Another Big Waterfall

Posted in Argentina
September 2nd, 2012 by Jason

13 – 17 December 2010, Argentina

There are countless reasons to travel the world for a year: a desire to see and do things that most others haven’t seen, a chance to break free from your cubicle walls, and a hunger for high adventure on the open road. There’s also the honest truth that despite any short term concerns about careers or money, at the end of the day there’s really no way we could regret taking a year to roam the world.

Another reason to travel is the chance to defy the axiom “you get what you pay for”. Many nights in India we paid about $10 for an unimpressive but completely acceptable room, but $15-$20 bought us some of the best accommodation of our entire trip. In Vietnam a breakfast for two including a sandwich and coffee averaged about $2. And I’m not talking Wonderbread and Nescafe; the baguettes are baked fresh and the coffee is brewed at the table and served with condensed milk.

Transportation, on the other hand, offered little opportunity to upend the conventional price to quality equation. Airline tickets aren’t much less expensive than back home but flying is almost universally comfortable. Buses are cheap but the journey is long, the road is bumpy, bathroom breaks are few, and just when you think they can’t possibly pack another body aboard they find room for ten. I am not exaggerating. Taxis are a mixed bag; they usually take you where you want to go but you’re never quite sure if the meter is rigged, if there’s a meter at all. Indian trains are a good value and were a welcome exception to the rule. They’re not luxurious but the ride is smooth, there’s plenty of room to stretch out, and we slept fairly well during long distance overnight trips.

We hoped to find another exception in Argentine buses. We’d heard stories of modern air conditioned coaches with onboard bathrooms, seating to rival even the plushest of first class airline cabins, and steak dinners served with wine. Our first impression of Argentine bus travel, during a 20 hour overnight trip from Buenos Aires to Puerto Iguazu, was generally good. The reservation system is computerized, buying tickets was easy, and there are numerous timely departures from massive bus terminals. The buses were the nicest I’ve ever seen, with two levels and wide seats arranged three across. We couldn’t lie flat but the seats recline enough that we were able to sleep. We appreciated the bathrooms even if they were a little worse for the wear by the morning. The food was the only really disappointing part of bus travel in Argentina. Instead of the steak I’d imagined we were often served crackers, a cookie, and a tea bag on a Styrofoam tray. Some buses had hot food but it wasn’t particularly palatable and it didn’t take long before we started buying groceries and making sandwiches for our bus trips. Overall our experience with Argentine buses was fine and even the imposing 30 hour, 1200 mile journey north from El Chalten in Southern Patagonia to El Bolson was surprisingly bearable.

Our bus trips were comfortable but the ticket prices were not cheap and in fact were one of the most tangible examples of Argentine inflation. Our guide book, published three months prior to our arrival, suggested we should pay about $70 for the trip, but our tickets were over $120. Subsequent bus trips were consistently about 80% more than quoted in the guide book, and about twice as expensive as written in blogs by travelers who’d visited Argentina a year prior. We occasionally noticed menu prices written in pencil, which apparently made it easier for the owner to react to his own rapidly increasing costs. The actual inflation rate in Argentina is a controversial issue. Official government figures place it at under 10 percent but independent estimates are closer to 25.

The reason we left the comfort of Buenos Aires and spent 20 hours on a bus was to see another of the world’s largest waterfalls. Iguazu Falls is in the northeast corner of Argentina and straddles the border with Brazil. At 1.7 miles long, it’s wider than both Niagara Falls and Victoria Falls, which we visited in Zambia. Victoria Falls is taller and more impressive from a distance but in Argentina we better experienced the astounding power of the falls from walkways that brought us within an arm’s length of the roaring cascade.

After a day exploring the Argentine side of the falls we hopped on a bus for what would turn out to be a failed attempt to see the falls from Brazil. Despite the advice of our trusty Lonely Planet guide book, the Brazilian immigration officer found it quite amusing that we’d even propose to enter his country without a visa. Defeated, we crossed back into Argentina and spent the afternoon catching up on emails and trip planning. That evening we boarded another long distance bus and headed back south, jumping off the next morning at a gas station along a lonely stretch of highway a few hours north of Buenos Aires. We took a taxi into Colon and then crossed into Uruguay, bound for a cattle and sheep ranch where we stayed for two weeks and which became one of the highlights of our entire trip.


Halfway Around the World

Posted in Argentina
April 14th, 2012 by Jason

23 November – 13 December 2010, Argentina

Shortly before Thanksgiving we hopped on a plane to start one of the longest journeys of our entire trip. We first flew from New Delhi to Brussels, then onto New York, and finally to Buenos Aires. Our backpacks, on the other hand, decided that they weren’t quite up for such a long trip and instead chose to kick back and relax somewhere along the way. Much to our dismay they didn’t even have the courtesy to call with their whereabouts or how long they’d be gone. Leaving the airport with only the clothes on your back, the clothes that you’ve been wearing for two straight days and 13,000 miles, is not a happy feeling, let me tell you.

