teach Welsh to anyone who will take their classes, and maintain their cultural history. In Spanish, they are known as the Galeses - which is interesting because G and W are often interchangeable between English and French, for example Guillaume = William; and Galeses might come from Gauls, although they consider themselves a Celtic people. This was an important community in the story of Welsh nationalism. In very recent history when Wales wanted to restore their language, music, dances and original cultural stories and practices after a century of British repression, they recruited teachers from this community who had kept all of those things alive. The event we attended was actually the culmination of a week-long celebration of Welsh culture. A group lined up to get their diplomas for “learning to speak Welsh in 5 days”. I learned that when we call someone “an old gaffer” in English, we’re probably calling him an “old goat”, because gafr is goat in Welsh.
We enjoyed a choral performance by an Octet Renacimiento (Renaissance songs, mostly Spanish, some French), some Welsh dances by the ladies, and great traditional Celtic Welsh and Irish tunes by a band of five Spanish musicians. There was some sort of concentration camp style guard tower behind the stage, but we don’t know the reason for it. There was certainly no other evidence of a prison, just apartment buildings. The performance ended with a circular community dance that stuck male “volunteers” between a pair of women, forming trios of dancers that fanned from a central point like spokes in a wagon wheel. The guys had to twirl the ladies, kiss each of them, and then get flung forward to the next pair of ladies, all around the circle.
The wind picked up overnight, which caused a problem because there are no devices in the apartment to block windows and doors from swinging and slamming in the wind. From the street below, it sounded like no-one went to bed before 4:30 a.m., and there are no muffler laws for motorbikes and cars, which you hear clearly from all directions on the 5th floor. But the bed was comfortable.
Feb 12th. We’re going to book a trip to the Valdes Peninsula today to see penguins and more sea lions, although we’ve certainly seen penguins in innumerable zoos and in natural habitat around the world, including New Zealand and Australia; but the penguin tour is something people do when they arrive in P. Madryn and it seems a shame to have come so far and not to include it. We’re told that the scenery is worth it, apart from the wildlife. We’ll get a discount price at the tour company courtesy of Mariano. We considered a rental car which might have saved us at least $50 but it might be more hassle than it is worth, especially with insurances and filling the gas tank afterward. The journey is about 400 kilometres round trip so I’m thinking I’d just as soon leave the driving to someone else. I’m hesitant because I’m afraid the guide will speak only in Spanish on the bus, but we’ll ask about that. My Spanish is improving slowly, but I wouldn’t keep up to the fast patter of a bus guide. Deb speaks Spanish pretty well but is also often stymied by unfamiliar vocabulary or speed.
We noticed yesterday that some things in town are ridiculously expensive. Old bicycles without gears are $12.50/hr for rental, $25 for a half day, I think, whereas in most other places bike rental could be as low as $5 a day. Park entry fees and tour costs are also very high. Deborah read a blog that was called “Why Argentina made these budget backpackers cry”, which claimed they’d had to move on to Chile as soon as possible. That doesn’t surprise me now. There’s no excuse for the bicycle rental costs, especially given the bicycles that I saw. It's a gaping opportunity for someone, creating some competition in the field. And perhaps expanding to roller blades and other wheeled conveyances.
Evening: good and bad in one day. We shopped and came home to make a hearty breakfast. We hiked up a hill to the Ecocentre but didn’t go in because the reviews aren’t very good. But we saw the landing place where the Welsh settlers were dumped off the Mimosa clipper ship, which returned to Liverpool and never came back to see how they were getting on. They were living in sixteen caves carved out of sandstone cliffs with sloping thatched roofs to provide shade and runoff for the rain that comes very occasionally to this region. They must have stayed on the shore for a long time because there they could eat fish and gather mussels. There would have been very little to eat on the sand dunes inland. But they eventually settled in communities about 100 kilometres from here: Gaiman, Rawson and Trelew.
On Sunday the public bus only runs every hour, and we missed it. We wanted to catch the “City Tour” so we stuck out our thumbs, somewhat experimentally, and Deb was convinced the experiment had failed but suddenly a family in a small car stopped and asked where we wanted to go. There were already four adults and two kids in the car but they insisted on sitting on each others’ laps to make room for us for the four kilometre trip to the stop for the City Tour bus. They said they had to pick us up because they were worried that something bad might happen to us. It seems that latin americans everywhere think more poorly of their countrymen than tourist visitors do, perhaps because of sensationalist media. But you never know, perhaps they were right to worry.
The City Tour was our only mistake all day, and it was a doozy. We jumped aboard without asking the price. The route wasn’t outlined and we hadn’t been able to find any reviews online. Someone already seated said the price was 200 pesos each, which we choked on but since there were quite a few people already aboard we decided to sit tight and see if they were there because they knew that we would see something that could make the trip worth that much money - about $34 CAD. After a silly little one hour ride we felt pretty stupid, after all the travel we’ve done. We’d hemmed and hawed about getting off when we finally knew the price, but maybe we were too embarrassed or simply too optimistic that it would turn out well. Sadly, the little bus only took us very slowly to all the places we’d already walked to in the previous two days, or taken a 12 peso public bus to get to. The guide spoke only in rapid-fire Spanish in spite of the words “City Tour” in English on the bus. I guess you need to get a good kick in the pants once in a while to remember to confirm price and what’s included for everything you agree to.
On the way home we stopped in the supermarket to see what we might take home for supper instead of going to a restaurant, and to get bread to make sandwiches for tomorrow’s ten hour round trip in a bus with no food and no water included. We spotted what looked like a meal wrapped in cellophane with some pretty large chunks of roast beef with rice, carrots and tomatoes, but it had been mislabelled “stuffed chicken” and the price was only $3, so we bought it purely on spec. It turned out to be enough for a full plate for both us of - difficult to believe in this town where groceries cost double what they do in Toronto, and more than in northern cities of Argentina. P. Madryn is in a desert environment and probably suffers the same pricing conditions as far northern Canadian cities. Here everything is simply turned upside down, so that what’s south is remote, and food is expensive - and consequently, so is everything else, because every person who is selling something has to pay more just to eat.
Feb 13th and 14th. Having done the paid tour to
Peninsula Valdez now, the jury is out on whether it would
have been best to just rent a car. Our guide Juan
Carlos was very good, but it was a long day riding on gravel
roads in a minivan for relatively short periods of viewing
wildlife. It was expensive but I got some ok photos
and Deb is glad that we didn’t run the risk of a rental car
breakdown, a stone in the windshield or a flat tire.
We saw Magallanes penguins up so close the we could
have touched them, but we’d have been nipped if we’d
tried. We saw a sea lion breeding colony, guanacos,
lesser rheas, and a hairy armadillo, along with a grey fox
and a little creature that looked like an oversized hamster.
We were teased by a “5% chance” of seeing orca whales
that beach themselves to capture a sea lion cub, also known
as a “cachorro”, as the green parrots in the park
were. There are only about 15 orcas here compared to
about 2500 in the Pacific Northwest, off the coast of
B.C. Only seven individuals in the entire world have
learned to launch themselves up a beach to eat a sea lion
cub, and they are part of this local pod. In B.C.
orcas eat salmon. Here, seven of them eat chubby black
cachorros for their favourite snack. Different
populations of orcas in different parts of the world have
acquired different dietary preferences. I’ve read that
some even prey on whales. The
guide pointed to a sign showing such an event and said,
“That’s the photo everyone wants to get”, but Deb felt
horrible ambiguity over the fact that in order to get that
shot, you’d have to watch one of those cute little cachorros
People eat guanacos, speaking of dietary preferences, but
they are impossible to herd - like herding cats - and they
don’t give much wool, so they get hunted instead.
There are at least 20,000 sheep, and each sheep needs
2 hectares of land, because the vegetation is so meagre in
this coastal desert. There are at least as many
guanacos, and they compete for the scarce water resource,
including the water bound up in green plants. There
are only two million people in the entire region of
Patagonia, which comprises three provinces of southern
Argentina and the south end of Chile as well. There
are the same number of guanacos and sheep.
We stopped in the town of Piramides, a place that began to
develop thirty years ago to offer scuba diving and whale
watching, but there are no whales here this time of year so
I don’t know why we drove so far and spent 90 minutes to
“have lunch" again when we’d already had lunch an hour
earlier while at the sea lion colony. The rest of the
day was just five solid hours of driving. I'd struggle
to recommend this tour to anyone.
When we got home we booked tickets to Bariloche for Thursday
night, It will be another overnight red-eye bus ride,
that being the only time they leave. We changed some
money at an illegal backroom place. The only official
“cambio” closed down two years ago. There are only
three choices for currency exchange now: tourist companies,
the casino which takes a 10% conversion fee, and this little
shadowy hole in the wall. The “blue rate” in Argentina
has almost disappeared. There was a 60% spread two
years ago when we first planned this trip, but it is a
fairly slim spread now. We were offered 12.70 pesos on
a day when the official rate is 12.47, which was
interesting. We took it.
Today we are hunting for accommodation in Bariloche, putting
out lots of couchsurfing requests, scouring the hotels and
airbnb offerings. We had to go over to Mariano’s house
to use his wifi because Manuela’s wasn’t working. He
has two, and one of them worked. Mariano posed hanging
from his green grape trellis, and explained that his
nickname growing up was “mono” (monkey). The grapes
are incredibly prolific, and almost ready to pick and
eat. One knows when that moment arrives because the
birds begin to nosh on them.
Here, Airbnb listings are often priced atmospherically and
they don’t even have to collect the VAT, but the booking
system is a bit slippery. Hostels gouge the younger
adventure traveller and act like low end hotels.
Hostels seem cheaper than hotels but turn out to cost
the same, for a cheaper product, because they demand cash,
which allows them to tack on the 21% VAT and not waive it
because you didn’t get to use your foreign credit card.
A lot of young budget travellers don’t even know that
they could sidestep the VAT if they stayed in an actual
hotel and used their credit card instead, and no-one
volunteers that info. Paying in cash means currency
exchange plus a stiff ATM fee, and the risk of carrying
around large amounts of cash - if you can even find an ATM.
There are none in this town that I know of, and we’re
told that banks only do exchange for their own
customers. When you pay cash, who knows if all the
room rentals are even reported as income to the gov’t?
It’s a bit of a part-time job juggling the various
forms of accommodation and choosing one for the onward leg
of your journey. Southern Chile will probably be a
relief in that respect; but we’re going to see Bariloche for
a few days anyway because it is said to be very picturesque,
a southern version of a Rocky Mountain hiking and skiing
For lunch we had a lamb burger, but it wasn’t very good. For dinner we went to the Bistro del Mar and were all set to order a platter of seafood from the gulf as a celebratory Valentine’s Day meal to eat as the sun sets over the southern Atlantic. But we forgot that the sun sets in the west...and they told us the seafood platter was cold food - bizarre, and possibly dangerous, we thought. They didn’t even call it ceviche. Later Manuela said the dish is actually cooked fish, but served cold, which seems weird to me. We walked up the street considering other choices and finally stopped at the little Mexican restaurant close to the apartment for burritos. I had a pork burrito and Deb had chicken but they both tasted like I imagine dogfood from a can tastes like. Boy, sometimes you just can’t catch a break ordering unfamiliar food in a strange place. I asked what sort of beer they were filling pitchers with from their tap, and they proudly handed me a glass of what they called India Pale Ale. Man, was it bitter! So we went home and had some white wine (Deb can’t drink red): some “two-buck chuck” in a box from the supermarket. It was better than the beer. Anyway, in two more days we’ll say goodbye to the Atlantic and who knows when we’ll see it again? We’ll go up the Pacific coast through March. But our next town is said to be very Swiss in architecture and feel, so perhaps we’ll eat overdue Valentine chocolate there.
Feb 15th. Yesterday we saw the quirky little museum “Man and the Sea”, which is housed in a handsome and unusual old three story house with a look-out right at the top. From the look-out I photographed the cruise ship which we had considered taking on this trip. It was docked in town for a day on its way around the tip of S. America and then up to Santiago. The passengers are hustled onto free shuttles at the end of the jetty for their race to see penguins, a stiff drive away. We were glad we’ve been land-based and have seen more, and more sedately.
The museum was free, and at that price, well worth seeing, both for the exhibits and for the building itself. Having run out of things to see in P. Madryn, and seeing some colder weather sweeping in, we’ll mostly hang around at home today and I’ll study Spanish, and play guitar. We’ve narrowed our search for a suitable meal down to “langostinos”, which means prawns, as opposed to camarones which means shrimp. I had learned that the shrimp fishery is one mainstay of the town’s economy, but Manuela suddenly corrected herself this morning and explained that these are the larger version which we call prawns. She says that prawns are shipped all over the world and are a sustainable fishery here, although hake is declining because it is a less tasty and profitable by-catch that ends up in the nets in large numbers.
Deborah had another wrestling match with a hotel in Bariloche that we’d booked for one night. It was the same old story, a kind of bait-and-switch where the hotel advertises that you can pay with credit card on Booking.com and then after the cancellation period has passed, tells you that you’ll have to pay cash because they don’t have the digital processing mechanism for refunding you the VAT if you pay with a credit card, which is a catch-22 because you’re only entitled to the refund if you do pay with the credit card. And they certainly do have the digital processing mechanism for accepting your booking and your payment with a credit card. Just like before, we complained to Booking.com and the hotel quickly volunteered to allow us to cancel without charge. Maybe they sensed we were more trouble than we were worth and didn’t want to risk our complaint to the tourist administration offices, which might get back to the tax collection department. It probably helped that Deb quoted the Argentinian law that is six months old, and sent them a screenshot she’d cautiously taken when she made the original booking that promised that the VAT would be refunded and that credit cards could be used. “What a stressful process,” says Deb, “you have to be so careful to read every bit of fine print through every screen, and then you end up with fresh conditions after you’ve already finally given your credit card number for a booking.”
Deborah played a welcome song to Manuela on her blue ukulele as she came in the door from work, which made her very happy. Then we played her a couple of more songs on uke and guitar, including Fishing Blues by Taj Mahal, and harmonised a little, which she really enjoyed. That was fun.
Supper at Mariscos del Atlantico was ok but not
wonderful. It was good shellfish in a paella after a
long wait but the seasoning for the rice was uninspired and
too salty. Deborah makes tastier paella herself.
The waitress was somehow curt, perfunctory, dismissive and
arrogant all at the same time. Deborah said, “I think
she’s just had a fight with her boyfriend and she’s taking
it out on us!” Either that, or she took us for
“gringos”, which always means U.S. citizens here, or
British, which is possibly worse, and therefore she wanted
to treat us with disdain and contempt. The restaurant
is right across the street from a major monument and park
for the Argentinian heroes of the Malvinas war, which is
what they call the Falkland Islands conflict. They’re
still raw about their failed attempt to recover the islands
from 150 years of occupation by the British. I’m sure
their politicians have exploited those emotions to the hilt,
as U.S. politicians would if it had happened to them.
