And So We Give Thanks

For the prevalance of wi-fi and the existence of Skype
For overnight laundry service
For banks that refund ATM fees
For hostels that provide free breakfast
For frequent flyer miles
For bus rides that are shorter than advertised
For take-your-breath-away natural beauty
For much improved exchange rates
For the friendliness of strangers
For stomachs of steel (knock on wood)
For a new U.S. president that makes us so very proud to be American
For the opportunity to travel the world for a year
For family and friends who support even our wildest dreams

We hope that each of you has as many things to be thankful for as we do. We’re off today for five days of hiking in Torres del Paine, so don’t expect to hear from us again until next Tuesday at the earliest, but know that we’ll be thinking of you and being thankful for your presence in our lives. Happy Thanksgiving!

On Vacation

We’ve been asked a fair number of times, during the course of dinner at a hostel or speaking with various people around town, whether we’re “on vacation.” Now this is all meant very informally as a social icebreaker of sorts, but frankly, I find that question hard to answer. Almost as hard as the “so where are you from” question. After a five year residency, are we from DC now? Even though we’re not returning there? Is Theresa from Kentucky and I from Seattle? Either way leaves out the explanation for the Texas accent I’ve managed to acquire or why my passport says Sweden. Just answering that question leads to a half hour discussion … which I suppose, in the end, is the point.

Anyway, I digress. This question of vacation comes up a lot. And frankly, my answer is usually, no, we’re traveling. “On vacation,” implies a absolvement of major thought and an indulgance of relaxation. An escape from the busy-ness of life to refresh and renew. And believe me, I do love a good vacation. This, however, is not what we are doing.

We posted awhile back, when this whole plan was somewhat in its infancy, about the comforts of home versus the lure of the open road, so to speak. And what you come to quickly realize is how complicated things become when you don’t have those comforts. At home, you know where you will be sleeping at night. You know you have food in the fridge, or if not, you have solid knowledge of the network of nearby groceries, restaurants and fast food joints ready to serve you, and in addition, your means of getting there. You know how to use your shower, what key goes where to open your house, and whether you should put the toilet paper in the toilet or the trash bin. You have a system for cleaning your clothes, be it your own laundry machine (I yearn for the day I own my first washer and dryer … how simple life will be), or something nearby.

When traveling, none of these things are ever abundantly clear. Life is a neverending series of decisions, often dominated by where do we sleep tonight, what do we eat tonight, and how can I clean my clothes? It’s amazing how much time you can spend on these basic questions, especially when you are as over-analytical as Theresa and I are. Just this morning, we spent almost four hours at the grocery store, with another evening trip tonight (in our defense, we were planning our meals for our five day trip into Torres del Paine starting Thursday).

Now, I don’t want this to seem like a complaint, especially this week, as I truly enjoy every bit of what we are doing. But I do want to draw the distinction between vacation and travel. I think of our traveling as basically, what I do. It’s my “job” for the next year. This is what I put my energy and focus into. This is what I will need a vacation from every once in a while.

Standing Tall at the End of the World

On Thursday night, we made it to the end of the world. Okay, we didn’t quite make it all the way to the end as the cheapest boat we could find to Antarctica was $4,900 per person, but we are in the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina (at least if you are willing to believe all the signs and ignore the town of Puerto Williams just across the Beagle Channel…hey, it’s a town, not a city).

To make it to this final outpost on the way to Antarctica, we rode a bus for 11 hours, passing through the wide open expanses of southern Patagonia where there’s nothing but scrub grass and sheep as far as the eye can see, crossing via ferry the Strait of Magellan where we saw penguins swimming in the cold water and Commerson’s dolphins (very small, black and white dolphins) playing in our wake, crossing out of Chile and into Argentina, entering the windblown nirre and lenga forests of Tierra del Fuego, and then winding along narrow roads towered over by massive snow-capped peaks.

Then before us, seemingly out of nowhere, the rather large and overall quite prosperous town of Ushuaia appeared. Alone at the end of the world, it’s surrounded by mountains and the depths of the Beagle Channel.

