Saturday, February 21

Photos More

I took much longer to write these entries than I would have liked. I'd prefer to update every 2 or 3 weeks. Hopefully I'll be able to find time to get everything written down on a more regular basis, which will be easier when I'm not spending so much time in parks.

Also, I've published some more pictures, which can be found

Patagonia 7

The last few days of my week in Ushuaia were spent at the home of Yanina and Veronica, who are both from Buenos Aires but have been working in the tourism industry of Ushuaia for the last several years. Both were very kind, and because of their work, know just about everything about the area, and were happy to share it with me.

After leaving Ushuaia, I headed a bit northwest into the Chilean part of the Patagonia. It's a very isolated area, where the only way to reach the regions of Chile farther to the north is by ferry or plane. Unfortunately, the ferry is much too expensive ($500) and so I had to settle for a plane. It would have been very nice to take the cruise, as it passes through many fjords, but it will have to wait for next time, along with other prohibitively expensive excursions such as Easter Island, the Isle of Robinson Crusoe, the Falklan (or Malvina) Islands, Antarctica, and Port Williams, the southern most colony on the planet. The prices of all of these were hundreds, if not thousands of dollars just for transportation. Yet the distances aren't anywhere near as far as the prices would imply.

It will be nice to get a bit farther north and take advantage of some nice weather for what's left of the summer. I've had a great time here, but after so many weeks in the Andes, mountains are starting to lose their thrill. It's the same for everyone, I think. After a while, even something spectacular can become routine, and it's good to get some distance to be able to be properly awed by it again later on.

It will also be very nice to get back to a region where public transportation is a bit easier to find. In a way, I feel a bit trapped here. Even though it's only a few days till my flight, knowing how isolated the region is brings an odd feeling. Yet it's been nice to find places that are a bit off the beaten track. Still, the village that I'm in at the moment exists mostly as a supply depot for hikers heading to the Torres del Paine trail, which has been fitted with so many conveniences that it can lose a bit of it's splendor.

Previously, this village, Puerto Natales, had existed more for fishing than anything else. The people here and in Punta Arenas, the other major town, feel distinct from the rest of Chile due to the isolation from the rest of the country. They feel that they have more in common with those living in Santa Cruz, the Argentine province on the other side of the border. It's not hard to understand why...

Patagonia 6

Finally, after Rio Grande I arrived in Ushuaia, the southern-most settlement in Argentina, and which is described as the end of the world. It's nestled in a lush valley, made possible by the mountains which block the wind. Still, the temperature is very cold, even during a South American summer, and the people here rarely see anything higher than 15 degrees. Yet the winters are comparatively mild, averaging about ten degrees below zero. All of this is much more consistent than in northern countries, where temperatures can vary from 35 in the summer to -35 in the winter.

Despite the consistency in temperature, the weather itself changes very rapidly. Blue skies can turn to torrential rain in a matter of minutes. This makes planning outdoor activities a bit of a challenge, and it's always advisable to bring a warm coat and rain gear.

There are many activities here, and I tried to do as many as possible. One of the most memorable was an organized tour to a penguin colony, where we got to walk among several hundred birds. They were close enough to touch, and very curious. It's amazing to see birds with so little fear of humans. The tours are tightly controlled to avoid any abuse of the animals, and touching is officially forbidden. Still, some penguins walked right up to my feet. It was also amazing listening to them singing. They would break the soothing sound of the waves crashing on the rocks with high pitched cooing, which was unfortunately a bit hoarse.

The story of the aboriginal Yamana peoples here is amazing but tragic. They had quite possible the hardest lifestyle that I've heard of, having lived for thousands of years in the region wearing nothing but a layer of oil to help generate heat. The idea of always being naked, even in -15 degree weather with piercing winds, is hard to imagine. The logic was that since it rains so much here, it was more trouble to wear furs than it was worth, since they were usually wet. And during the winter, they were still constantly needing to dry off, as they navigated in small canoes. I can't even begin to comprehend being naked in a small boat in the middle of winter, being constantly splashed by waves coming up over the sides. It's not really surprising that at their peak, they numbered fewer than 3000. But when exposed to western diseases, almost all were dead in less than 100 years. Today, there is only one full-blooded Yamana left, and at 80 years old, she probably won't be around for much longer.

Raul, one of my hosts here, is a fascinating person. Born into extreme poverty, he never attended school, and didn't learn to read until he was 28. Today, at the age of 48, he's a history teacher in a public high school. It's amazing how far people can go if they have the proper motivation.

Patagonia 5

Farther south, Argentine tourists are rare. Prices rise substantially, and in general those that you meet are European or North American. The bus that I caught to go farther south along the Andes was an example of this, as although the bus was full, there were only two Argentines on it. This was a major change from where I'd been, as January being Argentine summer, the buses and hostels had been packed with tourists from within the country.