We got our own menus, had to fetch our own napkins and salt from a neighbouring table, and waited way too long for her to take our order, which she did with a stiff dose of attitude. The restaurant advertises that they open at 8 p.m. but she seemed pissed at us because we actually showed up at 8 p.m. to order a meal. The doors were still locked and she had to unlock them to let us in. None of the staff had their uniforms on yet, and the tables hadn’t been prepped for customers. We actually left abruptly and came back ten minutes later, which seemed to galvanize them a little - until then they had let us sit for twenty minutes and hadn’t even come over to see if we wanted to order. It seems like “Open at 8” means “don’t expect to get served until 9”, which kinda makes sense given the Argentinine dinner schedule I’ve mentioned earlier. Overall, she deflated our post-Valentine dinner experience significantly, so in turn, we stiffed her on the tip. Deb had a chocolate rum and cappuccino ice cream on the way home that improved the situation.
Mind you, there was also a “cubierto” at this restaurant of about $3.50 CAD for the two of us. What is cubierto, you ask? Wandering Argentina explains, in their Dining Out section: “The cubierto is the 'cover charge' for the fork, knife, placemats and (often) stale bread you receive at the table. It is essentially a 'service charge' as you sometimes find in Europe. Some restaurants really push it with the cubierto, essentially using it as a way to fight inflation.” Another web site says “In some instances, restaurants will charge a cubierto which is a “cutlery” charge anywhere from $15-30 pesos – a clever way of charging something for nothing. Not to be confused with a “service charge,” the cubierto money goes directly to the restaurant and is not part of the tip, nor does it go to the waitstaff.”
Feb 16th. We visited a small photo exhibit, and I took
photos of more wall art and flowers. A friend at home
asked me why I thought the murals were “counterculture art”;
partly it is the execution, and partly that they are on
private property where you’d normally see tagging. A
business owner explained to us this morning that groups of
artists get together and plan who gets to paint which
wall. On plain walls there is the usual tagging, but
on well-painted walls, nobody tags over them.
I had one flower I wanted to photograph because my first photos of it were after dusk, but during the day, we discovered, the blossoms are closed up tight.
For supper today Deb chose her
favourite meal here so far, chicken piadinas at Portofino.
Then we had a takeaway portion of fried prawns in
honour of P. Madryn’s most important seafood catch, and a
few doors away another ice cream. While she was
served, a crowd of clowns and jugglers gathered outside,
some on stilts, and launched the Risa Fest - (“Laugh Fest”)
which is going to continue for days and is aimed at kids -
at least, the launch parade was.
|Bariloche...Swiss chocolate and German beer||Photo
Feb 17th. We said farewell to Manuela last night while
a very hot wind blew dust through the town - the first time
we’d experienced it, but Manuela said it happens
occasionally. We had the two front seats upstairs on
the bus again, which didn’t help much through the night but
when the sun came up in the morning we had a nice view of
the scenery. We paralleled the foothills and then cut
through a mountain pass up to Bariloche, where it has been
cold and rainy all day. The temperature as I write
this is 8 degrees celcius. Getting these seats appears
to be merely a matter of showing up to buy your tickets two
days before the bus leaves.
Our first host here is Pilar Colombo, who has been a Servas host for many years as well. She is a single veterinarian with two children, Florencia and Sebastian. She picked us up at the bus station, installed us in her guest room, fed us lunch, let me have a nap and a shower, and then took us to watch her daughter Florencia run her Schnauzer Nyla through agility training. Flor is very serious about this pursuit: she is a member of a club that shares a property and a garage to store equipment. In April she and her friend Silke will take their dogs to Chile for an international agility competition.
To get there, Pilar drove us through a poor and working class part of town, up the hillsides. In some towns the rich people live up the hillsides, but here the hills are colder and farther from the the scenery of the beautiful Lake Nahuel. The town is long and narrow, and filled with large rose bushes. Some are a single colour of pink or deep red as I'm used to seeing, but others have multicoloured blossoms on each bush.
We had dinner with them, and met Pilar’s new man friend
Diego, and a friend named Adriana whose English is about at
the level of my Spanish. I’m still not speaking much,
but understanding a basic conversation. In the photo,
Pilar is the furthest to the right, with Diego, and from
that you can figure out who everyone else is.
Pilar has a modern kitchen as well as an outdoor asado, but she grilled this meal in a large very shallow wok on a stand over a fire in the fireplace. In Argentina they call this a discada. It is hammered out from an old 28" plow disc. It is common on farms and ranches in N. America as well, where it is called, variously, a cowboy wok, a cajun wok, or a plow disc cooker. This was the first meal I'd ever had that was cooked in one. It is large enough to grill a large mess of meats and vegetables for all the farm hands and family together. Deb cut some of the veggies and took a photo of them because she said she’d never created “matchstick carrots” before.
Once again, we’ve found ourselves a home with a ukulele, a guitar and a keyboard.
Feb 18th. As usual in any new part of the world, there are birds peculiar to the neighbourhood that I’ve never seen before. On Peninsula Valdes there were numerous partridges with a tuft on top of their heads, called Elegant Crested Tinamou. There are black-necked swans, completely black from their shoulders to their beaks but with bright white bodies. That’s interesting to me because when Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh discovered all-black swans in Australia in 1697 no-one in Europe would believe him. All European swans are white. Today I’m trying to get a photo of some large birds that frequent Pilar’s back yard, which she called Teros - they seem to be a Southern Lapwing. They are a bit noisy and territorial. They are usually in pairs, but there were four pair there this morning as it was growing light. They seem to have sharp eyesight, because when I crept toward the window with my camera, they flew away. There are also some Ibises.
After breakfast Pilar took us on a ride around Circuito Chico, a scenic route above the lakes outside of town. We stopped to see a gaucho and a lady dancing outside a hall where they were holding a festival called a curando, where they cook meat and fish and vegetables on hot stones under earth, rather like a Hawaiian Luau. It is a lot of work to set up, so they do it for a lot of people at once and people buy tickets in advance. We stopped at a brewery, the Patagonia Cerveceria. There are many cervecerias around here, possibly a result of the Swiss and German influence. At the brewery Pilar picked up a shadow, one of the dogs that always run free in Argentina. They find her as if they have radar, we learned. We saw the Llao Llao hotel where Sebastian is working as a bellboy for the summer before he leaves for his first year of medical school in Buenos Aires. He got hired because he can speak English and Italian as well as Spanish. Then Pilar dropped us at the foot of Cerro Campanario so that we could ride the chairlift to the top and get the best views of the surrounding mountains. The wind was very strong. It blew Deb’s hat right off her head even though she had her strings attached. On the way home we rode a ridiculously packed bus for twenty minutes and then Deb made a curried Thai chicken dinner for the family. We knew that Diego was doing a triathlon today but we learned that his bicycle chain broke. He finished the race on foot, but didn’t win, obviously.
Feb 19th. Yesterday it was cool but not raining, but
today it is raining buckets, or “raining pots” in Spanish,
all day. Pilar helped us choose the Hotel Val Garden
for our one night between couchsurfing hosts, and she
dropped us there around three. We used wifi to connect
with hosts in Puerto Montt, and as the rain lightened up a
little, we strolled through the downtown taking photos.
We had supper at a Mexican restaurant that Pilar
recommended, and Deborah was happy. We ate good
quality beef and chicken fajitas and had a cheerful,
friendly waitress. I took photos of the civic centre,
which was very Alpine in character, copying the “eclectic
regionalism” style of the buildings in Bern,
Switzerland. A statue of General Roca was in front of
it. Late night scallywags seem to make great sport of
climbing up and painting the General and his horse.
The General sports a yellow ribbon and the horse has
crazy yellow eyes, pink nostrils and groin. I called him
“Crazy Horse”. Someone else said he looks a bit like
“Donkey” from Shrek. Many young people have painted
their names and dates, possibly birthdates, on the square
beneath the statue. Someone broke half the horse’s
bridle climbing up, and someone left a padlock on the
surviving side of his bit. Padlocks are often left on
bridges as a sign of couples locking together their futures,
so I take that as an incident of "romantic vandalism".
Our hotel was comfortable. We were in a large room with five single beds, two of which had been pushed together to sell it as a “double, private”. At night the doors and windows rattled in the high wind, and the floors creaked, but we had a private bath, and a good breakfast that included ham and cheese. Argentines are not that keen, generally, on savouries and protein for breakfast, in spite of their love of meat at dinner. Even slices of ham and cheese that you can put on toast might be considered an “American” breakfast. But it gives us a good boost to our day, instead of a sugar boost and crash.
Speaking of sugar boosts and crashes, our hotel is two doors from an entire block of nothing but chocolate stores plus a few ice cream stores. Right next door is the Mamushka store, which is like a religious temple to chocolate, with stained glass, and Russian dolls like saints spinning slowly above the door. Inside, people make offerings and receive communion which consists of chocolate wafers in hundreds of varieties and hot chocolate instead of wine. Chocolate is very important here; and in the square there were no fewer than three St. Bernards, each presumably named Beethoven, and each with an emergency brandy barrel hanging from its neck. Tourists pose with them to have their photos taken.
We saw a city space for weavers and other artisans, inexplicably named SCUM. We saw a business that our nephew could own, and took a photo that he can enlarge and paste to the front door of his house.
Feb 20th. Today we went to the bus station to buy onward tickets. We have had a good response from couchsurfing hosts in Puerto Montt, so that’ll be our next stop. I have begun sending requests in both languages simultaneously, and that seems to help.
We walked back along the lakeshore for five kilometres or more. Bariloche is on the south shore of Nahuel Huapi lake. The name is always translated as Tiger Island, but there are no New World tigers. It’s a mistranslation from Spanish where tigre is the word for jaguar. There are no more jaguars here, nor in Tigre, since the arrival of the European immigrants.
We arrived at the Havana chocolate museum where I had a Spanish lesson, we were given “hot chocolate communion”, saw very large animals made entirely from chocolate, and came home with a bag of hot chocolate powder.
My religious metaphor is not at all far-fetched. The Aztecs and Maya treated chocolate as a mystical drink reserved for noblemen, priests and kings. The western church has had a complicated and often changing attitude about chocolate and its sinful nature for centuries. The indigenous version was fermented, which the church banned almost immediately. I’d like to resurrect that recipe and give it a try.
We learned that cocoa pods were a currency. You could buy a rabbit with eight pods, proving that, as one writer said three hundred years ago, “money really does grow on trees!” There’s a complex history that most people don’t know: high society in Europe was crazy for hot chocolate beverages, and England had to get hers from Portugal because they couldn’t trade with the Spanish who held the Aztec and Mayan lands where cocoa originated. To get them, they swapped slaves that they bought on the beaches of west Africa from Arab traders for cocoa, and the slaves in turn ended up in Brazil and the Caribbean where they grew more cocoa. There are three kinds of cocoa pods, the third one being a hybrid of the other two, and named for its origination in Trinidad. The wars for many of the Caribbean islands, it is claimed in this museum, were not initially over access to sugar or spices; even before that there were wars over access to cocoa pods and plantations. In many parts of the world where cocoa is not indigenous but is grown today, the first plantations were created by the British, who needed alternate sources of cocoa to do an end run around the Spanish held territories.
At the park on the way home we had churrasco and choripan, Argentinian forms of sliced beef and sausage on a bun. We strolled through a jewelry and crafts fería, and then had some fries at McDonalds to get the free wifi so that we could deal with some emails. We’ll go pick up our bags at the hotel and head to our next host soon. I hope they’ll let us take the bags on the city bus. It was extremely crowded when we rode it before.
Feb 21st. Fortunately we got on the bus early enough in its run, and it was not crowded. We arrived at Nahuel’s and met his son Mirco, and two other couchsurfers: Ariel, a single guy who is on a two week annual vacation from his job in Buenos Aires, and Astrid, a single young lady psychologist from Austria who is half-Argentinian and speaks Spanish, German and English. I proposed a combined dinner, so we went to the supermarket which was only a block away and bought chicken “milanesas”, which are breaded cutlets like schnitzel, and are eaten everywhere in Argentina. Nahuel baked them in the oven and Astrid made a stir fry of eggplant, “zapallito” (a popular small squash that we don’t see in Canadian supermarkets), carrot and onion. The ladies drank stout and the men mostly Imperial amber and lager from 1 litre bottles. I found them delicious. We talked in Spanish, English and Spanglish until late in the evening.
In the morning Nahuel left early to guide some clients. He makes his living as a hiking and mountain biking guide. He’s a tall (6’4”), healthy guy with boyish charm and a constant teasing sense of humour. His house is a typical active young bachelor’s house, and he opens it to a lot of young travellers passing through. He says he loves socializing with people and his son likes it too, and they both learn a lot of English that way. Sadly, the water heater broke just before we arrived and the repairman is waiting for a part from Buenos Aires, so we’ll have cold showers for a couple of days, or use water heated on the stove. His car is out of commission with an engine problem, so Deb teased him that bad things always happen in threes; sure enough, this morning Deb reported that a toilet in one of his two bathrooms isn’t filling. Ariel got it going - it fills slowly, but it fills.
In the morning his morning Deb and I haked to a nearby
falls, a “cascada”. The Cascada de los Duendes - waterfall
of the elves - was a bit anticlimactic, underwhelming after
the hike it took to get there, but the stroll in the woods
was pleasant. On the way to lunch afterward I photographed a
strange custom, crocheted covers for trees. Wikipedia
tells me that it is a world-wide phenomenon that began in
2005 and is called yarn
guerilla knitting, graffiti knitting, and similar names. We
stopped for lunch again at the BBQ of the man in front of
the civic centre who has a tattoo of Gauchito Antonio Gil on
his forearm. We learned from Nahuel that Gauchito
is a Folk Saint of Argentina. Nahuel tipped me off to
this, as well as explaining that most Argentinians are
“spiritual” but not much into the formal Catholic church,
which blew its credibility by being complicit in the
thousands of “disappearances” of the ‘70’s. It now
blows the mind of young Argentines that the new Catholic
Pope is Argentinian.
We spent our afternoon at The Museum of Patagonia. It
covers the geology of Patagonia, the flora and the fauna,
and a good deal of history of the pre-European peoples, as
well as some history of Bariloche itself. I enjoyed
it, and recommend it.
