Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Illegal aliens?! - US!!

September 29, 2009 Today started off as just another beautiful day here in Poland. We were driving along one of the back roads - stopping at villages to take pictures of farmers with horses pulling wooden carts, women in dresses with headscarves raking straw in the fields, and all the other sights that an American would find interesting. Paul was following another car slowly through a village, when two police men waved us over to a parking lot. What could be wrong? We weren’t speeding or tailgating. The officer, in limited English, identified himself as a border guard and asked for our car registration papers, passports, Paul’s driver’s license and his International Driver’s license. Uh, oh. The International Driver’s license was in back in our hotel room. No problem (whew). The guy seemed really nice. But then the two officers started looking at all the stamps in our passports. Back and forth they kept flipping the pages, stopping and then flipping some more. We realized that they were looking for our entry date into the EU. Before we came to Europe we had looked at length of stay requirements on a Tourist Visa, but had seen several lengths of time on the internet; and in the end, just figured it didn’t really matter. Were we legally here for only 90 days or 180?!? I guess it really did matter now. We sat nervously watching from the car. Finally one of officers came over and asked, “You cruise to Portugal May?” “Yes”, we said. He started to get really serious at that point. Our hearts started beating faster. Was it 90 days? Had we overstayed the Visa? Did it expire at the end of August? Were we going to get deported??!!! Paul said, “We were in Russia in August.” “August,” he repeated, “OK.” He went back and said something to his partner. All we thought we understood was “Roosha”. Good enough. He handed us back our documents and we were on our way.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Searching for the Family

September 17, 2009
When my mom asked me to look for family genealogical information in Germany, I was less than enthused. How much fun could it be looking through old books and microfiche for names of people I had never meet? The first problem we had was when we pulled into Hesel , the town my father’s family had come from, and asked about our relatives; only to find out we were in the wrong town! It turns out there are two towns named Hesel not 30 minutes apart. I had heard all kinds of jokes about people from this region of Germany, Ostfiesland – and I was beginning to understand why no one wants to be from there. But when we arrived at our Hesel (notice how quickly I have claimed it), I was excited to see that the little town was beautiful. The solid brick buildings and houses were cared for and the yards were immaculate. On down the road in Reepsholt, where the ancestors were all married, baptized and buried; the story continued. We drove to Colnrade, a couple of hours south, to find the hometown of the relatives from the 1600s. It was also a beautiful, tiny city placed right in the middle of the corn fields; with friendly people, brick streets and sidewalks. I have to admit that I had expected houses in poor condition, if not ruins. Somehow I was feeling proud that my family had come from such prosperous places.
Now we were off to see my mother’s hometown of Lienen, two hours further south. Would I be ashamed of that side of the family? Oh, no. The old center of town was full of half-timbered buildings all renovated and converted into restaurants, shops and hotels. The Tourism Office suggested we contact Dr. Wilkens, a retired pastor and the town historian. He shared with us great stories of the village in early 1800s when our family had lived there. After a quick look at his own archives, he was able to pinpoint the exact house where our family had lived. We were happy to see that it is now enjoying a second life as an Italian restaurant.
The whole search into the past would have been great, if it hadn’t been for the little upstairs apartment we had rented in Lienen. Unfortunately, the eaves of the old house didn’t allow for high ceilings throughout. To leave the bedroom, we had to step down two steps to the bathroom and living room areas. Well, the ceiling had a large wooden beam right at the top of the first step and two out of three times Paul stepped out of the bedroom, he would crack his head on the corner of the beam. After four days, the top of his bald head looked like a tic-tac-toe board – and the Xs were winning! So much for medieval living.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Spying on Russia

