A Visitor!

We’ve been traveling for almost three months now. This means that we’ve spent approximately the last 2000 hours together, with one another being our only consistent support in our grand endeavor. And honestly, while that brings us closer and all that, when you do everything together and see everything together and notice everything together and are removed from the pace of everyday life together, you run out of things to talk about. Everything we take in about the world happens at the same time. Our conversations often amount to “hmm, did you see that, that was weird” … “huh, yeah.” Sure, there’s an awful lot of conversation about what to do next, what we just did, what do you want to eat, and so on. But there’s also a lot of comfortable silence these days.

So I think we’re both a little excited to have someone else to talk to. Get filled in on all the weird little things that make the news. Someone to update me on the football world. Theresa’s brother Greg arrives tonight to join us in exploring Lima, Nazca and Cuzco. Since it’s all got to happen in ten days, it will be a flurry of activity and we may not be terribly active here. Instead, we may be too busy talking.

Chile Summary Now Online

We’ve added a new page to our Country Summaries; check it out for a review of our time in Chile. Because we have hundreds and hundreds (maybe thousands) of photos of Chile to sort through, we haven’t yet uploaded them but will (hopefully) soon. We’ll let you know when they’re up. We also don’t have the budget page up yet, but we’re planning to do some serious arithmetic on our upcoming bus ride to Lima and will post that info as soon as possible.

As for what we’re up to now. We’re leaving the Chilean border and beach town of Arica tomorrow morning to cross into Peru and then hop an 18 hour bus up to the capital city of Lima, where we will meet my brother Gregory on the 28th. Then it’s adventures in Nazca, Cusco, and who knows where else. Stay tuned.

A Makeshift Chilean Christmas

It came without brisket, it came without tags
It came without 19 types of cookies, without a tree, wrapped boxes and bags
But somehow it came, it came just the same.

Okay, I lie. It didn’t come just the same. I didn’t get my annual family viewing of the animated version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” I didn’t get a bedhead family photo on the stairs Christmas morning. I didn’t get the loud exclamations from my brothers over every gift they get as though they are 5 years old and not 20, 23, and 26. I didn’t get my Christmas Eve dinner of brisket, mashed potatoes, green beans, and chocolate pie. I didn’t get to hear the same Dowell family stories that I’ve heard pretty much every year of my life on Christmas Eve. I didn’t get the au gratin potatoes, jelly jokes, and all-family photos at the Zimmerman Christmas day gathering. I didn’t get to indulge in every type of homemade cookie known to man or participate in impromptu family sing-alongs to Christmas songs.

So yes, Christmas came, but it didn’t come at all the same. But we did our best with what we had. We tucked away the little green foam Christmas trees that came with one of our bus boxed lunches. We bought a tiny nativity scene that depicts the Holy Family as indigenous Andean people. And we browsed the markets until we found red woolen socks that would serve as stockings. Then we got a nice room in a nice hotel (comfortable bed! TV! wifi! jacuzzi tub!) and decorated our desk. And guess what? Santa found us even though we’re tucked away in a nowhere town in northern Chile.

What did he bring us you ask? Well, we got a bag of delicious Rainier cherries, a mini lemon pie, a brownie, cookies and a candy bar, cupcakes that look like Hostess cupcakes but are called Penguinos (penguins), a pair of earrings (for me, not Jeff), and penguin and llama finger puppets. Jealous, yes?

I understand. Because hey, I’m jealous too. Though we made the best of the holiday, I think we both agree that Christmas without family just isn’t the same. Whoever it was that said there’s no place like home for the holidays, well (s)he knew what (s)he was talking about. Next year, I can tell you that no matter where life leads us post-RTW trip, we’ll be home for Christmas…and not just in our dreams.

Merry Christmas, everyone, wherever you are.

A Privileged Way of Thinking

As we made our way around the Valles Calchaquies, from Salta to Cachi, Cachi to Cafayate, Cafayate back to Salta, most of what we seemed to see was the vast emptiness of a difficult but stunning landscape. There were a few small established towns, places with a market and a restaurant, running water and electricity, and in the larger ones maybe even a bank and a gas station. As we explored these larger towns, I’d find myself wondering what brought people here, why anyone would choose to try to settle in such a place. I imagine the majority of the people that live there now live there because their parents lived there and their grandparents before them. It’s home. But what about the first settlers?