In the evening we had dinner with Nahuel again, but Ariel and Astrid went hiking together. Hiking is always called trekking, here. They are spending an overnight in a refugio, which is a rustic kind of hostel shelter like the ones in the Alps. We don’t have any for Rocky Mountain hiking, as far as I know. They eliminate the need to carry tents, and the tradition is that you book ahead, but Argentinians don’t follow rules well. If you just show up they’ll always find a place for you even if it is on the kitchen floor - a refuge is a refuge, after all - just like in the Alps.
Nahuel’s house is a bit like a refugio. He’s a single guy but has six or seven single beds in the house, plus one hammock, apart from his own bed. Couchsurfers seem to be always welcome, and he seems constantly interested in learning from them.
After our second dinner with Nahuel, I had tried four kinds of Imperial beer, and found them all very good: amber, lager, cream stout and “scotch ale”.
embarrassing number of photos
My new motto: "I may pass this way but once...let me take 497 photos!"
Feb 22nd. We said goodbye to Nahuel and his son Mirco,
and Pilar stopped by with Flor on their way to their horse,
to say goodbye to us. After a hearty breakfast we rode
the bus to Puerto Montt. It was supposed to be a six
hour trip. It took eight, which caused some
inconvenience to our first host in the Chilean port town,
who none-the-less altered his plans for the evening and
picked us up at the bus terminal. Alban Bodin is a
single guy with a tiny apartment but he doesn’t seem to be
here much; he works some sort of split shift and is gone
through the day, sleeps in the evening and is gone again
through most of the night. He has a cat with three
young kittens. Deborah enjoyed them very much.
We were on a big blue Andesmar bus this time. We
didn’t buy our tickets early enough to get the front seats
upstairs, but we lucked out and got the scenic side on the
ride down the edge of Lake Nahuel Huapi, and then saw a lot
of other postcard scenery through the Seven Lakes highway.
Not only that, but we had the best lunch on a bus
we’ve had so far. The ticket agent told us there would
be no meal on this bus, so we packed sandwiches (which we
always do anyway, just in case), but they delivered a meal
to us right away, as we were leaving the terminal: potato
and egg quiche, ham and cheese and two slices of an “arrollado”,
plus cake and lemonade. And this wasn’t the most
expensive bus we could have taken.
The border crossing was smooth and didn’t account for the
time discrepancy, although it occurred in two stages a
half-hour apart this time. We indicated that we were
carrying meat and vegetable products on a questionnaire but
were not questioned about them. The bus meals were
composed of those items as well, so it seemed like a dumb
question. Two dogs ran the bags. At first I thought
the second was to re-consider false positives from the
first, but by the way he behaved, turning it into a big game
with his trainer, I assumed he was actually a sniffer dog in
training. He worked for a rolled up towel, but as soon
as he got it, he ran away with it in his mouth and wouldn’t
return to the trainer or run any more bags. He played hide
and seek with his trainer around the bus, and ran off down
the street, only returning when he thought his trainer
couldn’t see him.
We weren’t required to stuff coffee cups with tips this
time, but I did see the driver rush to retrieve two packages
from behind the rear-most seats at the top of the bus;
perhaps these were to grease the wheels. Either that, or the
passengers aren’t the ones the customs officials should be
most worried about at border crossings.
We were almost immediately out of the mountains after completing customs. We continued 100 kms to Osorno through parkland, forest and green grazing pastures. It is great agricultural land, in contrast to the western, Argentine side of the mountains. In fact, as we approached the summit of the range, we encountered fog, mist and rain as the clouds were forced up. Clearly, they leave most of their moisture on the Chilean side.
Feb 23rd. After
a leisurely start to our day and time to write the diary, do
email and crop photos, we walked out and found “collectivo
#3”, which took us downtown. The collectivo system is
a little odd. There are metered taxis, but the
collectivos are registered private drivers who have a
precise advertised fare and run a route just like a numbered
bus. The fare is very low, about $1 each way for each
of us. One wonders why the public buses (there are
some) don’t get much use. With many more seats, they’d
seem to be more economical. But they’re slower, and
perhaps smellier, and this provides jobs for a great many
more people. It's difficult imagine what slim profits
they’re making after paying for gas and maintenance,
however. Gas is about $1.55 CAD per litre.
Our first stop was the Tourist Info booth at the seashore,
where we got maps and forgot to ask several things, but
learned that there will be a festival of local customs this
weekend. Then we walked the sea wall along a tsunami
warning zone to a big white tent with birds and reptiles for
kids of all ages to handle and interact with. Animal
rights people in N. America would be apoplectic, but it
makes for great photos and the animals appear to be quite
desensitized to all the attention. Perhaps they have
some sort of happy pills dissolved in their water or food.
Each had a specific handler/protector, and there
didn’t seem to be any anxiety that adult visitors or
children might get bitten by a stressed-out bird or reptile.
We toured several souvenir markets looking, as we always do,
for a puppet for Elly. So far, no luck, except for a
penguin hand puppet in Puerto Madryn that she could as
easily get in Toronto. We checked out the ferry that
goes south, but were disappointed to learn that as in other
S. American countries, and unlike Canada or the U.S., there
is a price for Chileans and a price for tourists.
“Residents” pay about $40 U.S. each way. The
gringos have to pay over a thousand dollars U.S. each way
for a cabin on a boat that leaves them at Puerto Eden after
a 3 day journey. They have to spend a week there in
high-priced accommodation and fill their time with expensive
commercial tours before the ferry comes to take them home
the way they came.
Two weeks, ‘round trip, would result in a final tally of probably at least $6,000 U.S. for Deb and I to do it, even sharing a cabin The way they pitched the trip to us, it sounded like we could each demand our own private cabin at that rate, but maybe I misunderstood. A “shared cabin” might have been just for two of us and cost less for each, but in any case it would still be an astronomical price, so we didn’t pursue greater clarity. We’d ridden the Uchuck up the west coast of Canada through similar scenery and more wildlife. The two day ride, overnight in Clayoquot Sound, meals and return journey came to a small fraction of the Chilean price. Clearly the price is not based on the cost of operating the ship. It must be based on “what the market will bear”, and perhaps there are no private companies who can offer competitive service. That was the case in Peru for anyone who wanted to get to Machu Picchu on the train. It was gov’t run, outrageously priced for non-Peruvians, and there was no private alternative unless you were young enough to hike the whole distance along the “Inca Trail” for several days. However, in that case, at least one knew that it helped to reduce traffic to a world heritage site that could not withstand armies of people tramping around.
We went for lunch in a very old section of restaurants and
tourist shops in old wooden buildings that must have
survived the devastating Valdivia earthquake and tsunami of
1960. This was the strongest earthquake ever recorded
by modern measuring technology, at 9.5. Many people
died, most from the tsunami, which also affected other
countries like Hawaii. There’ve been more recent ones:
one at 8.8, many in the high 7’s. They seem to happen
every year or two. Earthquakes in the 4’s are a daily
but I haven’t noticed one yet.
Our lunch was very large and very good seafood. Deb had
shelled bivalves and molluscs in soup, with the promise that
she could have her broth replenished as many times as she
pleased. I had a huge portion of hake with potato, rice and
salad. We had our own private dining salon on the top
floor of the highest ancient building, with a window
overlooking the bay. The waitress had to climb a steep
spiral staircase to serve us. The prices were Toronto
prices, half of Bariloche or Puerto Madryn prices; no more
“sticker shock” for us when we want to eat in a restaurant.
The same is true of grocery store prices. We paid $17 for
our meal, including tip. We’ll go back for salmon and
some kind of smoked mollusc soup that intrigues Deb, and
visit the free museum that documents the history of P. Montt
- and probably recounts the earthquake.
I haven’t mentioned dogs in S. America, other than in my
previous travelogue in Peru. Dogs run free on the
streets, and are generally friendly and very traffic savvy.
Drivers slow down for them if they have to, but usually the
dogs cross when there’s no traffic, or at intersections with
the people. It’s amusing to watch them wait until the
people get a walk signal, and then blend in with the crowd.
They’re almost all about the size of a lab, but in
Bariloche a lot of them were Schnauzer-cross. Pilar
told us that lots of Nazis made it to Bariloche for a new
start after the war, and maybe that’s why the Schnauzer
bloodline is so prominent there. The downside of the
dog situation is that we’ve played hopscotch with dog poo in
every country we’ve visited so far. Pilar deals with
dogs who get hit (she’s a small animal surgeon) and says
that more people get bitten than one would imagine, and
possibly most of them are children.
In other corners of the world, parents can pay to let their
children ride a pony (and at some zoos, a camel or an
elephant). Here you can also choose a ride on a llama,
right downtown in the pedestrian mall.
Entertainers at red lights run the gamut, but most are jugglers. Today, however, we saw a four man drum squad at work. When the light turns green, drivers with spare change hand it out their windows as the entertainers stand between the lanes collecting contributions in their hands.
Feb 24th. Alban Bodin was, in a sense, an absentee
host. He was very kind - he delayed another
appointment to pick us up at the bus station and get us
settled in his small but modern apartment, and gave us a key
and the wifi password, but we only saw him when he returned
at random hours to get some sleep between odd shifts at his
job. He never told us what he does. He’d race into the
apartment, exchange a few frantic words and smiles, hit the
hay, and do the same thing when he left. He’d feed his
cat and kittens, and ake a shower, but he didn’t seem to
eat. He certainly never sat in his own couch or at his
own dining room table. That was all our exclusive
domain, and most of the time we had the apartment completely
Alban said he’d never travel himself. He was hosting
for the sake of his daughter, who we’ve never met, trying to
build up reciprocal travel creds for her because she wants
to travel. I’m not certain that he comprehends the nature of
a pay-it-forward rather than pay-it-back system. The
former, with reviews and references, couldn’t exist without
the internet. And she’d have to have her own profile
to appeal to hosts where she wants to travel. But
we’ll certainly try to accept her if she applies to stay
with us in Toronto, for her father’s sake.
The only previous host who'd been more absentee for us was a
fellow in Australia who left us a key with his
apartment-hotel suite with the concierge. We never met
him at all for the two days that we were there, we just
exchanged notes. He left us a welcome note with
instructions, and we left him a thank you note propped up on
his dining room table when we left.
Today we took our time in the morning using the wifi and eating breakfast quietly until Alban woke up and left in his usual haste. Then we showered and packed. We’re going to visit the museum this afternoon on our way to the home of Pablo and Samuel. Pablo works at the dialysis unit in the hospital; Deb believes that he is one of the doctors on staff there. They offered to host us for up to a week, but mentioned that they’d be too busy to interact with us much if we arrived mid-week, so we volunteered to stay at Alban’s until Friday (today).
Later: the museum turned out to be surprisingly good for a
free municipal museum. It serves as a collective
memory for the people of the town, and is replete with lots
of good text for my Spanish lessons. It is easy to
read and understand a lot of vocabulary in context, with
illustrations and artifacts to view. There was also an
art exhibit with many works addressing the theme of Leda and
the Swan, some of them pretty graphic, and one sculpture
made entirely with driftwood and found objects that seems
like something Peter could do in Comox.
We got downtown by collectivo, proposing to the driver that
we simply pay for two extra seats for our two large bags; so
the trip cost us $4. The cost would have been double
in a cab, and even then a lot cheaper than Toronto.
Later we paid $8 in a regular metered cab to get from
the museum to Pablo’s.
Pablo was kind, and keen to go shopping for a few items
himself, so he drove us to the Lider supermarket, where we
stocked up. It isn’t within easy walking distance from
the house. He lives in a nice two-storey townhouse
with Samuel, an auditor, and two very nice Siberian huskies.
Both he and Samuel speak English quite well, and Pablo
was also happy to practice his French with Deborah.
Apart from languages, Samuel dashes about singing
incessantly. His stereo is always on, and he always
sings along. He is an excellent photographer, and
learns Chinese for three hours a week via Skype with a tutor
We talked about a lot of things, including gardens and
glaciers, earthquakes and volcanoes. Two years ago
there was a big volcanic eruption that buried Bariloche in
ash, many hours drive away over the mountains. They
have good soil here, with mineral content from light
additions of volcanic ash, but the last really big eruption
was sixty years ago or so.
We had a light supper and then relaxed. It has been a cool, cloudy day, mostly. Perhaps fall is on its way to southern Chile. We’re headed out right away to Pablo and Samuel’s vacation cabin. They offered to let us stay here overnight in their absence, but they have to go and make sure everything is secure there, and they have a spare room, so Deb agreed that it would be a nice adventure.
Feb 25th. The cottage is basically a getaway home in a country setting just twenty kilometres outside of P. Montt, in a region called Chamiza. There is space around the house there, unlike in the gated townhouse. This is the real valley of the volcanoes, ringed by five. One of them erupted two years ago and Samuel watched, photographed and video’d it from his office window. It was spectacular, from his description, with an ash plume two kilometres high and lots of light, shooting fiery projectiles into the sky. Winds carried most of the ash in the direction of Argentina. On the leeward side the ash was a metre deep, but in Puerto Montt there was almost nothing. Some local volcanoes are continuously active, and every year or so one erupts somewhere in the chain.
On the way home we saw interesting housing complexes that are being built on land purchased dirt-cheap, so to speak, from people who were fearful of volcanoes and wanted to move away. One was constructed entirely of different sorts of domes, which should be easy to dig out and clean after a volcano; there is a ring of hills that would protect the area from any plastic flow of lava. Across the road there was a collection of homes that had greenhouses attached. They didn’t look in any way commercial. They just seemed to be homes with enormous solariums that made up at least half of the living space. Here are some good photos of the volcano and various dome home communities.
In the afternoon Pablo took us for a drive back to Chamiza
to visit the “festival of local customs”. We ate a
fascinating potato and pork fat pancake cooked on a pole,
called a “chochoca” and had a plate of mutton ribs, potato
and tomato. We drank chicha made from apples (Deb had
“dulce”, I had “fuerte”), and we came home with some locally
made artisanal quince jam. We watched traditional
dancing and almost got dragged into the dance circle
ourselves. We had a good view of Osorno volcano and
Calbuco volcano, the one that blew two years ago.
Samuel has good photos of that eruption.
At one point we passed a booth with artisanal soaps, in flower shapes. A sign said “Sex Shop”. “Look, Deborah,” I said, “you can buy sex at this booth.” Deborah looked thoroughly confounded, and the lady behind the soaps waved her over conspiratorially. She glanced around to make sure there were no kids or priests close to the booth, then fished out a soap model of a male erection. “Good clean fun!” she beamed. “For a happy shower!”
Feb 26th. It’s cool and overcast this morning - 14 degrees.