September 8, 2009
It’s hard to believe that I’ve just visited Russia. I guess I never thought I would go there – not after the way we were brought up thinking of Russia as the Enemy in the Cold War and all. But we had the chance to go and really didn’t know what to expect. Some things were probably not unexpected – the way very few people ever smiled or seemed cheerful, the row and rows of government block housing, the wide streets with few cars. But there were lots of surprises – we had two days of sunshine in a town that only has 68 days a year without rain, people seemed to be pretty well dressed, we didn’t see one beggar, we did see guys on the street that looked exactly like KGB agents (have we seen too many movies?!), the streets were clean and we saw foreign restaurants, including McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and KFC.
Because Russia, unlike any of the other countries we had visited, requires a visa ($250 per person) for Americans to enter their country; we opted for a guided tour, which provides a waiver for the requirement. We contracted with Red October, a tour company that was highly recommended by other cruise ship passengers, rather than take the tours offered by our ship. We were supposed to meet our guide, limo driver and four other people for the two day tour; but when we arrived, we found out the other four had cancelled. At first we were worried about the price, since it was supposed to be split six ways, but our guide, Katya, assured us that our price would not increase. Wow! We were going to have a private tour for two days with our own guide and driver. Incredible! We wound up doing a whole bunch of things that weren’t on anyone’s schedule, since we could move as fast or slowly as we wanted. We even made stops at a grocery store, picture stops, and visited an outdoor market. Fantastic!
But for us, the best part of the whole experience was going to lunch in a private apartment with our guide. When we arrived, we saw the entry door to the building and thought we were at the movie set for the movie “Borne Supremacy”. Katya rang the intercom and we went in the steel door, up five floors of concrete steps (no elevator) with exposed plumbing and wiring and arrived at another steel door that opened to another door 6 inches inside, both with several dead bolt locks.
The woman inside, our hostess, couldn’t have been more welcoming. She had prepared a table in the living room – we sat on the couch and she and Katya sat on chairs. We had a salad of red and green peppers with oil and vinegar, followed by a lovely cabbage and potato soup. To drink we were served filtered water (from a machine she was very proud of), orange juice and generous shots of vodka. Our main dish was fried chicken fillets with boiled potatoes, followed by a dessert of hot tea, cookies and chocolates. We felt honored to have had the chance to visit her home and she proudly showed us every room.
We spent two days visiting gorgeous gardens, museums and palaces. Oleg, our driver, was quiet and professional and Katya was one of the best guides we have ever had. We’ll always remember our visit to Russia with love.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Camino de Santiago - A Life Changing Experience

June 25, 2009 As we walked into Santiago de Compostela on the last day of our journey, I was already feeling bitter/sweet about the Camino coming to an end. I was going to miss the excitement of each morning – What would we see? What would the weather be like? What kind of trails would there be? I loved hearing the Hoopoe bird that seemed to have followed us all the way from Roncesvalles. We had heard his coo coo clock sound nearly every day. I would miss him. I loved seeing the snails that covered the grasses along the trails in the morning. I would miss the incredible spring flowers and shrubs we had seen, the trees loaded with ripe cherries and the rose bushes that were heavy with bloom. The joy of seeing the land change from hour to hour and day to day had been so unexpected. How could walking be so different than driving through this beautiful land? But it was different. We slowed everything down. We started paying attention to basic details. How was our body feeling? Were our feet OK? Did we have enough water/food with us? We became more concerned about each other, more polite. We sometimes had walked separately for hours or together without talking. We spent a lot of time thinking; and each day we began our walk with a prayer. God became a bigger part of our daily life. The Camino offered us the chance to go into a church, hermitage, monastery or cathedral sometimes several times each day. After walking for several hours, it was lovely to walk into the cool, darkness of a quiet chapel to sit and rest and pray. I started to worry less and trust God more. The Camino had given me time to think about my life and pull away from the crazy details I had gotten caught up in. Now as we approached Santiago, we were going back to “reality”. Would I be able to keep my Camino perspective? At the Pilgrim’s Mass the next day, the priest reinforced why we had walked for 40 days. He said, “You have followed this path to Santiago to honor the message that St. James has given to each of us – the message of Christ’s love. Now you are on a New Camino that you will be on until you die – and that is a path to share Christ with others.”

The Camino de Santiago - The Beginning

May 15, 2009 We couldn’t believe we were there. On Sunday, May 10 we took the 7AM train from Madrid to Pamplona and then a taxi up to Roncesvalles. We got there at noon. It was so much smaller than we had expected, about 10 buildings - all from the Middle Ages. We got our Credential, waited for the albergue (a dormitory for pilgrims) to open at 2 and checked in. The albergue held 120 pilgrims and by the end of the day it was filled and turning people down. Paul & I got adjoining top bunks - bare mattresses with bare pillows, so we spread out our sleeping bags. (Not exactly Comfort Suites with a pillow selection!) The single women were place on one side of the room and the men on the other. Couples were in the middle. The hospitaleros (the men who ran the albergue) were from a Protestant church in Holland and were helpful and friendly. We were surprised they were Protestant, because we thought that most of the workers on the Camino would be Catholic.