Losing our luggage was an unfortunate way to start our visit to Argentina. Instead of enjoying the city we spent several depressing days making frequent calls to American Airlines and shopping for replacement clothes. We regretted checking our bags, and were really kicking ourselves for packing several months of irreplaceable souvenirs inside. Similar to when we ate the salad in Egypt, we’d grown complacent after countless trips on trains, planes, and automobiles. Most exasperating was the realization that airlines do not handle luggage like FedEx handles packages. American Airlines had absolutely zero capability to actually track our bags, and couldn’t tell us if the bags were aboard any of our flights or where they might have been delayed. Their system for locating the bags seemed to rely on airport employees simply stumbling upon them, then changing their status in the computer system from “lost” to “not lost”.

The search for our luggage may have been hampered by the airline’s frustrating inability to correctly describe our bags. To protect their many dangling straps from the hungry jaws of automated luggage handling equipment we’d wrapped our backpacks in brown rice sacks. In doing so we’d managed to confound the system of predefined descriptive categories for lost luggage. Were they backpacks? Laundry bags? Duffel bags? One red bag and one purple bag, or two brown bags?

After a few days, with a change of clothes on our backs, we finally began to relax and enjoy the city. Much like Cape Town after Tibet and Istanbul after Africa, Buenos Aires marked a welcome hiatus from the road after three weeks on the move in India. We rented an apartment and settled into a comfortable routine. We bought groceries from corner markets and fruit from the many well stocked produce stands, packing lunches before venturing out to explore each day. We quickly developed a taste for Argentine coffee, water with gas and freshly baked bread. It was surprisingly easy to adapt to the Argentine meal schedule, where restaurants don’t open for dinner until 8, are empty until 9, and don’t really start humming until after 10. More than once we didn’t finish eating until nearly midnight, and even then many tables were still filled with families finishing their massive platters of grilled red meat and emptying their last bottle of wine.

After a week, and just about the time the airline called to inform us our luggage had materialized, we practically felt like locals. We found a favorite restaurant, Parilla Pena, which served the most incredibly delicious steaks I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. In our Spanish class we made friends with two fellow travelers from San Francisco who we’d meet again several more times during our travels through Argentina.

We saved many of the traditional tourist sites for our second week in the city, when Allison’s mom, Pat, joined us from Wisconsin. Her visit got off to a rocky start with an overnight delay in Atlanta and a pickpocket attempt on the subway but we quickly established a rhythm that worked well for the three of us. Two of the highlights from her week in Buenos Aires were a walking tour and a day trip out of the city to nearby Tigre. During the walking tour we saw several famous Buenos Aires landmarks, including the Casa Rosada (Pink House) where in 1945 Eva Peron made her speech to several hundred thousand people protesting the arrest of her future husband and president of Argentina, Juan Peron. Our visit to nearby Tigre, situated on the edge of the Parana Delta, was a welcome change from the crowds and noise of Buenos Aires. The Parana Delta is one of the world’s largest inland deltas and is home to thousands of islands. There are no roads on the islands and residents must go to and from their homes by boat. We spent the day on a small boat, cruising the calm waters of the Delta. Our hosts were a knowledgeable Argentine/Swiss couple with backgrounds in tourism and cooking. As we enjoyed the tasty meal they prepared for us they described life on the Delta. Our relaxing trip to the Tigre was the perfect ending to Pat’s week-long visit.

Once we said good-bye to Pat, we began preparing for the next phase of our trip. Three weeks after arriving in Argentina we reluctantly packed our bags and bought tickets for a northbound bus to Iguazu Falls. Just like in Cape Town and Istanbul we’d grown comfortable in Buenos Aires, but the temptation to stay longer was overpowered by the hunger for more adventures on the open road.


On the Banks of the Ganges

Posted in India
March 31st, 2012 by Allison

14 – 18 November 2010, India

Leaving Udaipur behind, we boarded an overnight train bound for Delhi. Curious to see how first class compares to second and third, we had purchased tickets for a first class sleeper car. As luck would have it, we were assigned one of only two private berths on the entire train. The train car felt luxurious especially compared to our most recent bus journey. After a restful night of sleep we pulled into one of Delhi’s train stations early in the morning and made our way to a restaurant just outside the entrance. We had hours to kill before our flight to Varanasi so we ordered dosas and chai, doing our best to wake up before heading to the airport.