A partial eclipse that is a full eclipse a thousand
kilometres south wasn’t visible through the cloud and mist,
and it didn’t even get appreciably darker. But it’s
not raining, and it should warm up to 20 degrees through the
day. It's the beginning of fall in southern
Today Deb and I intended to march down the hill a few blocks
to the main souvenir market, which is an enormously long
stretch of booths, at least a kilometre, maybe two, looking
for Elly’s puppet and other interesting things to marvel at
and maybe photograph. There is also a nearby fish
market which is touted as a significant tourist attraction.
We wanted to gather some intel for a day trip to
Chiloe island. Samuel has explained how we can get
there on a regular bus (the ticket includes the ferry ride)
and the smaller list of what’s worth seeing, while avoiding
the expensive package tour that shows you lots of small
villages that aren’t. There are a thousand islands south of
here, but Chiloe is the biggest and most interesting, and
has an “island feel” according to Samuel.
However, we had a last minute change of plan. Samuel wanted
to take us on a grand tour around Lake Llanquihue. We
visited Frutilla and Puerto Octay, then the Vicente Perez
Rosales National Park, near Puerto Varas, and saw the Osorno
volcano from several angles, as well as the other volcanoes
that ring the valley. The German influence in this
region was really evident.
When we returned at dusk, Samuel and I chopped vegetables for Deb to prepare her Thai curried chicken dish, and Pablo’s sister Carmen and niece Javiera joined us for supper. Pablo’s sister teaches elementary students at a tiny school of about a hundred students on a small island next to Chiloe.
Feb 27th. We got to bed at midnight, and it had been a long
day. We wanted to get up at 6 a.m.to go catch the bus
and ferry for Chiloe, but actually got up at 7. We got
to the bus terminal by 8:30 but the first bus we could ride
left at 9:15. It took us 75 minutes to get to the
ferry crossing, a half hour to cross, and all told, we were
in Castro, the largest town on the island, by 12:30. We rode
on a Cruz del Sur bus, and a ferry owned by the same
company. As we left the dock we saw many sea lions,
and Deb says she saw some of those little black and white
dolphins. I only saw sea lions, but two of them leapt
from the water together like a pair of dolphins, which was
very confusing - it made me question the image in my brain,
which was of two sea lions “porpoising”.
It was foggy when we left but a fine sunny day by the time
we arrived. We toured the town on foot and had shared
two bowls of ceviche at the docks, one of salmon and the
other of clam and sea urchin. We saw homes built out over
the water on stilts, which are a main residential feature
for tourists. I wondered why they'd bothered, given
how much solid land was available only steps away up the
hill. I supposed deciding on a location for the
outhouse was less of a problem; you didn’t have to dig a
latrine. We saw some wild architecture, including a
building like an enormous whale with big white teeth. There
are rose trees here rather than bushes, and wildly colourful
murals on homes.
The small Castro museum stayed closed in spite of the posted
hours, so by 4 we were on a bus to Ancud, the first city founded by
the Spanish which served as the capital of the Chiloe
Archipelago. You could take a tour from there to see
more penguins, but the tours were at 11:30 and 3 p.m., and
we’d already seen penguins. The museum is said to be
quite good, featuring myths and legends of the region as
well as colonial history, so I was disappointed to learn
that it was only open from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. It had
actually closed before we even arrived. As Deborah
said, “Sometimes you’re the fire hydrant…”
Upon arrival in Ancud, the first thing we’d done is bought
our onward ticket. This was lucky and smart, because
only the last two buses back to P. Montt had seats left.
We got seats on the 8:50 p.m. bus, which meant we’d be
back in town by 11 p.m. Deb had a bad stomach, likely
from the ceviche since she normally has a strong stomach and
is willing to try everything, including every sort of bug
above the water or below. Without a museum to tour, there
wasn’t much more of the town to see once we’d toured the
Plaza des Armas and a small cultural gallery with some
paintings, so we went looking for wifi. Every free
wifi router we tried to connect to - the bus station, the
public library, the restaurant where we stopped for a supper
snack - was “AP not connected”.
Finally we got the restaurant to reboot their router and it
worked, so we killed an hour checking email and learned that
a host in P. Montt had invited us to stay with him for four
nights and tutor him privately in English in return.
He and his partner want to go to Denmark, and some
intensive personal English practice in advance of his trip
seemed like a good concept. We’re not sure how much
more of P. Montt there is to see, but we’re a bit ahead of
ourselves in terms of covering ground on this trip, so we
agreed to be his first couchsurfing guests, teach him
English and about couchsurfing, and write his first
reference for him. We’ll go there on March 1st, which
Our return to the house was interesting. Samuel said we should try Uber, since it was cheaper than taxis and worked very well. It was a painful process figuring out how to navigate the app on Deb’s phone, but finally we were in an UberX car and everything was painless and beyond my expectations. We saw the driver’s phone app which functioned like a gps, and told him where we were standing while Deb’s phone told us where he was as he approached and what his licence plate would be, which was extremely helpful in the dark, with other legit and non-legit taxis vying for our business. As soon as we started out I saw immediately from his gps how the legit taxi driver from two nights ago had padded his own bill by not going the most direct route (and then we’d given him a decent tip, dammit!). The UberX ride cost half what the taxi had cost two nights earlier. The ride was securely recorded by UberX servers, the driver had to be rated for quality of service, and the payment came automatically from Deb’s credit card account, which avoided concerns over carrying cash, making change and calculating a tip for the driver. We knew what we’d pay before we ordered the car. The cost was barely more than the collectivos at that time of night, and it was door-to-door service. I can see that we’ll use Uber quite often from now on. In Buenos Aires, where taxi drivers have a terrible reputation for tricks with making change and cheating foreign travellers, Uber must be a real game-changer. It really is an awesome alternative. I can see where insurance would still be a concern; I think I read that Uber has addressed that issue recently but I can’t recall the details.
Feb 28th. Carmen had invited us to stay overnight in
her empty house on a small island near Castro while we were
in Chiloe, while she is here in town with her brother.
However, Deb didn’t feel comfortable finding our way
about in Chiloe and being in a location with no wifi, a bad
weather forecast and people who speak Spanish in a very fast
dialect with pronunciation that drops syllables and is at
times incomprehensible to her. We’d also have to carry
extra gear around while sightseeing in order to manage an
overnight. Turns out there are also hostels everywhere
on Chiloe and many young Chileans who trek there, so we
could have stayed in Castro overnight, but we hadn’t
considered that in advance.
The island was green and rolling, rather like Manitoulin
Island, or even most parts of Vancouver Island. There
were some interesting newer homes, but the majority were
older, constructed of lumber with metal siding or wood
shingle siding, and corrugated steel roofs. There are
sixteen old churches on the island which form the basis of a
tour designed to see them all. I photographed the church in
Castro, and some models of a few of the others. The
architectural style of these churches is called Chilota.
It’s a mestizo, mostly Jesuit style, and there were
originally more than one hundred of these churches on the
Today we have the bad weather that was forecast, but we are back in P. Montt, snug in Pablo and Samuel’s house for one more night. In the evening we made supper for them: salad, salmon, swiss chard from their own garden, and potatoes. Then we taught Samuel to play Farkle, which he enjoyed, but Pablo farkled three times right at the outset and didn’t get to start so he got fed up immedidately and went upstairs to his room to watch Little House on the Prairie in Spanish, which is very popular in Chile. Pablo is pretty shy and reclusive - although he’s the one with the couchsurfing profile, it is actually Samuel who is the really gregarious couchsurfing host. He loves all his guests, accepts everyone and sometimes creates an overpopulation in his house because he doesn’t keep track of who he has accepted and when, but he just rolls with it, sometimes to Pablo’s groans. He spends ages talking with them and saves souvenir messages from them all. He stops for hitchhikers, loves to travel himself, and is a bit of a Peter Pan character, full of constant energy and a puckish sense of humour. They travel internationally a great deal together, and their couches and chairs are overflowing with throw pillows covered in the national flags of many countries, including Canada.
March 1st. It’s a sunny day, but the temperature
gradient is interesting. All this week, with seemingly
normal averages, we are in single digits overnight and only
into the mid-teens in the afternoon. As Deborah pointed out,
looking at a map of the world, we are farther south than
Cape Town. One hundred kilometres north in Valdivia, it is
two degrees warmer across the board. In Santiago, a
thousand kilometres north of here, the temperature still
peaks in the high twenties and low thirties each day.
We walked down the hill past clouds of hydrangeas
(“hortensia” in Spanish), morning glories, fuschia (which
grows wild here) and blackberries. The seafood market
was a busy and interesting place. Several stalls had dozens
of bowls of ceviche set out for immediate consumption by
locals and visitors. Many painters have spent time
here, and Pablo Neruda wrote poetically about it. I
took photos of placards in Spanish and English to remember
details of what we saw and learned, and photos of some of
the works of the painters. We were close enough to
toss fish heads to sea lions, and we ate empanadas mariscos
and empanadas camarones con queso - the first with clams,
the second with shrimps and cheese.
After walking through dozens of souvenir market stalls and
failing to find a single puppet for Elly in spite of all the
other cheap wooden items they all seem to stock (I can’t
understand who they expect to sell these to in such
quantities) we took an Uber back up the hill. This
time the app wouldn’t accept Deb’s credit card so we had to
pay cash, and didn’t understand why. Later we Ubered
over to our next hosts, and tried re-entering the credit
card only to notice that it had expired yesterday. So
we entered a different one and were on our way.
Claudio is an engineer for a fishing corporation who
commutes to Puerto Varas each day, and Paulina is a
psychologist who administers testing for recruitment
departments of large firms in the region. They have a large
old wooden home in a beaten up neighbourhood where they have
begun renting extra rooms through Airbnb, housing two
nursing students from Chiloe Island through the winter while
they attend collage in P. Montt, and they are accepting the
odd Couchsurfer through the summer as well. The home
doesn’t have central heating, so it is a bit like my
memories of England. Paulina says she is always cold, and
like many homes in town, they use a combination of a wood
stove in the living room and an electric heater.
As soon as we arrived they put us on notice that they intended to speak only English, no matter how painful it was for them or for us. We spent the evening over “onces” (“elevenses”), which is a light evening meal of bread and toppings. Paulina explained that they have a light breakfast, a large lunch at midday and a light supper, unlike the Argentine custom we'd observed,of eating a large, late dinner. They put us to work right away, eagerly accepting our suggestions for polishing pronunciation, and our explorations of vocabulary differences and English idioms. We spent some time on the three different pronunciations of “ed” endings, and the multiple meanings, slang and formal, of “toasted” and “toasted”, and many other words. Paulina kept notes, which I’m sure she will review. I love smart young women. This will be our “job” for the next three days, at least in the evenings when they are finished with work. They are preparing for their first trip to Denmark and Europe, with a side trip to Majorca where Paulina has relatives. Later they hope to get a working holiday visa to Canada or Australia. Failing that, they know that they can easily go work in Ireland without visa issues. They gave us a large, comfortable room with a comfortable bed and thick blankets, and we slept “snug as two bugs in a rug” until the light came through the window.
March 2nd. This morning Paulina started her wood stove
for the first time all summer. It will rain throughout
the day. We used gaps in the rain to visit the museum
again because we had missed an entire floor the first time,
and to shop for groceries. The museum was interesting
on the second visit as well. Each visit to a museum
constitutes a Spanish lesson for me, and in this one the
placards were large and clear. To get there we hiked
up and down some hills. Puerto Montt is built on
hills, with only a few narrow stretches of mostly coastal
area suitable for building a rail line. The evolution
of the area was interesting, with three or four towns vying
for economic favour but with natural disasters such as fire
and earthquakes intervening to suppress one and favour the
other. Puerto Montt was one of the favoured ones in
spite of an incredible 1960 earthquake and tsunami that
flattened the town and shocked the world.
On the way home we shopped at Lider Express. Lider is
the S. American branch of Wal-Mart, it seems. We
returned for supper, but although Deb talked with Paulina
most of the evening in English, Claudio was tired and had an
Ecuadorian guest as well, so there was little effort on his
part to learn English. Claudio is also studying for a
monthly exam component of his MBA program, so he is cramped
for time. I have a plan cobbled together from websites
of English for travellers, but that might have to wait until
Saturday. There are two more guests arriving today,
two girls from Mexico and Germany who will each be studying
at the local college. I also want to help Claudio and
Paulina to build their Couchsurfing profile in English so
that they might be successful in requesting hosts while they
are in Europe.
Dr. Seuss wrote about “green eggs and ham”. Children everywhere thought that was ridiculous. How could there be green eggs? But here, we’ve been eating green eggs, with the deepest yellow yolks you’ve ever seen. And they haven't gone bad. They’re actually officially blue eggs, from a special breed of chicken called Araucanas, or Ameraucanas. They can range from green to blue. We’ve all seen brown and white eggs, but there are also apparently chickens called Marans that lay dark chocolate coloured eggs (just the shells, unfortunately) and various shades of brown in between.
March 3rd. Paulina remembered that there is a
collectivo that runs in front of her house. She
usually takes Uber if Claudio doesn’t drive her to work.
We caught the Modelo collectivo, and for a buck apiece
it took us to the bus terminal where we walked only a short
distance to take the water taxi to Tenglo Island. This
is almost the same as taking the water taxi from Nanaimo to
Protection Island, but with higher hills on either
We watched two young men jumping on the sand to pound it
with their heels, creating strips of disturbed, compacted
sand from which little crayfish emerged, like shrimp with
pincers. They were filling one plastic shopping bag
with those, and another one with clams, I think.
Paulina’s mother came over to her house later for a
visit and looked at the photo. She thinks they use
them for bait, which makes sense. It seems unlikely
that they’d end up on a human’s dinner plate. We took
a photo of St. Peter the Fisherman wearing a toque,
overlooking the fishing boat harbour. Knitted wool
garments are a very big part of the local artesanal cottage
industry here, and you can find these handmade items in
every other souvenir shop.
We returned to Angelmo for curanto for lunch, at Aurora’s
Restaurant, which Paulina recommended. Like the
curando in Bariloche, this is a large plate of shellfish,
chicken, sausage and salt pork with potato, potato flour
dumplings called milcao and wheat flour dumplings as well.
The main difference apart from the spelling is that
curando is a community meal cooked on hot stones under
leaves and dirt. One order of curanto fed both of us quite
well. Then we walked out behind the market and watched
a dozen sea lions putting on a show, chasing fish after fish
tossed to them by the fishermen who were cleaning their
catch, and being harassed by a dog who was careful not to
get too far into the water, where they could have grabbed
him in a sudden rush like an Orca grabs a cachorro.