At 6 PM there was a Pilgrim´s Mass in the Abby. It was a relatively small chapel with beautiful stained glass and ornate altars. The sermon was about St. Paul´s journeys to preach to all nations. At the end of the sermon, everyone, (both Catholic and Protestant) who felt at peace with their relationship with Christ, was invited to take Communion. I was surprised at how welcoming and ecumenical the church was. After Communion, all pilgrims were invited to the front of the church to receive the Pilgrim´s blessing. It was so perfect and personal that many of us were in tears. This was the blessing:

Almighty God, grant your mercy on those who love You and never go far from those who seek You. Assist your servants as they walk your pilgrimage and direct their paths according to your will. During the day provide them with a protective shade and at night light their paths with your grace. Let them know that they will never walk alone, because You will always accompany them; so that they may arrive happily at their destination. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen At 7PM we all went to the Pilgrim´s dinner in the adjoining building to share a common meal (for 7 Euros). We were seated at round tables for 10, so we met several other people - only one from the USA! It started with a lentil soup, then trout with french fries, pitchers of red wine, water, bread and yogurt for dessert. After supper, we returned to the albergue. We got dressed for bed and, at 5 minutes to 10PM, we heard spiritual organ music fill the high ceilinged, stone gothic building we were in. At 10PM all the lights went out. One of the hospitaleros began singing a Gregorian chant. It was an incredible way to fall asleep.

Surprisingly, not that many people snored and we soon heard more music. It was 5:55AM on Monday! At 6 AM the lights went on and we all got dressed. Paul and I were on the road by 7AM and walked 28 kilometers through the beautiful Pyrenees! You can´t believe how often we kept saying, "I can´t believe we are here." and "Look at that!". There was one beautiful vista after another. The weather was great (about 55 when we started and by noon it was in the upper 60s) - perfect for hiking. After about 18 kilometers, we were congratulating ourselves on how well we were doing. Little did we know that the last 10 kilometers were going to be killers. We climbed and climbed up muddy paths, full of large rocks and roots. It was even tougher coming downhill, because it was really slippery. By the time we arrived in Zubiri, we were exhausted and decided to stay in a pension with a private room instead of an albergue. At 8:15 PM we were sound asleep.

We woke up at 6AM again and the owner of the pension told us that there had been a huge storm last night. We hadn´t heard a thing. We began the Camino at 6:50AM with a prayer and went straight up a muddy hill for about 1.5 km before we reached a village of about 10 houses with no place to eat breakfast. We went through the hills and two more villages until we finally arrived in city of about 100 houses with a bar open. We were really tired already and had only gone 5.5 km! We ate breakfast of coffee and a jamon serrano (cured ham) sandwich and felt a whole lot better. We continued on through more beautiful villages, crossed over two streams and went over two hills to arrive in Trinidad de Arre – a total of 18km. When we crossed the medieval bridge into the city, we saw the albergue and knocked on the arched door. A Marianista Brother greeted us, stamped our Credential, and gave us a tour of the building. Turns out it was a Pilgrim´s hospital in the 13th Century and was located next to a monastery. In the 17th Century, the two buildings were bought by a Confradia (like a group of fraternal people) and converted into one building. The hospital was made into the pilgrim´s albergue where we slept and the chapel is still there. The Cloister is also still there and the garden of the cloister is where we hung our wet clothes! Since Paul & I were the first married couple to check into the albergue, we were given a private room. Cool! There were 36 other beds in the albergue, 8 in one room for women only and the rest were coed. There was also a kitchen, living room, and a laundry area (with washing machine).

So far the whole Camino has been an amazing learning experience. We are thankful that we have stayed healthy and have been able to go even this far. We’re looking forward to the rest of this adventure.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Cabo Polonio, Uruguay - As rural as it gets!