What really struck me, however, wasn’t the towns. They were livable, certainly. Many were beautiful in their own way. They were the perfect spot, in fact, for people who prefer their independence, their space. What struck me most were the places between towns where people seemed to live. More frequently that I could have imagined, where I could see nothing but cacti and towering rock formations, people would hop off the bus, their bags of goods from town in hand. I’d try to watch them to see where they were going, but our bus would always zoom on before I could even spot the faintest outline of something I’d consider a destination.

And as we bumped around the loop from Cachi to Cafayate on gravel roads hardly suitable for driving, I’d look out the window of the rental car we were riding in and see small houses near absolutely nothing. They were mainly straw and adobe huts, unfinished, absolutely basic. I’d marvel at them and then, without fail the first question my brain would form would be “What do these people do out here?”

As a resident of a highly developed nation, I have become practically programmed to expect that everyone “does” something. We are lawyers, accountants, doctors, writers, secretaries, bartenders, teachers, researchers, CEOs, plumbers, electricians, sales people. When travelers meet each other, within the early reaches of a conversation, the question of “What do you do?” almost always comes up. It is how we define ourselves and understand others.

But for many people in the world the luxury of “doing” something doesn’t exist. They don’t live in a world that tells them they can be anything they want to be, that they can do anything they put their mind to. Instead what they “do” is survive. They plant crops and tend crops and harvest crops, in the hopes that they have enough to feed their families. They maintain their homes, trying literally to keep a roof over their heads. They tend to livestock. They mind their children. They are often farmer, teacher, construction worker, doctor, and firefighter all in one. But if you asked them what they do, they’d look at you like you’re an alien. What do they do? They live, the best way they know how.

The American Southwest Meets Sonoma in Argentina

I’m not 100% sure what most people think when they think of Argentina—perhaps its the European style of Buenos Aires, the sizzle of tango, the melt-in-your-mouth taste of steak, the wilds of Patagonia, or the gauchos of the pampas—but I’m pretty sure it’s probably not cacti. In northern Argentina, however, that’s exactly what you’ll find: huge cacti and marvelous rock formations. And oh yeah, vineyards too.

Lying west and south of the major city of Salta, the Valles Calchaquies is a collection of towns (mainly tiny) at approximately the altitude of Denver in a landscape that looks like that of the American southwest. A road circuits through the towns, providing a splendid diversion for a couple of days.

We left Salta Tuesday morning on a bus that reminded us that as we move north we’re leaving behind the luxury of highly developed Chile and Argentina for the more basic offerings of the rest of South America. After stopping for about every single person on the side of the road as well as some bananas and a watermelon, we made it through the seemingly never ending suburbs of Salta and began to wind and wind and wind and climb and climb and climb our way through the Cuesta del Obsipo and the Parque Nacional Los Cardones. The narrow gravel road weaved through valleys surrounded by imposing scrubby cliffs.

Upon reaching altitude, the road leveled out and we revved our way through a sandy desertscape of giant cacti.

After 5.5 hours on this luxury liner, we pulled into the town of Cachi, which, though one of the largest towns in the Valles Calchaquies, is nothing more than a central plaza and about a block on each side. We set ourselves up in the hostel and then covered the town from side to side, end to end. This wasn’t our biggest accomplishment, however. No, our biggest accomplishment was securing a ride for the next day. Though we’d come on bus to Cachi, we weren’t going to be able to rely on the bus to get all the way around the loop. For some strange reason, 39 km of the loop isn’t accessible by public transportation. If you want to cover that stretch, you have two choices: walk or hitch. We chose hitch, but not the standing on the side of the road, thumb in the wind type of hitching. We chose instead the ask the other travelers if they have a car and want to give you a ride type of hitching. We got lucky and the first people we asked, a British couple, offered to take us not just the 39 km not covered by bus, but all the way around to the other main town, Cafayate. Great success!