A short hike later got us to the street corner where we could catch the Modelo collectivo to return home, right to our door. A minor tragedy ensued as I discovered that my camera wouldn’t download photos to my tablet. I believed that the problem was my “on the go” cable, because I couldn’t get the tablet to recognise thumb drives that I connected to it, either. The very first cable we had failed within days, so it made sense; I was afraid I’d have to take photos with my tablet for the rest of the trip, which would be kind of a drag. But as a last resort, I did a reboot of the tablet, and it read the thumb drive and then the camera. What a relief.
March 4th. On Saturday morning it seems that every inhabitant of Puerto Montt and the surrounding region is either selling or buying produce at two different markets that spread over many blocks. Angelmo parking lot was filled with vendors. We got up early and shopped. Paulina and Claudio stocked up on essentials, and Deborah purchased ingredients for her Thai curried chicken dish. Last night we ate salmon ceviche, which Paulina made at home. We said farewell to Alejandro, an Ecuadorian guest who’d been here for two nights. After breakfast Paulina and Claudio drove down to the bus station to look for their next two guests, a girl from Mexico named Jocelyn and another from Germany named Rebekka. We’ll spend the day, which is a bit cool and overcast, relaxing and getting to know the new guests, teaching travel English to Paulina and Claudio, and preparing tonight’s special dinner.
March 5th. Dinner was delicious, and afterward Deb got
our hosts to drive all six of us to see some cool public art
on a little kiosk not far away. There was a chameleon,
and a nice painting representing P. Montt neighbourhoods,
with the cemetery. Just across a vacant lot from there was
the yellow church where Paulina and Claudio got married in
2015. When we got back to the house, we taught them
all to play Farkle.
The girls are going to study here and they are looking for
student lodging, but today is Sunday. Claudio is a
fishing fanatic and even retails fishing gear online that he
buys from China as a sideline from his regular job as an
engineer with a salmon exporting company. He got me up
early to try to catch a fish with him, but it was raining
pretty hard and wouldn’t let up. Eventually he decided
that if we continued, all we’d catch was the flu, so we came
home for brunch - at which point, of course, the sun came
out. Murphy’s Law...Murphy being a fisherman, in this
After brunch, we hugged the girls goodbye and wished them
well in their winter of studies here. Claudio and
Paulina dropped us at the terminal for smaller
inter-municipal buses and saw us onto the one that went to
Puerto Varas, where we checked into Hostal Pacha around 1
p.m. and had the place to ourselves for the early afternoon.
Tomorrow evening we’ll stay with another CS host,
Gonzalo - he’s offered us seven nights, but that’ll use up
too much of the remaining time we have in Chile, so we might
stay with him for two or three. Or even just one.
Having had a tour around the lake with Paulo and
Samuel, there might not be a lot more to see in P. Varas
itself except strolling through the downtown and visiting
museum, which Claudio says is quite good.
The hostel is typical of most we’ve seen in Chile. It
seems that anyone can take any old house on any residential
street, put padlocks on the bedroom doors and advertise it
online and with brochures at the local tourist information
centre as a “hostel” for young tourists. Inside, it is
clean, including the kitchen, the bedding and towels - the
important stuff. It is quiet. We are
sharing it with a few older travellers, mostly Brazilian,
who speak Portuguese. One couple has two very rotund
bulldogs, one of them so barrel-shaped that it has to be
carried up and down the stairs.
It costs more than our hotel in Buenos Aires, and more than
hostels or low end motels in Canada, yet it looks like crap
from the outside. The grass is unmowed, and the paint
dirty, faded and peeling, especially on the trim. The
shrubs unpruned and hugely overgrown in the front garden.
It could be mistaken for a crack house. Hostels
often don’t match their advertising photographs.
Inside, it is furnished with old coffee tables with
cup rings in the finish. There's a slab of cardboard
covering an enormous hole in the wall. There's an odor
of mould; perhaps a leaky roof caused mould in the walls
that resulted in the hole now covered by cardboard.
Our “superior room”, as Deborah observed, is “superior” only
insofar as it is one of the three on the second floor.
It is cramped, even worse with a couple of suitcases
in it. It has a window but no view, and the bed is
under a sloping roof that requires the bed frame to be no
taller than a couple of inches of wood, so you won’t bump
your head sitting up. It might as well be a mattress
on the floor.
There are two shower rooms for all the guests, perhaps five
couples this night. One girl came from above at
breakfast to use the downstairs shower, just off the dining
room, because “the shower upstairs sucks”. Breakfast place
settings are on trays: two cups, two side plates, two tea
spoons, no napkins. It seems that since there really
isn’t room for all the guests to breakfast together in the
tiny dining room, they had a brainwave that couples would
take their breakfast to their rooms and have breakfast in
bed. But there are no tables or chairs in the
rooms. We stubbornly took over the kitchen and dining
room, and didn’t budge until we were finished eating what we
pleased. At least the breakfast was fine, we
discovered the next morning, just as previous guests have
written in reviews: toast, ham and cheese, fruit jam,
bananas, oatmeal, syrupy-sweet orange juice, milk, tea or
fresh brewed coffee.
In spite of catering largely to foreign tourists, the hostel makes no pretense at an effort to save them money by registering itself as an accommodation that can waive the 19% IVA (the VAT, in Chile), and in order not to come under fire over that issue, it demands payment in cash, no credit card thank-you-very-much. Foreign travellers who present a passport and a foreign credit card are entitled by law to have the IVA waived at hotels that register for the program, but by taking payment in cash and not even recording the passport number, the hostel can simply pocket the extra 19%. Perhaps the whole process of getting that credit back from the gov’t is so cumbersome that the hostels and lower end hotels can’t be bothered even trying. Perhaps someone with insider insight can explain to me later how it works - or doesn’t work. It’s a mystery to me. You’d imagine that any hostel that did register would be able to stand out against its competition. With no follow-through by Chilean authorities, it is a toothless law, and does not benefit either the tourists, or Chile in terms of encouraging tourism and gathering more foreign currency, which was the logic in several latin american countries who followed this path. The sour taste of being cheated out of something to which they are entitled by law pushes foreign travellers more and more toward the social media “sharing economy”, both in the form of Airbnb, or reciprocal accommodation sites like Couchsurfing.com, and probably numerous others that I haven’t researched, including some Spanish language ones. Just as Uber is so hugely preferable to traditional taxi services which are widely disparaged by the locals as cheats and gougers, and has gained enormous traction even in southern Chile, so have alternative accommodation sites. We don’t meet many Chilean travellers in hostels. After this experience and the one in Colonia, I’ll make an effort to stick to Airbnb’s myself, if we can’t find a couchsurfing host.
After a nap, we went for a stroll and almost immediately
found the museum, which is a quirky building which formerly
housed the pump that supplied water to the town from the
lake. It was given to the artist by the town. He
has some interesting paintings - interesting to me because I
am drawn to residential architecture and history. He
has an eclectic collection of mid-20th century objects found
in old homes and given to him by friends and families.
The environment inside the museum is a little spoiled
by a blizzard of cards written by admirers (he provides the
cards) which he leaves littered everywhere, like Scrooge
McDuck rolling in his dollar bills. I don’t get people
who need to have their ego so profoundly and continuously`
stroked, but we met the man and he, of course, talked about
himself (with Deb, in Spanish, while I ignored him by taking
We left the museum and walked along the lakefront to the centre of town. The town reminds me of one of those Rocky mountain towns that exist largely to sell expensive tours and equipment to tourists. There doesn’t seem to be much else of note to experience. Others have said it is a prettier town than P. Montt, and that could be true, but it seems far less interesting. P. Montt grows on you, it gets under your skin a little, like soil under your fingernails. Here, there are homes from the early 20th century to ogle, there’s a church, some artesanal shops, a casino, Lago Llanquihue, the picture-postcard Osorno volcano on the other side of the lake, and that’s about it. It does seem like a thoroughly boring town. We may not stay very long.
March 6th. Yesterday the girl behind the desk at the Tourist Information was quite useless at giving us direction about what to explore in the town. We’ll walk back down there this morning and push her for more ideas. I did find out that you can ride down the Rio Petrohue for a half a day on a large rubber ducky for $80 apiece, along with various other hikes, cycling, horseback and rafting tours. There are hot pools, including one on the Osorno Volcano overlooking Lake Llanquihue...also $80 for four hours. You can really get soaked here.
We gathered intel, then took a few photos of buildings and
remarked on the German influence on this town a hundred
years ago. Linguistically it has been subsumed by
Spanish, but I did hear people chatting in German on the
pier in front of the Tourist Info centre. The air was
clear and the day sunny, so the volcanoes were in full view.
We browsed the main floor of the El Greco hotel, which
seems to have been a German school in its former life and
retains a museum-like nature. We saw lovely old world
maps on its walls, including one of Afrika that had a few
surprises for me.
We passed a store and saw what looked like a large ukulele
with black nylon strings in the window. We asked the
saleslady to bring it down, and I tuned it, probably
incorrectly, but it sounded great and it was easy to create
chords. It is called a Cuatro,
and is from Venezuela. It is really deep bodied, and
has a very nice sound. It could certainly be strung
and tuned like a ukulele, but the traditional tuning has the
two outer strings tuned lower, with thicker strings. I
We walked up Gramado, perpendicular to the lake, to a theatre and photo gallery. We viewed photos of the volcanic eruptions two years ago. There were two in 2015, and one in 2011. I was impressed by the lightning in the clouds above an eruption, which I’ve heard about before; the electrical activity is enormous. The lightning is generated within the ash cloud spewing from the volcano, in a process called charge separation. Another neat effect is the red light from inside a molten crater that shines upward onto the the screen of cloud above the volcano. Only part of me is happy that we haven’t experienced an event like this directly, but we’ve seen the ash that gets dumped up to a metre in depth downwind of the eruption, and one of the photos showed someone pushing ash off his roof with a stiff broom. Another showed hives of dead bees. The ash must kill a lot of vegetation, although the minerals in the ash are good for plants when they finally grow back.
March 7th. Gonzalo rescued us from the Hostal Pacha
around 8 p.m. and settled us in his home. We had
“onces” together. His 5 year old son visits every
other weekend and we were given the son’s room, so we slept
in twin beds with Spiderman covers, with a Spiderman lamp
and other decorations in the room. Gonzalo learned
English in the U.S. at the age of 4 and has been speaking it
ever since, including some stints at college in Boston.
He is six years into building a company here with two
partners, tailoring netting for fish farming. He can
travel to Norway every couple of years because of a salmon
partnership between Norway and Chile, but other than that,
he hosts couchsurfers because it is a way to travel
vicariously. We had Australian hosts in remote towns
who gave us the same rationale.
Gonzalo lives in a neat residential bungalow only two blocks
from the hostel. He agreed that we’ve already seen
most of what Puerto Varas has to offer, but we came up with
a plan to get on the local bus to Frutillar today to visit a
German settlers museum. When we return we’ll pick up
tiramisu from two friends of his who’ve just opened an
Italian store, and the makings for Thai chicken, which he is
excited about. He even had coconut milk and Thai curry
already in his cupboard.
At the hostel there had been some 40% off coupons for
American Breakfast at El Barista, a popular bistro downtown.
No-one takes them because the hostel provides
breakfast, but Deb had grabbed a couple for this morning,
thinking ahead, so we went there. We each produced a
coupon and had bacon and eggs with coffee and a large glass
of fresh-squeezed orange juice. Then we took the
microbus 30 kms to Frutillar, which cost less than a TTC bus
ride in Toronto.
The museum in Frutillar was one of the best we’ve seen
anywhere. It had well-tended gardens and four
exceptionally well-maintained historical buildings that
illustrated the arrival and the lives of the German settlers
in the late 19th century. There was, incongruously, a
computer generated projection of surveillance cameras on
rectangles of salt on the floor of the upper level of the
mill. I tried to take interesting photos of that
After leaving the museum we had lunch, rode back to P. Varas and bought supper supplies before walking up the hill back home. We found a frozen Thai vegetable mix, and some actual green tomatoes. When Gonzalo got home from work we had our Thai chicken, which was really spicy this time. Gonzalo and his family are some of the minority of Chileans who actually like spicy hot food, and he has been to Thailand and to Singapore himself. He pronounced that it tasted very authentic and brought back memories. Then after a Heineken each to wash it down, we played three games of ping pong and he let me win one. That’s the first time in seven years that I’ve played. I’m pretty rusty.
Gonzalo helped Deborah book
onward tickets online, and pay for them. The bus
company website wouldn’t accept her credit card, maybe
because she doesn’t have a local address. We’re not
sure of the reason, but Gonzalo used his credit card and we
paid him cash for that - yet another example of the benefit
of having a local host. We will bus over to Paillaco
early this afternoon. That’s near Valdivia on the west
coast. Gonzalo offered to host us for a week, but except for
the other German museum at Braunau, we think we’ve seen all
that matters here for us, and the weather has turned rainy
for the rest of the week. There are eight months of rain
here. Valdivia has a shorter rainy season and it will
still be relatively dry there for another month, apparently,
and on average, two degrees warmer.
|Valdivia (Paillaco) and Concepcion||Photo
March 8th. We called an Uber to get to the bus
station. Just as he arrived, the skies opened and
buckets of rain fell, but the bus station wasn’t far away
and the bus was only nine minutes late so we were soon on
our way to Paillaco. Gabriela picked us up. We
did a little shopping, and she drove us to her home, which
turned out to be quite far out in the country - an awkward
distance from public transit. After Gary arrived home
from college we ate together. Gary he
has just begun his first term of pharmaceutical chemistry.
Gary and Gabriela live in a new house that is as large as a
barn. It’s about 65 feet by 45 feet in the main area,
extended by a T section that is 15 feet deep and maybe 95
feet from one arm to the other, comprising four bedrooms
including the master bedroom plus a utility room and
pumphouse, all in one long line. It’s the biggest
building I’ve ever been in that is simply a residential
home. There is an echo. Even the guest bathroom
is the size of a bedroom in a normal home. You could
open a roller rink. The children ride their bicycles
around indoors. Why? I don’t know, but someone
really likes space; perhaps Gary. His world view seems
parallel to mine, but he has wide ranging interests and an
intellect that indulges in run-on thoughts, riffing on
ideas. Over supper, they were political ideas, about
the last U.S. election.
After supper we went for a walk around the property with
Gabriela and her two children, 1 year old Sophia and 2 year
old Leon, and met her “tio” Roberto bringing in the four
veal cattle which are healthy young bulls with horns now.
We saw the herd of sheep that they now have in
preference to cattle because they are somehow easier to
keep, perhaps because of space and fencing issues. I’m
not sure if they’re for meat or wool, or both.