April 13, 2009 I’m not sure we knew what we were getting into when we decided to visit Cabo Polonio on the east coast of Uruguay, just a few miles from Brazil. We left Montevideo on a public bus with just our 2 backpacks. We were told that it was a 3½ hour trip. We were looking forward to the ride because we had never been to that part of the world and didn’t really know what to expect. It turns out that much of the country looks a lot like Missouri and Illinois, but with a lot more sheep, a smattering of palm trees, eucalyptus forests, dirt roads and an occasional view of the ocean. After 4½ hours, the bus dropped us at the bus stop for Cabo Polonio (a stand made out of a few wooden poles). We walked across the road and saw a truck loading people on the back, so we bought a ticket and hopped on. There are no roads to Cabo Polonio, a village of 50 permanent residents, and the only way to get there is to walk or buy a ride on one of the shuttles that take you in over the 10 miles of sand dunes. The ride takes about 40 minutes, since the vehicle sometimes gets stuck. We arrived about 3PM and were surprised to see tons of people there. It was the Saturday of Holy Week and everyone was on their last day of vacation. There were beach bums in dread locks, temporary stands put up to sell shell jewelry and beachwear, a surf shop and a row of one room huts along a makeshift road. Was this the isolated get-away we had heard about?!? But by 6:30PM the town was almost empty, because everyone left before the lights went out, literally. There is no electricity! We had called the lady who owned the Mariemar Restaurant and asked if she had a room to rent, since there are also no hotels in the town. She agreed to let us rent a room above her restaurant for a couple of nights. Well, no surprise, the place was not a five star – or even a one star. But the view was incredible. From our window (no screen, even the glass didn’t meet up – so we had a nice ocean breeze going through the room all the time), you could see at least 4 miles up the pristine coast. And there wasn’t a building on it; just huge, beautiful sand dunes. Every time we wanted to complain about the room – like the bathroom drizzle shower that spit out about ½ cup of water per minute – we looked out the window and said, “Wow!” At dusk, the village started glowing with candles and the main activity was star-gazing and looking at the full moon. The next morning, we headed up the beach past the few people there and then it was just us - alone and barefoot on the beach. Yes, that’s why we came.

Going to the Prado (no not that one)