In the span of a few minutes, you witness blue skies and then get wet as the rain comes down. You can watch the mountains disappear as heavy grey clouds cover them then move out over the ocean, allowing the mountains to reassert themselves. A smattering of hail may be followed by skin-frying sunshine (the ozone layer above Southern Patagonia has one big fat hole in it). And the wind may blow hard enough to almost pick you off your feet before completely dying. It’s an odd place.

But it’s also an undeniably beautiful place. You can’t escape the striking beauty of the mountains and the sea, and you can’t fail to acknowledge the harsh beauty of this place balanced right at the tip of South America. To best take it all in, we hiked straight out of town and then straight up Glacier Martial.

At the top, while trying not to be blown away by the crazy gales, we stared out at the Beagle Channel, scanning over the boats in the harbor and squinting out to where the land gives way and there’s nothing between us and Antarctica but the deep, dark ocean.

And then, when our noses threatened to fall right off our faces, we threw ourselves down on the glacier and slid right back down to sea level, where it was warm enough for an ice cream cone.

From sea to glacier-covered mountain peak and back…all in a day’s play at the end of the world.

What would you call it?

Picture this: We drive an hour and a half to reach … a salmon spawning farm. In their parking lot, we don wet suits (though don’t pull them over our tops yet), walk past their security guards and janitors topless (not to mentioned bottomed in wet suits), and head across their campus to a trail that leaves from the other side. We walk, for half an hour, through the forest, in wet suits, sweating with every step.

Now picture us arriving at a crystal clear blue green pond with a beautiful cascade of water leading into it and ten feet high cliffs on either side. Now picture me jumping off the cliff into the pool. Then picture Theresa sliding headfist and backward down the cascade. Picture us crawling “alligator-style” down the flatter regions, headfirst and guiding ourselves over small, smooth boulders and down narrow chutes of water to the next pool. This pool is a whirlpool, without any effort, you would move in circles for eternity.  But with a few well timed strokes we are carried over the next falls, sliding into the next pool.

Picture me running along the wall to this pool completely horizontal before gravity interrupts my fun and sends me crashing into the pool. I try multiple times, each time lasting a step longer than the time before. Picture us careening off a perfect launchpad of a slide to a pool fifteen feet below. Many more jumps and chutes follow.

Picture this trip culminating with a rapel down a 90 foot waterfall, water spraying around us the whole way down. And picture the final jump, a 20 foot leap from behind the waterfall out into its thundering impact.

Now, what would you call this sport/activity?  I have yet to come up with anything better than canyoning (its official name), but a better name is needed.  It just doesn’t do justice to the experience. You guys got any good suggestions?

Administrative Goodness

As we make our way down to the bottom of the world—well, okay, not quite the bottom, unless we are able to stow-away on an Antarctic cruise ship—we wanted to make sure you had something to read. (Hopefully, we’ll be back online before you can miss us, but we’re not exactly sure about all our connections over the next few days.) So we’ve added a new section called Country Budgets and updated it with spending information for Nicaragua. Go ahead and check it out. And if you want to know where we are, be sure to visit the Where Are We Now page, as it has been updated with more detailed information for our next couple of weeks.

Chilling in Chiloe

We all know that guidebook writers love to use trite and generally meaningless adjectives—charming, delightful, beautiful, lovely. They also love to give things the title—the hottest, the swankiest, the best—as well as to make lists. Lists above all get them in the news. And Lonely Planet, being the institution that it is (read that how you will), publishes a book each year called the Blue List, which is supposed to let you in on all the best places to visit. In the process of releasing the book, they also send out a list that gets published in newspapers around the world stating the year’s top ten destinations. Apparently, this year’s list was released in October, and well, wouldn’t you know it but our last week’s destination, the Chilean island of Chiloe, ranked #3 on the list of places you must go in 2009.