As we returned to the house there was an electrical storm,
then a downpour, and the power went out. My wifi
connection continued, however. Gary explained that the
router was running through his laptop, and would last until
well into the night on the laptop battery alone.
Interesting. I wouldn’t automatically have
thought of that sort of work-around. Mind you, we
rarely have a problem like this in Toronto. Gabriela says it
is all too common here.
Gary seems to like projects. He is keen to speak to me only in Spanish until my brain tires and my concentration fails. He believes that simply “powering through” in this way will spur me to begin speaking. To some extent he is right. I did express myself in Spanish a little bit, very slowly and painfully, last night. I'm always conscious that it is as painfully slow for the listener as it is for the speaker. But I really want to work with Gabriela doing a Google Translate conversation where she has to speak in English and I have to speak in Spanish, since we are both at the same point of understanding but not speaking very much. I have a theory that common constructions could become familiar and habitual and that we could each develop fluency that way.
March 9th. We got a late start. Before we left
for town I saw the reflection of sheep in the living room
window. We had been invaded! The whole herd had
gotten out and were on Gabriela’s front lawn. Deb texted her
and stood guard over her flowers until Roberto arrived to
herd them back where they belong.
It took about an hour to get to town, walking out to where
the bus would pass. The scenery was pleasant until the
outskirts of town. There were densely forested hilltops and
a good curving highway, reminiscent of British Columbia.
Chile’s west coast is a mirror image of Canada’s.
We walked downtown and back to the terminal in about
two hours; the map from the tourist info office did not give
a sense of how long it would take. It looked like a
much smaller town on the map. I also discovered that what I
thought was a coastal town is actually on a river leading
into the ocean. The river is Rio Calle-calle, which
literally means “Street-street river”, perhaps the dumbest
name for a river I’ve ever seen, but there might be an
There were more sea lions on a raft right at the waterfront,
mostly males. As usual, they were being harassed by
dogs but ignoring them completely and squabbling with each
other, perhaps over territory on the raft. There was also a
tour boat for people to go out and see orcas, and a large
model of an Orca to advertise it. Perhaps merely to
delight the children, the orca was chomping baby seals in
half and they were hanging from its mouth.
We determined that three nights here will probably be enough. We’ll do the museums, because museums are where a community lays out and interprets its own history and culture for itself and for visitors. There was supposed to be a good botanical garden here, but it’s actually just an arboretum according to reviewers.
March 10th. Gabriela had to drive into town to renew Gary’s
visa. He’s been here for five years but has to renew
it every six months in spite of being a landowner, husband
and father. We hitched a ride and visited the main
historical and anthropological museum, which was small but
quite good in terms of laying out the development of
Valdivia from Mapuche times until today, through Spanish
colonial times, then Chilean revolution and independence,
then German immigration.
We learned about Lord Cochrane, who was hired from Scotland
to lead troops of the Chilean independence forces against
the Spanish. He led them to victory at the Battle
and is remembered in street names in every town and city of
Chile, including Valdivia and Paillaco.
We saw a “contemporary art” museum that was truly awful.
The counterbalance is an abundance of “mural art”
which Gary describes as “cartoonish but well executed”, and
that about sums it up.
We walked across the bridge to the downtown area with a
souvenir, seafood, fruit and veggies market. We had a
typical lunch of soup with a bit of roast and a whole potato
in it plus some noodles which might have been a nod to the
The Science Institute had a display on the evolution of whales, which was interesting, including fossils and models of the intermediaries between land and ocean creatures. I learned that survivors of the original ship that Herman Melville based his story of Moby Dick on, the Essex, were brought to Valdivia. The official account says to Santa Maria Island, which I suppose is near enough, and definitely still part of Chile. The original account is a harrowing story in itself. Moby Dick was the first movie my mother ever took me to see, in a small prairie town in Saskatchewan, as far from the ocean as you can imagine. I watched ocean waves and an enormous fake whale on the big screen a few feet away from my face at the age of two. The only waves I’d seen to that point were waves of grain, and the only horrifying monster would have been a harvester. The movie was traumatic enough to become one of my earliest memories, comparable with that of a rooster flying at my head at about the same age when I toddled into a chicken coop.
Deb and I have been helping Gabriela try to save four
kittens whose mother got killed on the road when their eyes
were barely open. One had already died; one of the remainder
also didn’t make it. It is mysterious to me why, but
it was always cold and couldn’t seem to feed properly, to
produce calories. I tried to bring it along with the
others and I know it had enough food inside its belly, but
it finally died tonight, in the middle of a feeding.
It used to purr when I warmed it up in my hands, at
least. “Failure to thrive” is the term vets give the
phenomenon, which is no answer at all to the question
“why?”, but I can do no better. It didn’t have the heart to
go on without its mother, according to Deb. The other
three are thriving, in any case. They are very spunky
and now crawling around, chasing our feet in the bathroom.
Their yoda-like ears jerk back and forth as they suck
greedily at the bottle.
Deb has decided that our next destination will be on the coast proper, and a little further north, the town of Concepcion. We might bypass other towns that don’t hold as much interest, but go after Concepcion to Valparaiso and Viña del Mar, then back to Santiago for up to a week before our departure back to Toronto. It’s interesting to note that one reason we haven’t rented a car is because we’re a bit uncertain about the driving and the signage, but another is that you can pay up to $5 for every hundred kilometres or so on highway tolls. That’s a considerable expense when it adds up through a long, narrow country.
March 12th. Yesterday was another rainy day, and with little
more to explore in Valdivia we just hung out at the house,
enjoying a leisurely breakfast. I had a couple of long
conversations with Gary about the state of the world, and
Gabriela ran us into Paillaco to buy onward bus tickets and
some salmon fillets for supper. We got a nice photo of
Gabriela and the kids dressed for church, but Gary wasn’t
around for that.
Gary does daily exercise with a chin-up bar and weights, and
high impact work with a punching bag and trampoline,
outside. He is frustrated when it rains because he
can’t do his high impact outdoor workout. He’s a bit
of a nerdy type who speaks with with rapid-fire encyclopedic
awareness of history, chemistry, cultural differences, U.S.
politics and world affairs. He's not the type you’d
expect to be working out like Schwarzenegger, but he
explained that he has osteopenia, probably a genetic
condition, and he combats it with high impact exercise to
trigger calcium absorption by his bones. He described
his upbringing, which was unusual. I haven’t been nosy
enough to ask how he became financially independent at such
an early age. I suspect the passing of his single Mom, a
psychiatrist who he dismisses as “crazy”, but we haven’t
known him long enough for him to open up to that degree.
Another kitten died this morning. I thought it was getting weak and losing appetite yesterday. The vet, on the phone, speculated that the two who died had succumbed to a virus. The remaining two seem healthy for now, but one more than the other. It is possible they will all succumb to it. Deb wonders if the formula we’re giving them, although designed for kittens missing a mother, lacks antiviral qualities that might be found in a live mother cat’s milk. Too bad. We did what we could. Now the rest is up to Gabriela and her vet. After another lingering breakfast and packing session this morning, we’ll catch the 3 p.m. bus this afternoon to Concepcíon, arriving around 10 p.m., and then we’ll make our way to the Airbnb we have booked for our first night there.
March 13th. Just before we left, the vet arrived.
She quickly diagnosed and treated the remaining two
kittens for parvovirus. One was already showing the
same symptoms as the previous two who’d succumbed to the
virus. So now I have a good idea how to recognise
parvovirus in kittens, and know that they should receive
[Later we learned that this kitten also died, but one who
was treated at the same time and was still strong and
healthy did survive. Gabriela sent us a photograph.]
We rode up Ruta 5 toward Concepción, with six snow-covered
volcanic peaks to our right, in the east. After dark
there was a completely full moon in a clear sky over the
distant mountains. When we arrived in Concepción we had some
difficulty with our Uber app, which wouldn’t recognise
Quinto Centenario street. Possibly it should have
recognised V Centenario - in Spanish, the roman numeral V is
called “quinto”, which means “fifth”, and is similar to
“cinco” which means “five”. It is a failure of the
Uber gps system that it couldn’t find either V Centenario or
Quinto Centenario. The Uber driver got help from some
sort of dispatch person, and my Here Maps app on my tablet
picked it up, so finally we were on our way.
Our host, a third year commerce student at the university,
rents out the ground floor while he and his parents mostly
occupy the second floor. His name is Cesar, and he is
very friendly and helpful with advice about how to get
around the city and what to see and do. Being Monday,
most museums were closed, but the Galería de la Historia de
Concepción was open in the afternoon so we wandered the
downtown, had lunch at “Wofoo”, got in touch with our next
Couchsurfing host for instructions on how to get to her
place in the evening, then visited that museum, which is
well-known for its dioramas.
At 7 p.m. we went to Kari’s apartment. Once again,
Uber failed to recognise the address, causing a bit of
anxiety. We had to direct the driver to a nearby
college, and once again, Here Maps saved the day, right down
to street numbers on the buildings of the street we were
looking for. Later Deborah complained about these two
failures to Uber, asking them to update their maps; and they
refunded part of our trip, which we hadn’t asked for but it
cheered us up.
Kari is short for Karim. Kari is a forestry engineer
who commutes from Santiago and has to maintain an apartment
in each city. We took her to supper at a Peruvian
restaurant nearby, and chatted about her past, and Chile’s
past. She was one of a tiny number of Chileans who
completed university on full scholarships. Most have
to take on significant debt. She spent a year in Canada
studying English and French, six months in Toronto, and six
in Montreal. She has a four foot wide painting above
her sofa of the skyline of Toronto.
She told us about the “Chicago Boys” who studied under
Milton Friedman and became architects of the bloody
revolution and disappearances in Chile, when the U.S. navy
in Valparaiso harbour and a bevy of CIA agents assisted
General Pinochet to overthrow the democratically elected
“Marxist” president Allende. They advanced the “shock
doctrine” approach and get credit for the economic recovery
of Chile. There are books and documentaries on both
sides the argument, but Allende’s failure can’t be
considered in isolation. It happened during a depression in
Chile that was triggered by a worldwide recession and oil
crisis in the early 70’s. Then inflation took hold,
and interest rates began to climb, peaking around 21% in
1980 or so. Certainly other socialist economies,
without the interference of the U.S., got through that ugly
period, but in Chile everything was privatized - all
forestry lands, water, highways, everything. Now three
families at the top own pretty well everything, according to
Kari (someone else said seven families). Everyone else
works for them. Everyone has a job and a decent
standard of living, but of course, the world economy has
also improved and interest rates are at historic lows, so
trade is easy and anyone can make money, regardless of
I was too young and too far away when all this happened to
pay attention what was happening in the southern hemisphere,
or at least for the events to stick in my memory.
Visiting the museum of Human Rights in Santiago
triggered my memory and I began learning and
relearning. I found it fascinating that opposite
economic policies could be instituted by fanatics and sweep
in to control a nation - Marxism in Cambodia vs Capitalism
in Chile, for example - with equally brutal and bloody
ferocity. Now I have a whole fresh set of
documentaries to explore and consider when I get home, and a
Naomi Klein book to read. Thanks, Kari.
Either economic model can seem to be successful in good
times, or when times are improving. Now both of them
may be under threat, since interest rates have been so low
for so long that some gov’ts and banks are literally making
money by paying people to hold mortgages (in Holland, for
example). Bill Gross is convinced that the world has
taken on so much debt that there is a coming disaster which
he describes as a “supernova”. When that intersects
with the employment crisis that is on the horizon, all bets
are off, he claims. Kari and I also ruminated over the
ideas that are now penetrating the zeitgeist with regard to
unemployment that will result from self-driving cars, trucks
and buses, real estate tremors when parking lots are no
longer required in inner cities, the economic shock to
insurance companies, the many jobs in manufacturing, law and
in medical care and labs which will fall by the wayside as a
result of robotics and computers. Workers in Chinese
factories are little more than robots already, but even they
have a precarious future. In some Canadian
jurisdictions we’re edging toward a universal basic income,
which is the only logical response to the coming crisis that
I can see; the alternative may be entire armies of
unemployed, frustrated men and women through all age groups.
We’ve already seen jobs dry up for laid-off middle
aged workers. Even with retraining, they seem to be a
useless appendage in our economy unless they drastically
lower their expectations.
Teaching has been a fairly protected lagoon of employment
but the pressures from redundancy in so many other fields
are going to be felt, and probably already are, given the
significant oversupply of young teachers trying to get into
full-time work and spending years as “supply teachers”.
Their frustration will lead to a demoralized
generation of teachers, and that doesn’t bode well for the
school system or for the children and parents who depend on
it. It’s also an expensive model for learning, given
newer technology. New forms of learning and knowledge
transfer may slowly take over.
People who can make a living in the arts are a shrinking
pool that may soon dry up except for those who are
gladiators in the Roman circus that is the giant music and
film industry. Those who teach the arts may have
bought some time because there will be many who want to
spend some of their expanding free time beating back boredom
by taking music lessons, painting, joining ukulele groups,
guitar circles and choirs, making their own quilts and
clothing, and many other purely recreational pursuits. Even
poets and actors in low budget performances may soon
experience a renaissance, in neighbourhood coffee shops
reminiscent of the ‘60’s.
Retailers in gardening and music stores - especially those who are willing to teach the instruments they’re selling - should do well unless and until there is a total collapse of the economy. Factory farmers of cereal, with gps guided combines, may do ok, but there are meat substitutes that will take hold in the market, and production in local gardens may crimp the market for large scale fruit and vegetable producers, and for importers of tropically grown fruit. If incomes are scaled back, consumers may have to make more local choices. There will be more time to care for gardens and more neighbourhood produce swapping events. We have our first set of Tool libraries in Toronto, and some for children's’ toys and for musical instruments; that concept should expand, you would expect, along with other manifestations of the sharing economy. With social media, concepts like reciprocal hosting (Couchsurfing and TeacherExchange), Airbnb and dozens of others (house swapping, house sitting, etc) are usurping the sales of traditional hotel room. The “tiny houses” movement is growing, and many of these, like a collection of “granny flats”, may also become overnight homes for travellers as well as permanent homes for the currently homeless, like the more traditional motel “cabins”, in regions where the winter climate permits them to be habitable year-round. With more free time and declining costs of transportation (for fuel, insurance, electric driverless conveyances), many more people may be able to undertake travel adventures, especially young seniors, the “early retired” like ourselves.
Mind you, if people don't have jobs and income, there will be no taxes for many jurdisdictions, so services will decline unless transfers from federal and provincial income taxes fill the gap. Neighbourhoods will be carved and hollowed out if schools, small regional hospitals and other services close. Just being "busy" will be a mark of status. Income disparity will polarize even further and that is in itself a destabilizing social condition. It is difficult to determine how the negatives will balance the positives, but my money is on a negative tilt.