April 9, 2009 When you’re in Montevideo, Uruguay and someone says they are going to "The Prado"; they aren’t talking about the great art museum in Madrid, Spain. They are going to a rodeo to see cowboys ride wild horses during Semana Criolla (Cowboy Week). It is one of the biggest events of the year. To get there we took a local bus, like almost everyone else. Nearly every bus had a sign in the window saying that the Prado was either on their route or told how you could transfer to another bus from that one to get there. So, it was no surprise that when we arrived, the lines were down the block in both directions from the entrance.
We jumped in the shortest one and soon we were buying a $2.50 ticket to get in. We saw a sign that said numbered tickets were sold out; but didn’t know what they were for anyway, so we just bought the ones available. As we walked into the huge festival area, it looked like a circus. There were booths with people selling homemade wares – jellies, cookies, cakes, jewelry, mate cups, bombillas (silver straws used to drink the mate) , etc. We saw face painters, artists doing caricatures, stilt walkers, and jugglers. In several large tents there was entertainment like a band or a play; and outside there were dance groups in traditional costumes.
We were hungry for lunch since it was after 3PM, so we headed for the smoke of a parrilla (a wood fire with a ring of whole goat carcasses on a spit) and ordered a chorizo sandwich for an appetizer and then sat down to a full lunch of grilled ribs and steak with salad and fries. While we were eating, we kept hearing the roar and cheers of the crowd in the arena; so as soon as we finished eating, we went over to watch. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, they were taking a break and no one was riding. The stands were nearly empty, but a few of the criollos were sitting off to the side having a mate break. As we walked in to the stands, there was a man asking for tickets. I asked him if he wanted to see ours, but he just said no and waved us through. So we went in and, of course, I immediately started taking close up pictures of the criollos with their wonderful outfits. Almost everyone had a decorative knife in the back of their wide belt, gaucho pants with high boots, and a hat (most wide brimmed, but some wore berets). What was really interesting was to see all of the styles of clothing, yet each man could have been Martin Fierro (the legendary gaucho) himself. The men (and a few women) were from Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. They had all come to compete for their country. We took a seat in the stands, in an area where no one else was sitting; and soon the riding began.
What we didn’t realize, until all the people started coming back to the seats, was that they had purchased one of the “numbered” tickets that had been sold out when we arrived. The number was the seat you had in the stands. Well, we just kept getting bumped until finally we were sitting on the stairs. Not a problem for us. I was loving the competition so much and was thrilled to be in the stands watching it. People without tickets were standing outside of the arena area 15 deep trying to see what was happening – and we had the perfect view from the stairs!
Down in the arena there were 3 poles, each for a team representing one of the countries. Each pole had a group of men working there - two on horses and the others handling a blindfolded wild horse. Just before the sound of a bell, one of the criollos would mount the blindfolded animal and at the sound of the bell, they would remove the blindfold and smack his behind. The horse would jump and turn as the jockey used his whip to get him even more excited. (Yes, I know, the ASPCA would have a fit.) But it was great! These men were unbelievable in the way they could stay on the crazy animal with no saddle, while whirling and bucking fiercely. After a minute or so, another bell would sound and the two teammates with horses would quickly ride up to the criollo and pull him off of the animal and set him on the ground. Of course, sometimes the rider had been thrown off before the bell. That was amazing, too. You would think he would be down for the count and they would send in the stretchers. But, no, amazingly he would hit the ground and bounce back up like he landed on a spring. He would twirl his whip in the air like the rotor on a helicopter and smile and wave to the crowd. It was incredibly thrilling. I had such admiration for the skills and strength they demonstrated.
As soon as the ride ended, an announcer on the loud speaker started to sing a rhyming verse about what had just happened. Sometimes he would mention the rider by name, other times he would sing about the color of the horse or the way he performed, but almost always he would end by singing, “. . . because he was an Argentine (or Brazilian or Uruguayan).” And then the crowd would cheer, sometimes standing and waving a white handkerchief to show their appreciation. The verses sounded like they had come out of the epic poem, Martin Fierro, which has a ton of verses praising the gauchos. I think the singer had memorized many of them and was able to quickly recall a verse that would apply to the ride he just saw and then adapt it. I was totally enthralled with the magic of the setting and could have stayed there for hours. Unfortunately, Paul was not so enthused. He liked it a lot, but after an hour or so, he was ready to move on.
That was really OK with me. I had had my chance to be in a place I never had dreamed of and even 10 hours there wouldn’t have given me more.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

How we became Cliff Divers - Our White Water Rafting Experience

March 9, 2009
Today we went white water rafting on the Class III & IV rapids of the Trancura Alto River near Pucón. The day was beautiful with clear blue skies and 80 degrees; but when we got to the river, we were all given helmets and full body wet suits, including the shoes, because the water temperature was 50 degrees! After a brief lesson on paddling, we took off in a large raft with 3 other people and our guide. The scenery was fantastic – crystal clean water, Andes mountains on both sides, occasional views of the smoking Villarrica Volcano as we would round a bend, Monkey Puzzle trees and unusual waterfowl. Too bad we couldn’t bring our cameras. We practiced paddling forward, backward and turning circles in the put-in area that was smooth and wide. Then . . . hold on to your hat . . . here we go! The rapids came up fast with a Class IV waterfall filled with towering rocks. Our guide barked out the orders and everyone got really serious about doing what they were told. We weren’t ready to die, yet. As soon as we were through, we all yelled hurrah and clapped our paddles together in the air with a rafter’s high five. There was little time to relax before we were in it again. This time a 7-8 foot pillar of a rock was sitting in the center of the river. It was about 5 foot wide, smooth on the side facing us, and angled about 45 degrees away. Our guide called out, “Fast forward”. What??!! We were headed straight for the rock!! He kept yelling, “Harder. . . forward. . .don’t let up.” We did what we were told, getting more scared every minute and then. . . we hit the rock dead on and shot up the side. It was like a huge sliding board and we went up and came right back down. No problem! We were pumped now. After a few more rapids our guide told us that we had to get out of the raft, because the next waterfall was a 40 foot drop and we weren’t trained for that. Yes, we all agreed! He put the raft on a rope and let it go down the river to the other side of the falls where we could get back in. All we had to do was hike over the hill to the other side of the falls. Well, easier said than done. First of all, we were wearing full wetsuits and it was 80 degrees outside. The hike turned into a rock climb using our hands to grab a root or secure rock and trying to find a place to put our feet, which had very little traction because of their thin rubber soles. But we made it up and over and soon saw one of the guides as we came out of the forest. As we approached, he was grabbing each of our life vests and tightening the straps. We thought that was kind of strange, until he said he was securing the vests so they wouldn’t slip over our heads when we jumped in the water to our boats. What?! We saw the boats below us over the 20 foot cliff. “Ha Ha”, I said to Paul, “There’s no way they’re going to have people jump down there. Where is the path down?” Well, there was none. The guides were serious. The only way back to the boat was to jump from a ledge out into the rapids and then swim like heck to the raft before the water carried you downstream. I think the only reason I did it was that I was hotter than a firecracker after the climb and knew that the water would feel good. So standing at the edge of the 2 story cliff, I jumped in and did it!!! Wow!! I did it!! - Never again.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Not all busses are alike!