Before hopping in the car with our new friends, we made a morning visit to the local church and then trekked up to the hilltop cemetery, which looked like something straight from the wild, wild west.

The spectacular scenery continued as we began our bumpy ride around the loop. Huge red rock formations jutted up from the ground, a couple of prairie dogs played roadside, and a few tiny, tiny towns existed seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We stopped time after time to take photos, never quite capturing the magnificence of it all.

A welcome stretch of paved road led us into Cafayate, which seemed like a big city thanks to the fact that it had a few blocks in each direction from the plaza. It’s also an important city, as it is, after Mendoza, the second largest wine producing region in Argentina. And so, after surviving a torrential nighttime rainstorm that turned the roads into rivers, we took advantage of the sunny day and the many nearby wineries to sample the local goods. The specialty of this area is not the malbecs and cabernet sauvignons that most people associate with Argentina, but a dry white wine called torrontes. It’s actually quite good, and that’s coming from a red wine devotee. Visits to three wineries plus a goat cheese farm (because what goes better with wine than cheese?) filled our day.

On our final day in the Valles Calchaquies, we hopped an afternoon bus, and then after 46 km asked the driver to drop us off in the seeming middle of nowhere. He obliged, and we spent the next five hours getting up close and personal with the wacky rock formations, including named ones such as the amphitheatre and the devil’s throat.

We managed to successfully hail down the evening bus and then spent the next few hours rocking and rolling back to Salta on a bus that seemed to have no shocks or struts. It was a treat I tell you, but not as much as the delicious steak dinner we had to cap off the night.

The Valles Calchaquies certainly might not be archetypical Argentina, but both Jeff and I agree that it currently holds the title for our favorite part of Argentina. Once we return in March for Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls, and Mendoza—probably the most popular areas of this country—we’ll let you know if the title still holds.

Children of the Mountain

We’ve seen the mummies in Egypt. They’re in a small room at the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, and as it costs extra, we found ourselves bribing the guard to allow use of our student cards to enter. Inside a small room are a world renouned collection of mummies in incredible condition, preserved for thousands of years.

Those mummies may as well have been skeletons compared to what is at the MAAM museum in Salta. The story goes back 500 years (yes, the Egyptian mummies are much much older), from the Inca’s just before the arrival of the Spaniards. They are the “Children given to the mountain” and as we understand it, are sacrifices to the Gods. The children were of very high social status and were honored to be chosen. They were found in ruins at about 6700 meters (about 20,000 feet), and due to this altitude there was no bacteria, little oxygen and such cold temperatures that they did not decompose. They were naturally mummified.

The one we saw (there’s only one on display in the museum at any time) was so exquisitely preserved that we found ourselves waiting for her eyes to open. She still had normal musculature beneath her dark skin and hair. Her clothing and adornments looked as if they had been bought out of the craft market a week ago. She looked like any one of us, and you couldn’t shake the eerie feeling that she might wake up at any time.

Now, as you may be imagining by this point, this is all quite controversial. I mean, in effect they’ve desecrated a Native American burial site, taken the bodies away to a city, studied in and displayed it for a fee. In one of the interviews we saw in the museum (who does an admirable job of presenting both sides of the controversy), an indigeous woman from the area said the children ‘are sleeping’ on the mountain as a gift to the mountain to protect them and provide them with good harvest, as if they are (or at least were) still doing their job.

You can read more about the museum, the mummies, the extraction and the controversy here, and make up your own mind. For myself, it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about since going. I went in without too much knowledge of what was there, came out amazed and awestruck, but the more I think about it the more it bothers me. I’m glad I was able to see it because the children are truly amazing and the museum is very well done. But I wouldn’t support it if they meant to dig the site up now and don’t think it was worth disrupting in order to show the world. While they had lots of information about the expidition to study this site, what I never learned in the museum is why they decided to extract this site in the first place or whether they knew there were bodies there. Who decided they wanted to remove these? Why? What was the locals response at the time? I feel like there is much more to know.