I didn’t hear about this until our last day on Chiloe, unfortunately, or I would have postponed our visit until the magical year of 2009. It appears we showed up a wee bit early, seeing that it’s still 2008. I guess that must be why I’d simply rank Chiloe as, um, well an okay place to pass a few days rather than one of the world’s 10 must-see destinations. I’m certain come 2009 it will be an entirely awesome place that will have all visitors swooning.

Now don’t get me wrong. Chiloe is a nice place. Lovely really. Even charming in places. But it’s not top ten. It’s not top twenty. It’s not even top one hundred. It’s not somewhere I’d go if I just had a week in Chile, or even two weeks. It is instead a good place to go if you, like us, have many weeks to spend in Chile.

Then, you can, like us, spend an afternoon wandering along the waterfront admiring the palafitos (or houses built on stilts over the water) and snapping photos of them when the tide comes in and they reflect perfectly in the water.

You can meander inside the UNESCO designated churches and admire the fine woodworking and simple designs, all while listening to the rosary being recited over loudspeakers by what sounds like a five-year-old.

You can watch Chilean kids enjoy their favorite activity—playing in park fountains—while savoring an ice cream cone in the plaza.

You can travel across the island to the national park and search for the frogs that you hear bellowing along the forest trail, then visit the tiny workshop of a tiny man who makes wooden spoons and woolen caps, and finally walk along the foamy beach for nearly 2 hours wondering just how far you must walk before you actually reach anything worth noting.

You can take an hour-long bus ride to the even smaller island of Quinchao to visit the town of Achao, which Lonely Planet describes as “a charming destination with a landmark church, outstanding architecture, fine food and accommodations.” You can then wonder whether that was a major typo or whether it’s only because it’s Sunday that you would instead classify it as “a down-and-out town whose only attraction is the crowds of drunk men that congregate everywhere.”

You can enjoy a bowl of curanto—the local specialty of mussels, clams, sausage, chicken, dumplings, potatoes, and pork in a broth—while looking out over the water.

You can buy a bottle of Liquor de Oro—the local specialty drink made with milk, alcohol, sugar, cloves, lemon, saffron, bitter almonds, vanilla, and cinnamon—and share it with the fellow travelers at your hostel while wondering together about where you’re supposed to find the “distinct culture” that Lonely Planet says the place oozes.

And in the end, if you’re like us, you can be perfectly happy to pass a few days there. Because although it may not be what you expected (having thought it might be more like the Swedish Archipelago or the Aran Islands, where there is indeed a very distinct culture), and although there may not be a ton to do, and although there isn’t a bike path or a place to rent bikes when that would obviously be the very best thing you could do on this island that is indeed scenic but rather uneventful, it doesn’t really matter a bit. You’re still on an island in Chile in springtime without a care in the world. You have in front of you a $3 bottle of wine that’s better than a $50 bottle at home. You have a fantastic sea view from your bedroom window. You have a roaring fire in the fireplace. You have a good book in your bag. And you have the company of fellow travelers, each with a good story to tell. Really, who could ask for more?

Our Pucon Triathlon

Set on the shores of Lago Villarica and in the shadow of the volcano of the same name, Pucon is paradise—unless living in shouting distance of a 2,847-meter active volcano that last erupted in 1971 concerns you. So okay, buying property there might not be the world’s wisest move–though trust me if you see the place you will be tempted—but hanging out for a few days is a smart decision, especially if you like the great outdoors and active pursuits.

In the shoulder season, when we were there, this Aspen-like town is ideal as the onslaught of tourists that arrive every summer has yet to fill the streets and you can actually enjoy the German architecture, the fine dining, and the amazing scenery without feeling like you’re just one in a sea of tourists (though to be fair, many of the tourists are Chilean, so it’s not entirely Gringo-land). The only real difficulty is deciding just what to do with yourself while you’re there as the options are great.

For many, the prime activity is climbing Volcan Villarica. Though we were tempted for a split-second, we decided to pass, considering we’d just done some volcano climbing in Nicaragua and from what we had heard from those who attempted it, it was really more of something you did to say you had done it rather than something they actually found enjoyable. So after much debating, much visiting of tourist agencies, and much research, we decided on a plan for the three full days we had in town: hike, bike, swim—our own version of a Pucon triathlon.