February 27, 2009
Last month when we wanted to travel in Chile from Viña del Mar to Chiloé (a distance of 780 miles), we decided to go by bus. We had ridden on the Megabus from St. Louis to Kansas City and thought it might be a lot like that. We went to the bus station to buy the tickets four days in advance and chose the Tur Bus Line. The first thing they asked was which class of ticket we wanted – first class with a bed, second class with a semi-bed, or third class with reclining seat. Of course, we chose first class when we found out that for a 14 hour ride overnight we would only pay $50.00 per seat. We chose our seats on a computer screen and were told to show up about 10 minutes before the bus left. Well, it was wonderful. We got on the lower level of a huge double-decker bus and were in a room with 9 large Lazy-Boy size chairs with foot rests that came up and backs that went back flat. There was a bathroom in a separate area between our cabin and the bus driver. A spiral staircase from that area went to the upstairs passengers. As we rolled out of the bus station at 8PM, we were given large pillows and nice thick blankets and immediately served snacks and drinks. The lights dimmed a few minutes later and the movie “The Scorpion King” began on a flat screen TV. Unfortunately for Paul, it was in Spanish with Spanish sub-titles. After the movie we fell asleep and didn’t wake up until the next morning when the lights came on and a breakfast was served. We were definitely sold on public transportation and wondering why the US doesn’t catch on.
Well, that was the first part of the story. In Puerto Montt, we had to transfer to a bus that would take us on a ferry to the Island of Chiloé. We didn’t have a ticket and weren’t sure about the schedules, but when we went into the bus terminal, it turned out the bus we needed was leaving in 15 minutes. We once again chose our seat on the computer screen and then spent the last 3 ½ hours on a regular Greyhound style bus ($13.00 per ticket). By the time we arrived in Castro, the capital of Chiloé, we had been in a bus for over 18 hours.
So, today, we traveled from Ancud (in the northern part of Chiloé Island) to Coñaripe, in the Volcano and Lakes District of Chile – a 9 hour bus trip. We bought our ticket yesterday ($5.25), but could only get a ticket to the mainland and were told we would need to get onto another bus in Puerto Montt. We got on before 8AM and were able to get out of the bus while we were on the ferry and watched cormorants and sea lions in the water. When we arrived in Puerto Montt, I went into the bus terminal and found out that there were no direct busses to Coñaripe, but a bus to neighboring Villarrica was leaving in 8 minutes. Well, we bought our tickets and hurried to it. Thank goodness we had brought along some bottled water, fruit, cookies and nuts. We had planned to eat in Puerto Montt, but wound up snacking our way for the next 8 hours. When we arrived in Villarrica, we found out the microbus to Coñaripe was leaving in 10 minutes and it was first-come, first-served on the seating for the one hour ride. Well, guess who got on last? Paul and I stood in the aisle, by now pretty tired and hot from the lack of outside air. Mothers with newborn babies stood in the aisle, families of three sat in two small seats. Paul spotted a place to sit at the top of the stairwell and later sat on the driver’s console once a mother and baby got off. With all the safety violations, the crazy thing was the sign posted in the front warned people to use the hand rail when leaving the bus!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Buenos Aires - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