These kinds of activities (pillaging and studying of ruins and historical sites) has gone on for millenia, but that certainly doesn’t make them right or respectful. But on the other hand, it appears to have been organized by the local government and for the local people, so at least the children haven’t ended up in the British Museum (just as one example). It’s always a particularly difficult question, how to preserve history. Especially when its not your own.

Scheme #2

When Theresa was studying in Germany, the first place she took me when I came to visit was to the doner stand. Somewhat like a gyro, but with a little more bread and a different sauce, the donor is the fast food of Germany, having taken on new life from its Turkish origins. And it is oh so delicious. But why do I bother to inform you on the fast food habits of the Germans? Because we found a doner stand in Cordoba, called Mega Doner.

Theresa attested to its relative authenticity (as real as one can expect 5000 miles and a hemisphere away) by demanding we go back a second time, and on that visit we saw the signs selling Mega Doner franchises to expand into other areas of South America. There are currently three in Cordoba and they are looking to expand. This was the germination of Scheme #2. Buy a Mega Doner franchise and locate it somewhere in Chile or Argentina. It’s brilliant! As Mega Doner’s own website says, it requires no cook or training, has no direct market competition, and is delicious.

We haven’t figured out the where part yet, because we need to find a good market of students mixed with an enjoyable city. We are currently in Salta, and while lovely, I don’t think it has the youth we’re looking for. Mendoza would be a fine choice but I don’t know if we could compete with the wine bodegas. And of course there’s Buenos Aires or Santiago.

Our other problem would be our own inability to keep ourselves from literaly eating our profit. The only growth may well be found in our bellies.

Freelance Me

I’m a little bit Type A, sort of an overachiever. I don’t really do well with relaxing, and I’m terrible at saying no. Why do one thing if you can do ten? I got my first job at 16 (well first job that was on the up and up), and I pretty much haven’t quit working since then. My senior year in college, I held down three jobs, volunteered with two Girl Scout troops, took 6 more hours than was necessary to graduate, and chose to write an honors thesis for my German degree (all while still managing to attend every single home baseball game…a part-time job in itself). To some this seems crazy, to me, well it’s normal. It’s just how I am.

So when we decided to take this trip, I immediately started thinking of how I could use it to further my freelance writing career. I began to gather ideas. I started long lists of newspaper and magazine markets and editors. I tentatively approached the one editor I could count on about a regular column. I pondered ways to make our blog into a popular and profitable site.

And then we went to Sweden. While there, I pitched a couple of ideas, finished a few articles I had already been working on, and continued gearing up for the big trip. And then one day, after running around town trying to get last minute photos for an article I had due and after trying to sort through a huge pile of information I’d accumulated for possible future stories when I really just wanted to go to the chocolate shop and indulge, I just decided no. No, I wasn’t going to pitch ideas, write articles, or try to spin every adventure and non-adventure into a story for which I could get paid.

You see, freelance writing, though yes more fun than working on an assembly line or sitting in front on a desk all day, is still work. It requires lots of research, lots of ground work, lots of networking, and generally results in lots of rejections or way too many impossible deadlines. This trip is my year off. My one year in which I don’t have to work. I just want to live it. I don’t want to not get to do what I want because an editor wants me to do something else. I don’t want to have to excuse myself from a lively conversation in the hostel kitchen because I have a deadline to meet. I don’t want to look at every experience, every place, every moment through the lens of “how can I pitch this.”

But every once in a while, maybe on a long bus ride when I have much too much time to think, I have one of my Type A panic attacks and wonder what I’m doing, why I’m wasting this opportunity. And then I get a wake-up call, like an email containing the final layout of my hiking book, which I just spent the past few days reviewing. While it was awesome to see everything finally in book form, I’m so glad to be done with it…and to not have any other work looming. Maybe one day in the future, I’ll be a freelance travel writer, but for now, you know what, I’m okay with just being a freelance me.