So on day one, we caught the early bus to Parque Nacional Huerguehue, where we did a 17-kilometer roundtrip hike, ascending from 700 meters to 1300 meters through a forest of giant trees, including the aruacaria (or monkey puzzle tree), which is unique to this region, can live for 3000 years (some of these were 2000!), and seems to be a mix of a conifer, palm tree, and cactus. As we climbed, we passed two raging waterfalls and paused at two overlooks with panoramic views of lakes and volcanoes.

Upon reaching the top of the mountain we were ascending, we were greeted by one of the most beautiful lakes known to man. The water was perfectly clear and it was surrounded by sheer rock cliffs and huge araucaria trees. A loop led us from one perfect lake to another. The term Lake District almost seemed too simple. There were lakes, yes, and there were many of them, but they were much more impressive than your everyday lake.  Whereas most tourist regions tend to exaggerate their riches, it seemed that here they weren’t even coming close to doing their area justice.

Eager to see more of this gorgeous region, we woke up on day two, grabbed some mountain bikes, and headed out of town to complete a 40-kilometer loop. For the majority of the outbound trip, we traveled over a gravel road, climbing small hills and then coasting down, a crystal clear river running to the right of us and bucolic scenes of rolling farmland and grazing lambs appearing on our left.

Just as we were getting good and hungry, we arrived at our destination, the Ojos de Caburgua, a set of waterfalls on private property. We weren’t exactly sure what to expect, and though we’d gotten a bit accustomed to the beauty of the area, the otherwordly turquoise color of the water crashing down the three waterfalls was enough to leave us speechless. After enjoying our lunch in their spray, we explored every overlook, never quite getting enough of the falls. It was so beautiful that even the 20 kilometers back to town in a serious headwind couldn’t put a damper on our day.

The most adventurous of our activities awaited on day 3: hydrospeeding—or rafting Class 3+ rapids sans raft. Instead of a large inflatable boat and paddles, we’d have nothing but a small foam board into which we’d tuck our forearms and guide ourselves down the river through tumbling rapids. I was, for a bit, convinced I’d either drown or die from a heart attack from the cold water (about 10 degrees Celsius or 50 degrees Farenheit), but once I squirmed my way into the 7-mm thick wet suit, flippers, life jacket, and helmet, and jumped in, I was pretty certain I’d survive. In the end, not only did I survive, but I had a blast. The current quickly picked us and pulled us along, and before I knew it we were in the first of about eight rapids we’d face. It was absolutely exhilarating crashing through the waves. Only Jeff and I had signed up for the day’s trip, so we had a blast with our guide, as he led us through the rapids, avoiding all the large rocks, swirling eddies, and other traps. And because the water was probably purer than what comes out our taps at home—no matter how deep the river was I could always see the bottom perfectly—I didn’t mind the fact that I must have drank a few gallons of it when we went through the biggest of the rapids, a 300-meter stretch with huge waves. As we pulled up onto shore after 14 kilometers and 1.5 hours of water time, our trip felt almost short, but as I walked onto land and my legs turned into jello, I knew I probably couldn’t have gone much farther. Our Pucon triathlon had been just right.

(Unfortunately, I have no photos of us hydrospeeding as we were submerged in water the whole time, but this is a photo of the river we went down, taken the day before while we were out biking. As I’m sure you can imagine, we looked really awesome in all the gear.)

Plaza de Armas

As I said before, Santiago has a wealth of downtown parks. One of these quickly became our favorite, and we revisited many times, simply for the quality of people watching. We saw everything there, and really, its hard to pick a favorite. So we’re going to do a top five moments in Plaza de Armas during our long afternoon sits.