March 14th. We took collectivo #29 downtown, and he
dropped us right near the Pinacoteca art museum, officially
the Casa del Arte José Clemente Orozco, which is just
outside the University gate. It is small, has only a
few noteworthy paintings, but has an enormous and famous
mural called Presencia
de America Latina,
300 square metres of well-executed art that took six months
After the rest of the museum, which was pretty
anticlimactic, we strolled through the university, enjoying
the atmosphere of the second day of the first week of
classes. There were student clubs and activity booths
set up to sign up new students, lots of sports and games,
and some fun statues and architecture.
I asked to take a photo of an instrument that looked the
size of a guitar but more like a 6 double-stringed
instrument similar to a mandolin, which has four double
strings. It is called “La Ud”, and is used to play the
melody line just like a mandolin, while a partner plays
chords and bass line on a classical guitar. Later I
saw a TED performer playing it as a middle eastern
instrument, where it is called an “oud”.
The students were delighted to have their photo taken in
medieval dress. They pulled me into the photo and
performed a song for us. These college musicians are
called "tunas", and do a lot of playing for
fundraising. One of them volunteered to take my photo
and pretended to run off with the camera; another teased us
that we should pay them $5 after the performance, but Deb
gave them Canada pins, which delighted them even more.
The main guy we’d been speaking to already had a
collection of pins on his sleeve, which he'd acquired during
frequent playing tours to other countries that the group is
able to engage in.
Afterward we picked up some ingredients for a Thai curried shrimp dish, and headed home to deal with email, my diary and photos, and to have a nap before Kari got home from work to eat with us. As it turns out, she’d forgotten that this is her night for Portuguese class, so she’ll be late. She already speaks English and French quite well, and if she learns another language after this, she says it’ll be Chinese, which seems to be a theme in Chile, and very logical given the way the balance of economic power is tilting to that end of the boat.
March 16th. We’ve had almost two full days offline -
our first experience where a wifi connection could be seen
by phones but not by tablets. Neither of our tablets
literally could even see the name of the connection, but
four different smartphones in the house could, including
Deb’s; and yet she wasn’t using her own data - it was
definitely a wifi connection within the house.
We are in a house belonging to Antonia’s grandmother.
This host Antonia was a mysterious identity puzzle.
Antonia’s profile online was for a girl named Magdalena, who
we never met, and herself. She felt to me like a
person with multiple personalities, although it is possible
that a close friend tries to help her with her online
presence as a Couchsurfing host. Magdalena’s photos
are of a perky blonde girl with plenty of attitude.
The girl we met, who wrote in excellent English but never
spoke it while we were with her and had to get Deb’s help to
text an English Couchsurfer who had arrived at the bus
station, was awkward, with debilitating shyness like a small
forest creature trapped by your gaze, who tended to bite her
lip. This was Antonia, who admitted in one text to be
the one sending us messages in English - I don’t know how -
and who said she is Magdalena’s best friend. But we
never met Magdalena. The host profile said that she
was a musician and tour guide. Antonia bombed out of
music school apparently, but we never saw an instrument or
heard her play or sing anything. She led us, more or
less silently, to several places in the limited time we had.
Later I noticed her Couchsurfing profile photo had
changed yet again to a photo of herself which we could
recognise, although she’d created a kind of sad clown face
with mascara and a fake tear tattoo; and she was finally
identifying herself as Antonia rather than as two people -
she’d eliminated the possibly fictional Magdalena.
Still later, she changed her profile name to
Alessandra Hess. All very bizarre.
Antonia slept at her father’s house, but accommodated
couchsurfers at her grandparents home. They seemed
perfectly content with the arrangement, and they were fine
hosts. Her grandmother made delicious homemade jam,
which is always “mermelada” in Spanish.
We went around with two young couchsurfers from the very
south in Argentina, Daniel and Aylen. Aylen had a
tattoo of a wooden heart between her shoulder blades, so
Deborah sang her the song in both English and German (I
didn’t know she could do that!). Daniel had long hair
and a beard and could have been part of the cast of J.C.
Superstar. I was the short-haired, clean-shaven Roman
to his Hebraic persona, but they are both teachers taking a
year or two off, and we got along well with them. I
had my first conversation with actual Spanish sentences
strung together with Daniel, about various kinds of
instruments and other interests in common. Daniel is a
good amateur photographer, and we swapped photos. We
saw a “medusa” together - a very large, dramatic looking
jellyfish. Daniel got a photo - I didn’t catch a good
shot, so he gave me his. In the process, I transferred
all of his photos out of his camera, and it seemed he had
lost weeks of photo collection, but we finally managed to
figure out how to restore them to him. In the process,
he shared all his photos with me, so I have one
extra album of photos that includes a fascinating
series he took to illustrate a "minga" of people moving an
entire house to a new location by water and by oxen.
During a quick day and a half, we travelled to Lenga, a
seaside town, where we hiked up and down spurs of land that
jutted into the sea. We took photos of pretty little
coves and caves. The next day we rode a bus through
dozens of miles of urban sprawl to a town called Lota Norte,
which was known for being a coal mining town. Homes
here are mostly wooden bungalows, which flex and make people
less nervous about being trapped inside a falling building
in an earthquake. They seem to have one pretty good
earthquale every twenty years or so, and there is a popular
drink in Chile called the “terremoto”, which means
“earthquake”. You can imagine the anxiety of living in
the ever-present possibility of a life shattering event.
Deborah put the kibosh to the
usual attractions at Lota - “not another museum!” - and was
really nervous about the idea of a guided tour in a coal
shaft that ran under the ocean in a land where earthquakes
happen. Antonia came up with an offbeat solution: an
abandoned coal mine she had stumbled over while looking for
a friend’s house one day. Some people love the romance
and spookiness of “abandoned places”. Deborah doesn’t.
It took a long time and lots of hiking to complete this trip
- Concepción is comprised of several connected towns which
sprawl over a large distance. It was a warm day and we
got some interesting photos. As we were hiking back
out, Antonia suddenly checked her phone and realized that
another guest she was expecting had arrived, a bit early,
from Pucón. We rode the bus all the way back to the
Collao station to collect him and take him to her house.
James is a Brit who is nearing the end of three years
of working and travelling around the world.
After a lunch, Antonia’s father arrived with a seven seater van and volunteered to take us to Desembocadura, which is a scenic peninsula, but the main attraction for me was the astonishing little museum of items collected by Pedro del Rio Zanartu. He was from a wealthy family who owned much of what is now Hualpen. After his wife and children died suddenly in a wave of diphtheria, he undertook a series of four major trips around the world over a decade or more, and sent home astonishing cultural treasures that remain part of his private collection. Cameras are not permitted. Maybe the museum staff is afraid that cultures around the world will demand their heritage items back; his Egyptian mummy, for example. In spite of their vigilance, you can google images from this museum that others have surreptitiously snapped with their cameras.
After a slightly rushed visit
to the museum and the beach, Antonia’s father kindly drove
us to the bus terminal through rush hour traffic, where we
caught the bus to Chillan. Deborah had always
purchased her tickets a day or two in advance of our trip,
but this time our hosts assured us that the buses left every
fifteen minutes or so and we would have no problem getting a
seat. We wanted to arrive in Chillan by 8 p.m. to meet our
host there, and we were too late for that bus, but got some
of the first seats on the next one; and to our surprise, the
seats were discounted by 33%. We have no idea why, but
it was a pleasant surprise.
March 16th afternoon: Our next host Camila raced up to meet us as the bus arrived in Chillan. She introduced us to her father Cesar Ramirez, and they drove us to their house, where we met her mother Petrona. Camila is a vivacious young lady who is working hard on her English because it will lead to a better job, with better pay. She has just finished an eight year program to become a lawyer, has passed her final exams and will take her oath before the bar in two months. We explained to her how she could visit Canada through Helpx or Workaway and work on her English in an immersion environment, and she was delighted to learn how that could work. She might not qualify for a working student visa any longer, but she can stay for up to six months on a tourist visa and minimize her expenses by doing Helpx. She is a remarkably open, captivating twenty-six year old who absorbs language like a sponge and connects well with other people, including old ones like us; and she is very close to her family.
March 17th. Camila had to work but Cesar took us to
meet Kitty, who’d bussed in to meet us and walk around town
practicing English with us. She
is a best friend of Camila. She'd
spent four months in residence at York University and talks
a blue streak in either language. She’s trying to get
her work visa to spend more time in Canada, and trying to
land a job there. They attended law school together
and roomed together for five years. She has convinced
Camila that even a few months of immersion English is going
to make a huge difference.
We walked the downtown, which like all Latin American towns
has a Plaza de Armas. We talked about all the severe
earthquakes and tsunamis the Pacific coast has suffered,
from the 19th century through to 1939 (Valdivia), 1960
(Puerto Montt), and 2010 (Chillan) with many others in
between in various other places along the “ring of fire”.
We toured an exposition to advance equipment and
methodology for bee-keeping, and picked up some wines to
We stopped at the childhood home of Claudio Arrau and had an interactive tour and a long story about his life by a lady who appears to have been the resident docent. Kitty did lots of heavy translation for me as the docent delivered her story. We picked up Camila when she got off work after an eleven hour day, and went to Chillan Viejo, I think, where we walked around a square dedicated to Bernardo O’Higgins, a hero of Chilean independence with an interesting story of disinheritance from Spanish aristocracy, who in turn abolished aristocratic titles in Chile when he gained power. There was a very nice rock mosaic wall there. We ended the day with kebabs on Cesar’s BBQ, washed down with the wines we’d bought. Kitty slept over, as we understand that she frequently does.
March 18th. Kitty had to go home and study, but Camila
had the day off. She and Cesar had a full day planned
for us. We drove to the farm of Petrona’s parents
where we saw a wide range of vegetables and fruits that they
grow, along with small numbers of chickens, sheep, pigs and
cattle. They had nespers and custard apples, and both
green and red grapes. The red grapes grew from sturdy small
trees rather than vines, which I’d never seen before, and
they were very prolific. They are harvested in April
for juice, in a big festival in the town square where
everyone participates and helps with the crushing of grapes.
Some, if not most, is made into chicha.
Petrona had been there overnight, doing her job as
councilwoman. We saw her publicity poster for
election. She decided she’d done enough work and would
join us for a trip to the beach, but first we stopped at the
village of San Nicolas for a photo with Santa Claus. Then we
toured the birthplace and museum of Arturo Prat, a Chilean
war hero in the war against Peru. Cesar seems to have a
great appreciation of Chilean war and independence heroes.
Next, Cesar drove to a seaside town called Cobquecura where
we ate the most delicious shredded crab and “macha”, large
meaty clams, with lemon juice, oil, cilantro and onion.
We watched the waves at La Rinconada, a beach with
such ideal surf conditions that it has been used for
international surf championships. Petrona had a
craving for some of the best empanadas you can eat, with
shrimp and cheese inside, so Cesar drove us to a sea lion
colony that looked like a land from a fantasy sci-fi movie
and they bought us amazing empanadas for lunch while we
watched more fantastic waves and listened to the distant
choir of sea lions. I wondered if I could compose a
sea lion symphony for bassoons. For dessert we had
another tasty version of flour and sugar called “calzones
rotos” - “ripped underwear”.
Our final stop was a large outcropping on the beach, so
large that it was actually a large hill, and is known as the
“stone church”, the Iglesia de Piedra. The view from
the top was spectacular, somewhat reminiscent of the 12
disciples in Australia. The sea had carved out caves
and channels underneath. People had died in those
channels, surprised by waves which always come in a series
of smaller ones followed by a larger one, as surfers know.
There were religious statues and icons to remember
them, and plaques of gratitude to the Virgin for favours
We dropped Petrona back at her
parent's’ farm and there we ate steamed crabs and chatted
with Camila’s aunt and two cousins. Her aunt is a real
card who can’t speak English yet knows a lot of English
words; Cammy refers to her affectionately as her “crazy
We finally arrived home exhausted from the day. Cammy had spoken English all day, her fluency rising in a gradual crescendo of grammar and vocabulary, and she almost fell into bed. She did, however, teach us several words of Chilean slang, including “weon” which we’d learned earlier, and “bacan”, which can mean something crazy or awesome, but literally means “monkey poo”.
March 19th. Cesar is the master of his kitchen.
He’s a chef and in total control of all aspects.
His day job for 29 years has been as a territorial sales
agent for kitchenware and cleaning products. He
is highly energetic and very gregarious, constantly
meeting people that he knows on the street or in the
neighbourhood. He made us a “school lunch” of a
sandwich and some fruit, and he and Cammy delivered us to
the bus station.
The bus turned out to have very poor passenger service.
After three hours, Deb went to find the steward and
chew him out for not turning on the air conditioning, just
after another lady had already done so. The wifi
wouldn’t work for my tablet, although she connected on her
phone and send a complaint to the bus company, Eme.
She complained about the lack of soap and toilet paper
in the bathroom as well. The steward made lame
excuses. He said some customers complain about being
cold (but nobody was cold, and everybody can turn off their
individual air jets), and that if he left soap and paper in
the bathroom, passengers made a mess in there! We had
another weird toilet issue - the second of our trip, and
both were in Chilean buses. After six hours on the
bus, I had to go “number two”, and took my own paper; when I
came out, he lectured me on not using the toilet to do
“number two”, and even followed me upstairs to deliver the
message to Deborah because I didn’t understand what he was
going on about. He said we should tell him if we have
to go “number two” and he would stop the bus for us.
Which begs several questions: 1. Why only on Chilean
buses? It’s the only part of the entire world where
this rule seems to exist on a coach. Why provide
toilets that passengers aren’t allowed to use? 2.
Where would he stop? Would I have to duck behind a
bush at the side of the road? 3. How did he know what
sort of waste I was putting into the toilet?
Anyway, that issue blew over and we finally arrived in Viña
del Mar and took an Uber to Franco’s apartment. Franco
is the same age as Camila and has also just completed eight
years of post-secondary school. He studied mechanical
engineering, but says there are no jobs for him or his
friends, so a group of them are planning a trip of their
own, a circle of northern S. American countries including
Colombia, Uruguay and others. Franco’s apartment is on
the 20th floor of a highrise over a very busy street, in a
city of highrises. The traffic noise is constant and
extreme, but the windows have to be left open because there
is no air conditioning. But Franco is a great new host
and his first act for us was to create a detailed trip plan
on Tripadvisor and invite Deb to “join” it. He strung
together a trail of sites to walk along, to see significant
architecture and other tourist sites.