A Wildlife Bonanza on Peninsula Valdes

Maybe you’ve seen one of the nature program specials that show orca whales literally beaching themselves in order to feast on seals. It’s pretty freaking cool. Well, at least it looks that way on television. Though we recently visited Peninsula Valdes, where this survival of the fittest feat plays out, we didn’t see it. First of all, it’s not the right season. And second of all, you have to have the patience of a saint…or a Planet Earth videographer…to actually witness it as it doesn’t happen all that often.

But before you feel too sad for us (sob, sob, I know), let me just show you a few photos of what we did see on our day on Peninsula Valdes.

While on a large zodiac boat, we had a close encounter with two southern right whales, a mother and her baby. These majestic animals, which come to Peninsula Valdes to breed and give birth, were in their very last days in the area, as they are setting off any day now for the feeding grounds of Antarctica. These two whales hung out with our boat for nearly an hour, gradually getting closer and closer until they were practically right beside us. At 16 meters, the mother whale was larger than our boat. The baby, drinking 200 liters of milk each day, was well on its way to catching up. Though I’ve seen whales in the wild before, this was the closest I’d ever been, and I couldn’t help but ooh and aah every time they surfaced, which was approximately every 2-3 minutes.

While whale watching, we also saw a large colony of sea lions, who all seemed to prefer this one rock, though there were others nearby. We also spotted four bottlenose dolphins, which were hanging out with the whales.

The day involved a lot of driving on really bad roads as we hit wildlife hangout after wildlife hangout. Luckily the driving was made less boring by several wildlife spottings along the way, including a fox, some crazy rabbit thing, guanacos, and this father rhea and his baby. Actually, there were about 14 other babies with him. Apparently male rheas care for their offspring instead of the mothers, and not only do they care for their own, they also actively try to acquire others to care for by fighting other fathers and then stealing their chicks. Weird, huh?

The elephant seals proved a bit of a disappointment, as we didn’t see any with extremely prominent noses. We also didn’t see them do much. A few sets of them were fighting (or maybe just hugging), a couple were trying to bully others into fighting, but most were just laying there, looking awfully close to dead.

The penguins, however, didn’t disappoint. They completely amused us as they wandered around, looked at us bewilderdly, gathered together in little groups, and seemingly attempted to fly. We were also enamored by the little chicks that had already emerged and curious about the eggs not yet hatched. I just don’t think it’s possible to be around penguins and not smile (or for that matter, hold your nose, because phew for being so cute they sure do smell something awful).

So, sure, we didn’t see an orca attack, but we did get to see a lot of cool animals. Not a bad day, I’d say.

How to Walk on a Glacier

Begin by walking a few hours over mountains and through scrubby Patagonia valleys all while enjoying the view of dramatic mountains that are usually hidden by clouds but show themselves off the entire time you are in El Chalten.

Then clip on a harness and zipline across the river down which flows the melting water from the glacier you are approaching.

Next approach the edge of the glacier, which is covered in rock and dirt from the mountain from which this glacier comes.

Walk gingerly on the crusted top before stopping and putting on your crampons as the crust disappears, leaving only ice.

Taking wide steps so as not to accidentally stab yourself with the sharp blades of your crampons walk along the ledges of the glacier, passing small and large cracks which appear magnificently blue, peering down into an 11 meter sinkhole, stepping through small rivers flowing on the top of the glacier, and listening to the creak and moan of a glacier in decline (like most of the world’s glaciers).

Stop for lunch at the base of a large ice wall and after refilling your tank, pick up your ice ax, tie on a belay rope, and give ice climbing a try.

Continue walking on the glacier, passing through a tunnel of ice, dripping very cold water on you. Remember at this moment the one thing that you dislike about your Canon Point & Shoot Camera: that it doesn’t tell you the battery is low until it is totally and completely dead.

[Imagine here a 10 foot tall, 15 foot long tunnel that is icy white on the outside but bright blue on the inside with a texture that looks as if huge scoops of ice have been scraped out it. Picture a small river running through it and water dripping from the ceiling. And then imagine Theresa and Jeff with their tongues out licking the wall of the tunnel.]

Finally, exhausted from the hard work of walking on such a different surface, return to solid ground and then make the long hike back to town, returning 12 hours after you set out.