January 29, 2009 Buenos Aires – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Well, it’s almost time to leave BA. We’ve been here for over a month and have really enjoyed our stay; but as we’re ready to move on, we thought we’d try to remember:
The Good – yellow, red, orange trees in bloom; wild parrots in the palm trees; low humidity; great varieties of food (Asian, pizza, burgers, Mexican, sushi, Italian, and Argentine); the flavor of the beef; tango music everywhere; nice people; taxis whenever you wanted one for under $5 a ride; subways are even cheaper (33¢ a ride); wonderful Malbec wine; maid service in the apartment; fantastic National Museum of Fine Arts, free everyday; cheap golf; lots of parks; we always felt safe; everything’s cheap – clothes (whole stores of cute baby clothes with nothing over $10), cut flowers ($2 a bouquet), and my favorite- restaurants! I love not looking at the prices, no matter how high end the restaurant. I ordered whatever I wanted and our bill was usually under $25, including the tip, tax and a bottle of wine!!
The Bad – sidewalks that needed repair; street noise & sirens at night; children begging or selling things on the subway
The Ugly – dog doo doo on the sidewalks; one whole section of town with slum housing; brown water in the Río Paraná (from iron deposits upriver); smog; graffiti
As we brainstormed our list, you can see there are a lot more things under The Good. It’s been a good place to visit, but we still wouldn’t want to live here.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Argentine Difference

January 15, 2009 The Argentine Difference!
Wow! I just got back from a frustrating experience. The great thing about Argentina is that nearly everything is cheap, including doing laundry. In our apartment building there are 2 washers and dryers and it only costs 2 pesos (60¢ US) for the wash and 2.50 pesos (75¢) for the dryer. The problem is that the machines only take 1 peso and .25 peso coins. During the week we try to keep any coins we are given as change, but most places only give .50 peso coins or no coins, - just 2 peso bills. So today, when we decided to do the wash we checked our coins and were 3 peso coins short. I went down to the corner grocery store and bought a bar of soap with a 5 peso bill. The cashier refused to give me anything but a 2 peso bill and a .50 coin as change. I told her I needed coins for the laundry, but that made no difference. I went next door to the pharmacy to buy the same soap, hoping to get change there. Same story when I went to the cashier, so I didn’t buy it. I went across the street to a convenience store to buy gum. Same story, but they tried to help by saying the only place you can get change is at a bank. So I went up the street two blocks to the BBV bank. I was number 13 in line! OK, this was it. I was going to wait and give them all 15 pesos I had and get a bunch of ones and .25s and be done with it for the rest of the month. Besides, there were two cahiers, how long could it take? So I waited. Soon an American near the front of the line was called to the window. He wanted to change $50 US into pesos. The guy said no, that he needed to go to an exchange bank. OMG, after he had waited all that time. I should have known things were not going to go well. Two more people were called and then . . . one of the cashiers went out for a “mate break”. You’ve got to be kidding?! There were at least 30 people in line by now. I was only 6 people back, so I waited. Next thing I knew another phantom line was feeding into ours from the other side of the bank lobby – people who had been clients in private rooms working with the bankers. The “mate break” guy came back; and soon I was next in line. Then in came a little old lady, not 5 feet tall with a cane. She could barely shuffle in to the lobby and I let her go in front of me. Little did I know she was going to take out a home mortgage, or maybe just pay an electric bill. It’s all the same here. Every piece of government paperwork involves 3 people to scrutinize every peso and document. The official has to put all bills up to the light, run them through a counterfeit detection machine, and then stamp the heck out of them – both sides back and forth - with a stamper whose weight proves how important he/she must be. Anyway, I finally arrived at the window and waited patiently for Mr. Mate Break to look up at me. When he did, I handed him my peso bills and asked to receive coins of ones and .25s for them. He immediately shoved two of the five bills back at me under the window and took one five. He counted out 3 pesos worth of quarters and pushed them and a 2 peso bill back to me. What?!! After 35 minutes in line that’s it?! Where can I get coins?? Not possible, I was told. So here we are -- scrounging around each week, looking for change. I guess we could just send the laundry out – it’s almost as cheap!