We began touring immediately upon arrival: we walked to the well-known flower clock, and down the sea wall where we saw some vendors and performers. One man played small bowls and saucers and a musical saw with his bow, with resin along the edge, to backing tracks. He played Moon River and other romantic songs. Sadly, one of his smaller bowls made a drop for freedom and a small piece chipped off the rim, which probably changed the sound. He looked a bit disconsolate - it must be difficult to find a replacement bowl with just the right pitch. We clapped anyway, and gave him change. Finally, we meet Franco's girlfriend Danisa and we all walked to a supermarket and then to a nearby bar where we bought them salty pizza and a jug of beer.
March 20th. Sleep was a little difficult in spite of
the shared jug of beer, because of the traffic noise, but I
put my travel earplugs in and then I slept well. In
the morning Danisa went to class. We left the
apartment with Franco around ten a.m. and didn’t get back
until after sunset. We bussed and walked and took
funiculars up and down the hills. We bussed at
breakneck speed; the busses in Valparaiso have a
well-deserved reputation for driving like bats released from
the cave entrance to hell. Thankfully there are
handholds on the seats in front of you, which you grip like
you would a mechanical bull in a western bar.
I took many photos of colourful murals. I saw many
more that were even better but couldn’t summon the energy to
hike to the best vantage points. We saw a former
hospital that is now the House of Congress; and a church so
badly damaged in the last earthquake that they can’t afford
the repairs yet. Perhaps they never will. We
watched container ships being loaded from a great vantage
point up on the hill beside the naval museum, and discovered
that you can watch that process for a long time without
feeling bored. We saw bank buildings built up inside
the facade of historical buildings because they are required
to retain the facade, although the stories that have been
added look pretty incongruous as an architectural
We had some Chilean specialities for lunch, including pastel de choclo with crema asada for dessert. We returned with sore feet and a camera full of photos. Tomorrow we will probably visit the Palacio Baburizza, and the Pablo Neruda house. His house is generally considered the number one attraction but several reviewers have called it overpriced and overhyped. One of the main things you’d enjoy there are all the views we already saw today. One unimpressed reviewer wrote - short, and to the point - “a communist who owned three houses?”
March 21st. Franco created a plan for us. Deb picked
the Baburizza palace and art museum, which was a good choice
and was quite cheap for us - normally $8 CAD each for
foreigners, twice what nationals pay, but she was able to
get us both in as retirees for $1 each. Amazing.
To get there, Franco sent us on one of the crazy-fast
loco local buses - with no handholds this time - that did a
Grand Prix up a spaghetti of narrow roads on Cerro Alegre
and dropped us at the top of the hill. We walked down
to the palace from there. There were a few fine works
of art there, including an enormous painting of calves in
the snow which I really liked, and a painting of Paseo
Atkinson, a local street scene from about a hundred years
ago. And there was a painting of Valparaiso in the
days before houses covered every hill right to the top.
After almost three hours there, we rode down on the Peral
funicular, then took the iconic trolley bus to the terminal
at the end of its route. We hiked the sea wall to the
Caleta Portales fish market which turned out to have already
packed up for the day, but along the way we finally saw how
the sea lions managed to get up on their high platform.
We had an empanada snack and came home for a
In the evening Franco prepared a meal at home for us:
chicken and rice. Deb created her famous tomato salad with
cucumber and pomegranate, oil and lemon juice because she
didn’t have apple cider vinegar. We still had half a
lemon pie from the day before for dessert. We stepped
out to a local bar to try a “terremoto”,
which is a famous Chilean drink that everyone must have at
least once, and which all Chileans drink on Independence
Day. The name means “earthquake”, which might give you
an idea what more than one of these can do to your
equilibrium. The base is actually just cheap wine that
isn’t very palatable without the grenadine and the pineapple
ice cream, but the reputation comes from the fact that it is
sweet and doesn’t taste like alcohol, so people knock them
back until they’ve drunk more than they realized.
Back at the apartment, Franco made us each a “piscola”,
which is Pisco and cola. Pisco and cola is “piscola negro”;
but Pisco and Sprite is “piscola blanco”. Deborah had
to get up four times through the night, she thinks because
of the sugary drinks, so I suggested that we might rename
the drink a “piss-cola”.
We learned about odd drink combinations and odd contractions used to name them: beer is “schop”, (in Argentina it is “chop”) and a ladies drink is orange fanta mixed half and half with beer, and therefore called “fanschop”. There are drinks that mix fruits and wine; so melon and wine is called a ”melvin”. And a hangover is a “caña”, which we speculate comes from cane sugar which was used to make rum.
There are some good youtube videos that capture the history, the atmosphere and sights around Valparaiso. One of the best is by Joris Ivens, in case you want to view it. It is 26 minutes long, made in the sixties I believe. There are songs about Valparaiso, which was known as the “jewel of the Pacific” to sailors; and every “porteño” knows those songs. There is tremendous affection for the city, which has suffered trauma on a regular basis from fire on the hills, ocean storms with pounding waves, tsunamis and earthquakes. It always bounces back.
Back to Santiago, to Carl and Suzie's house:
March 22nd. After almost three months on the road, we
are growing weary, and running out of places to visit, so
Deborah asked Suzie if we could beetle back to her house
three days earlier than we’d intended. She said yes,
so we’ll spend our final six days there instead of our final
three. On the surface, you’d think that would be too
long, and an imposition on our hosts who’d already hosted us
when we first arrived in the city, but they are pretty
easy-going, welcoming people. Suzie enjoys our company
and treats us like family. I would have squeezed in
one more destination, but we didn’t have any final ideas and
I was weak from a bug that became more apparent a day later,
so I needed a relaxing safe harbour as well. Staying with
Suzie and Carl beats being in a cheap hotel downtown or even
at a resort. They give us our own room and private
bath in their home that is still a contruction site.
When the construction is complete, they hope to derive BnB
income from this room. We hang out together, share shopping
and meal prep adventures and some of Carl’s musical life,
and his fascination with the U.S. political scene at the
moment, which has turned him into a political news junkie.
It was difficult to time this South American sojourn.
We could have included some towns in northern Argentina that
we skipped on this visit, and much was dictated by the New
Year fires in Valparaiso that had us postpone our visit here
until the end of the trip. High season in Uruguay
meant scarce accommodation on the northern holiday coast so
we didn’t cover all the ground we’d anticipated there, but
felt we’d seen enough of what was important. We relied
a lot on finding great hosts in the towns we visited, and
that shaped our itinerary considerably. We often moved
on a day sooner than we needed to, just because we were a
bit anxious about the distances remaining to be covered, and
having no idea what could go wrong along the way to make us
miss our flight home. The horrendous fires in central
Chile in February made us wonder if they’d be an impediment
to travel, for example. Or -- who knows? -- another
earthquake? Or illness, or a traffic accident?
Deborah gave Franco lots of travel advice for his own impending adventure: details about buying ferry tickets to Montevideo, how to avoid tax on hotel rooms in Argentina, carrying a universal adaptor and a universal sim card. She explained money belts and neck pouches for security, and small locks for every pocket of your backpacks. I showed him how to build a couchsurfing profile and make requests that get results, and some of my ideal traveller’s clothing - items from Tilley and other companies that are lightweight and versatile, sink-washable and can hang and dry overnight, with hidden pockets. We also managed to swap our final stash of Argentine pesos with Franco, since that’s one of the first places he’ll need money to spend, and it avoided money changer commissions for both of us.
March 23rd. We arrived at Suzie’s in mid-afternoon,
somewhat exhausted, but in my case it was because I had some
sort of gastrointestinal issue, which made itself
particularly obvious with stomach pain just after supper.
We went to a rehearsal of the mostly newer members of
Carl’s U of Chile (“Ooch!”) jazz band. These kids were
reading old swing band chestnuts for the first time in their
lives. The worst group were the five trumpets, sadly -
I was embarrassed for trumpet players everywhere, but they
are young and didn’t have any idea what the arrangements
ought to sound like. Carl explained that once a
trumpet player is barely mediocre, there is paid work in the
salsa and cumbia bands, so it is difficult to keep a section
of proficient trumpeters together. His other sections are
always much better.
Afterward we watched one of Carl’s former students deliver a
performance of his big band style original composition,
which most of the older members of the band played on stage
in the auditorium. That was quite good. There
was an electronic music composition which was awful (I fell
asleep) and a dance composition which was equally bad but a
little more interesting. We were in the front row of
the auditorium and Alegria was with us. When the
dancers began scrabbling around on the stage making sharp
movements and noises in some sort of avant garde style, she
got alarmed and barked twice at them quite sharply before
Suzie could haul her out of the room. This is a calm,
friendly dog who sleeps on the floor when the jazz band
fills the rehearsal room with cacophony, but her opinion of
sharp meaningless movements, slapping sounds and serious,
startled looking faces on earnest young dancers was clearly
expressed. Some of the audience chuckled,
unfortunately, but what are ya gonna do? They shared her
opinion, I suspect.
My gastro-distress built through the evening. We sat up for a night cap and snacks, and went to bed about 1 a.m., but by then I had a headache and chills. I had a feverish night with pain in my upper intestine and in my musculature in general. An Immodium seemed to get control of it the next day, but I ate less than normal and slept more than normal. We considered Ciprofloxacin but after reading the fact sheet and checking the internet, we decided that it wasn’t yet worth the risk of the side effects listed. I got up around 8:30, napped for an hour at noon, and did a little work around the house tying up tomato plants several months before I would normally have to do that in my own garden. Deborah and Suzie made tomato pie, which Carl pronounced delicious at supper. A second nap in the early evening had me out cold for three hours, which is most unusual, but when I woke I felt much better. Suzie spent the evening teaching Deb to make another quilt while I caught up on portfolio details.
March 24th. The garden has really come along in two
months. There is an abundant harvest of tomatoes, and
a large tree of an interesting plant that Carl’s jazz
students provided seeds for. Suzie will experiment
with seizure control using an extract derived from this
plant. A doctor in Puerto Montt told us that it is
effective for some epileptics.
The swimming pool has been dug and filled but it had a leak
so it was emptied so that Aurelio and Johnny could locate
and repair the leak. It is filling again now; we might
have a dip before we leave.
It was foggy and dropping a light mist this morning, which delays some of our outdoor plans, but we went shopping at the Jumbo supermarket and I used my international driving permit for the first time all year. Carl had to work and Suzie can’t drive in case she has a seizure while behind the wheel. During the school year, it isn’t as easy for her to get out shopping on a regular basis. Now she and Deborah have a lot of meal prep plans: there are recipes that Deb wants to make for her, and plans for a party on Sunday for a group of Carl’s jazz students. This will be a repeat of the party we enjoyed here two months ago, but possibly with a more cohesive group of people and they might run some tunes.
March 25th. Yesterday was a major trip to the feria, collecting fruit, veggies and other items that Suzie has difficulty picking up now that she no longer drives and Carl is back in the swing of the school year. Carl was teaching a class, so I was the chauffeur and donkey. Deb made trout for supper with her signature tomato-cucumber-pomegranate salad, and we watched Bill Maher and some Daily Show episodes, and marvelled at the cracks that are appearing in Trump’s presidency, which seems to be suffering serious structural damage. The insults are flying thick and fast and we’ve been delighted to see the New York Times rebuke and the congressional Healthcare rebuff. How long is this presidency tenable? Impeachment for treason is a great possibility before the summer. The next question in my mind is whether the markets will suffer a blow when that happens. Noam Chomsky predicts it, and I’m prepared to act when it does.
March 26th. Party prep day: the jazz band class will
have a planning meeting here around 4 p.m. Then some
will jump in the newly filled pool, which Carl tried out
twice yesterday with great delight at the fact that it was
finally a reality. And hopefully there might be some
After breakfast which included tofu bacon (Suzie’s experiment - not as bad as it sounds), I prepared by cleaning up the yard and walkways. Deb and Suzie prepared Deb’s “green tomato and beer chocolate cake” to impress the twenty-something students. I created a broomstick curtain rod for the outdoor shower so that the kids could change into their trunks there, and mounted it with a curtain that Suzie whipped up.
March 27th. The party was anticlimactic. Some kids brought instruments but most didn’t. Their focus was to have a planning meeting to resurrect the band, agree on the music they’d play, and make demands of each other for punctuality, which is an enormous failing in Chile. The habit here is for band members to show up an hour late for rehearsal and then keep trying to extend rehearsal for “just one more tune” to make up for that hour at the other end. It doesn’t really work, because those who do arrive early and have to leave when scheduled have a skinny group to play with for the first hour, and so do those who are still around for the last hour. And the instructor/band leader, if he puts up with that, has a three hour rehearsal instead of a two hour one. Even for the meeting last night, the bulk of the band didn’t arrive until two hours or more after the time announced. Carl has been fighting this mentality for years, with limited success.
there was no music, and not enough momentum for a pool
Deb’s quilting lesson continued today. She learned to use a machine with a large “throw” arm to complete the stitching. The machine rode rails on a long table, and bars held her quilt in place. Carl left at noon to teach and do his orchestra rehearsal, staying away until eleven. I spent the daylight hours pondering and reflecting, doing diary and photos and emails, reading my own notes about the trip and making plans for my resurfacing in Toronto. I was a little bored, but I fought the mood because we actually need times like this to slow down, to reflect, and to catch up with ourselves. I took photos of Alegria and her deaf white kitty with one hazel eye and one blue one. The two play energetically together, follow each other around, and sleep together.
Postscript, March 30th: Carl and Suzie drove us to the
airport where they’d picked us up 88 days before. The
plane was full of voices from all the Canadian provinces,
very few with latin accents. I sat by two overly large
people behind a joker who reclined his seat and fell asleep
as the plane left the runway, and a lady behind me who
rested her right foot on my armrest and gave me a lumbar
massage with her left foot for hours at a stretch.
After four movies and two meals we breezed through
customs, waited an eternity for our checked baggage (first
on, last off, every time…) and had a smooth trip across the
city on the TTC for $5 instead of the $120 that people pay
for a limo for the same trip.
Our first day at home was an awkward mix of napping and
catching up on chores, opening mail and getting the vehicles
running. The parking brake on the Suzuki was rusted in
place - we had to take the left rear wheel off and pound it
with a hammer to free it - and the 6 ½ year old
battery for the truck, which began showing signs of age 18
months ago, was dead. I bought a new one and installed
it this afternoon, so we are back in full transportation
Deborah shopped, I dropped out of the swing band and we reconnected with the guitar circle. We’ll meet tonight, and the jazz combo will meet tomorrow.
It is snowing.
Life goes on.
Now, where shall we go next winter?