If there’s any place in India that we had reservations about visiting, it was Varanasi. One of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, Varanasi is also India’s holiest city. Hindus believe that if they bathe in the river, their sins will be washed away. If they die in Varanasi, they will reach Nirvana. But India’s spiritual epicenter is anything but serene or tranquil. We had been told to prepare ourselves for a chaotic, noisy and filthy place. Some travelers we met loved their time in Varanasi while others couldn’t wait to get out. Regardless of whether or not they enjoyed their visit, people seemed to generally agree that it was a memorable experience and one worth having.

By the time we reached Varanasi, we had been traveling for nearly 24 hours so we were eager to settle in at our hotel. Unfortunately Varanasi’s airport is one of the tiniest airports we have ever encountered.  It was definitely not equipped to handle the two flights that landed at about the same time that afternoon. After landing we learned that we were visiting just days before the new, larger airport was scheduled to open. As I took refuge in a corner, Jason made his way through the sea of people and attempted to locate our bags on the airport’s one and only luggage carousel. Bags in hand, we exited the terminal and spent way too much time trying to negotiate a fair price for the ride to our hotel. Tiring of the negotiations we finally chose one of several eager drivers and settled in for the 45 minute ride into the city. Along the way we encountered something that has never happened to us before. The taxi driver actually pulled over to pick up two of his friends standing on the side of the road. I’m not sure who benefited more: the two men who got a free ride home from work that day or Jason and me who had plenty to keep us entertained as we watched the three men squished into the front seat, talking animatedly.

We intentionally made no plans for our time in Varanasi. Like our visit to Jaisalmer, we wanted to spend our days wandering, eating good food and simply taking it all in. There was certainly more than enough to keep us occupied. The Old City is a maze of alleyways which can be difficult to navigate due to the ridiculous amount of foot traffic in such a narrow space. Pedestrians also have to be mindful of the occasional person flying by on a motorbike, funeral processions, or holy cows that sometimes fill the entire path. Some of the cows have such sharp horns that it makes meeting them in the middle of a dark alley a scary prospect.

Given the Old City’s claustrophobic alleys, we chose to spend most of our time in Varanasi on the river. The atmosphere along the ghats is colorful, bustling and exciting. Walking along the river, we saw pilgrims in the lotus pose sitting quietly with their eyes closed, kids squealing and jumping into the water, and people bathing, brushing their teeth and doing laundry. It’s difficult to imagine a more interesting place to people watch. One of our most intense experiences was a visit to the Manikarnika burning ghat where up to 200 people are cremated each day. The funeral processions we encountered in the alleys all eventually end up here where loved ones are washed in the Ganges and placed on a funeral pyre. Young men hoping to make a little money often stand around the ghat offering to explain the cremation ritual. We learned from one of these men that the price of the cremation is dependent upon the type and amount of wood used. The eldest son, brother or husband sprinkles ghee on the pyre and sets it alight with a torch. Once the burning is complete, the chief mourner and others douse the pyre with water from the river. They then gather the ashes in an urn and empty the remains in the Ganges.

We did not see any women at the burning ghat as they apparently pay their final respects at home. We also found it interesting that a subset of Hindus cannot be cremated here, including sadhus, lepers, children under five, pregnant women and snake-bite victims. Instead their bodies are taken in a boat to the middle of the river, tied to a stone and sunk to the bottom. We did not spend much time at the burning ghat as I felt it was difficult to watch the bodies burning and see the families mourning. It was such a personal moment for them and it felt like a bit of an invasion of their privacy to stand around staring.

Given the crowds along the city’s ghats, the easiest way to see Varanasi is from the water. Twice during our four days in the city, we woke well before sunrise and headed down to the river for a boat ride. As our boat driver paddled, we sat in silence and watched the pilgrims as they gathered along the ghats to partake in their daily prayer rituals. Some remove most of their clothing before immersing themselves in the water while others stand knee deep along the banks, splashing water over their bodies. We saw groups of people chatting and laughing while others quietly went about their business.

These morning rituals were fascinating to watch but it was unsettling to think about the contamination levels in the river. People were not only bathing just steps away from piles of garbage and cows but we also saw people brushing their teeth and drinking the water. It’s been over a year since we were in Varanasi and I still cringe when I remember the bloated animal corpses that we saw floating in the water, only feet away from where people were bathing. According to our trusty Lonely Planet, every day about 60,000 people go down to the Varanasi ghats to take a dip in the river. Along this same stretch of river, 30 large sewers are continuously flowing into the water. As you might expect, bacteria levels in the river are off the charts.

After four days of doing little more than people watching and eating delicious food, we packed up our bags and headed to the train station for the final leg of our Indian journey. Next time I’m in India, I doubt I’ll rush back to this colorful, crazy city on the Ganges but I definitely appreciated the experiences we had while visiting. Like so many travelers before me, my time in Varanasi certainly left an indelible mark.