5. High culture. I’ll start by admitting this one is not so much an event, and not so uncommon in urban parks (bear with us, it gets much, much better). But the park was full of chess players, at least twenty or so games going at one time, all at tables underneath the gazebo. When some musicians took over the gazebo for an evening concert, they simply moved their tables out into the square, and took up at least an eight of the territory. On the other side of the of the plaza were a dozen or so artist stands (which folded up nicely and stacked in the middle of the plaza when not in use) for creating and selling works.

4. The free food lineup. We were sitting in the park, minding our own business, in a busy park on a long bench next to many other people. All of a sudden, and quite to our surprise, everyone got up and formed a long line leading to the other end of our bench. Quite stymied as to what was going on, we looked around, and across the plaza observed a box of food slowly make its way across the park and land at the other end of our bench, followed by a jug of juice. When we noticed that the people in line looked a little disheveled, it all fell into place. How did everyone know this was the spot to line up? And for that matter, the sheer fact that the homeless were patient enough to form this line and wait for their dinner should not be discounted. Nevertheless, my brilliant idea to stand in line and get a free dinner was denied.

3. A fountain full of kids. The photo speaks for itself, the kids love the Simon Bolivar fountain.

2. The Western Union llama and the dogs. Imagine you’re a dog. And you’ve staked out your territory in the middle of Plaza de Armas, high quality territory indeed. Lots of people, lots of leftovers, lots of dog lovers. And then imagine a giant, bipedal llama emblazoned with the Western Union logo stumbles into your territory. Needless to say, you wouldn’t be too happy about that. Well the dogs we saw in the park were none too pleased either, forming a wall and barking incessantly on full alert, preventing the llama from proceeding into the park. The moment was priceless, and I can only imagine what was going through the head of the poor guy in the llama suit. He at least had the good sense not to advance into the face of danger. Theresa’s well documented aversion to dogs prevented us from getting closer to the action, but I did get this shot of the llama later (presumably after the dogs had been appeased).

1. Pigeon-catching. Is this a new Chilean sport? We watched a group of about 3-4 kids with a cardboard box and some pigeon-feed patiently sitting and waiting for pigeons to follow the trail of food under their box. Like a classic cartoon, they then removed the stick and trapped the pigeon, pulling it out of the top by hand and putting it in a picnic basket for safe keeping. After watching this process repeat itself three or four times, our inquisitiveness got the best of us and I had to walk up and ask what in the world they were doing. I understood that it was some sort of class project, but not much more than that. I still can’t fathom a reason for doing this though.

First Impressions Santiago

We landed in Santiago. There was a bus to town right outside the airport that left two minutes after we got on. Amazingly, each person paid for, and got, their own entire seat. It dropped us off at – get this – a metro station. We hopped three stops down the metro, got off, walked a block and found our hotel. We took showers; the water was hot. We went to bed, the sheets were clean and comfortable. We woke up, a simple breakfast was included with our room. We drank fresh juice. We walked outside. People were everywhere beneath tall skyscrapers, what looked like businessmen shuffling between meetings or taking a late morning coffee break, women with an eye toward fashion browsing the shops, students lounging about like students do. It was a bustling downtown. And here’s the other crazy thing, they had legitimate pedestrian only streets. Most of their downtown, save for a few cross-streets, was car-free.

Everywhere we wanted to go, the metro went. The downtown area was a pleasant stroll and fantastic for people watching. There were well designed parks winding through downtown, as well as enclaves of “solitude” as well – as long as you prefer your solitude along side many amorous chileno couples. In short, it was a city that worked.

So the thing we can’t figure out at this point is, do we like Santiago because it is truly a nice city on its own merits, or is it simply so refreshing to have our comforts returned to us after Nicaragua? We’ve spent a few days discussing this without really reaching a conclusion. Of people we’ve talked to, I have to say that I think Santiago and Chile have gotten a bit of a bad rap. I mean, no one says its bad, but its rarely said that its good, especially compared to its neighbors Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. It’s somewhat forgotten in that. But so far, we have found Santiago and Chile most appealing. It’s beautiful in so many different ways, organized and thanks to a resurgent dollar (I know, big shocker there huh), reasonably affordable. With that bit of a teaser, there’s more to come in the next few days.