The stretch of road going from Perito Moreno to El Chalten, the next village down, is the most desolate of a very desolate route. During the 500 km. trip, there's only one sign of civilization, a collection of about 6 houses that's called Baja Caracoles. And as luck would have it, the bus broke down in this hamlet. I say that with only a little sarcasm, as it would have been much worse had it broken down anywhere outside that area. At least we had a cafe to sit in, where we could drink overpriced beer and soft drinks and play cards till the replacement bus arrived.

The next couple of stops were some of the most beautiful sites in the Andes. El Chalten is a newly established village, built mostly as a supply station for people hiking the nearby trails. I ended up doing the hikes there with five people that I met on the bus, which turned out to be quite an international group. With one person each from America, Israel, Scotland, Belgium, and Germany, there was quite a variety.

The hike itself was spectacular, with mountains towering over lakes and valleys, and amazing views that went on for many miles. Often it seemed that the summit of a mountain was only a few kilometers away, when in fact it would have been several days hiking to get there.

A few of us stuck together afterwards and went farther down the country to El Calefate, which is mostly known for the Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the last in the world which is still growing. The entire glacier is in water, forming a huge rectangular block of which pieces fall off every couple of minutes. The sound of the cracking cutting through the air makes it hard to believe that you're standing half a kilometer away, and the waves produced by the falling blocks of ice hitting the water ripple for minutes afterwards.

After stopping for a few days in the industrial city of Rio Gallegos, which is in many ways capital of the Pategonia, I continued to the southern-most province, the island of Tierra del Fuego.

Rio Grande, the largest city on the island, is quite wealthy due to oil in the region, but in many ways one of the harshest environments I've seen. The land is so flat and the wind so strong and frequent that there are no trees and very few birds. It's not uncommon to have winds in excess of 150 km an hour, and often times emergency warnings are issued to stay home to avoid flying objects. While there, I stayed with Cristian and Clara, who gave me tours of the region and explained a lot of the history.

Patagonia 4

Esquel is the last common destination going south on the 'ruta 40', or highway 40, which goes all the way down the country along the Andes. From that point on, bus schedules become much more sporadic, and the road much rougher.

To get to the next town down, Rio Mayo (May River), the bus schedule fell to only twice a week. And no one working for any of the bus companies was able to say anything about how I might continue once there. The only option was to go there and ask.

It's a very depressed town, not accustomed to tourists at all. Perhaps one of the most interesting things that I saw there were the horses, roaming freely in the streets. Beyond that, not much. Something that struck me as strange was that, despite the town being very small, no one seemed to know about where and when buses arrived and left, even the person working at the bus station. Only certain buses went to the station, and others stopped instead at the local gas station. Still, everyone told me to wait for the bus at a different time, and in the end, my only option was to call the company in Bariloche. To be honest, the lack of organization in public transport is pretty common all over the Patagonia.

It turned out that the next bus south was not for another two days, so I decided to try hitchhiking to the next town down, where buses farther south were a bit more regular. The road itself, known as Ruta 40, is something like Route 66 in the U.S. It covers pretty much the whole country, starting in the north at the border with Bolivia and finishing in the south, at the end of continental Argentina. At times it's paved, but often it's barely even graded. It was something of an experience to be standing on the road, waiting for rides, in what is one of the most desolate places I've seen. The land is completely flat, and too dry for trees. Beyond the bushes, there really aren't many signs of life. Cars pass only about every 15 minutes or so, making for something of a surreal atmosphere, like being on a different planet.

My first ride was in the back of a pick-up truck, which gave me a great panoramic view of the area. Again, it's hard to explain how impressive so much emptiness can be. This ride took me as far as a ranch, and after waiting for another couple of minutes, a mini-bus chartered by Estonian tourists took me the rest of the 200 km. trek to Perito Moreno, in the province of Santa Cruz.

A popular stop near Perito Moreno is a village called Los Antiguos, but to be honest, I didn't really see why. The village is by no means ugly, but at the same time, nothing special compared to many other villages in the Patagonia. Their main claim to fame is a large cherry industry.

As I was staying in a rather small camp site in Perito Moreno, I didn't expect to meet many people while there. Yet I was surprised at how friendly the locals were. While killing time one morning, I wandered into a hardware and toy shop, thinking about browsing more than anything else. Yet the shopkeepers were fascinated to talk to me, as they don't get many tourists in their town. They invited me to their house for lunch, and we also went out for drinks later on. It's amazing how friendly people can be in quieter areas.

Patagonia 3

My next destination was Epuyen, a village about 100 k.m. to the south. My stay there was quite uneventful, with the highlights being the tranquillity of a place which could barely qualify as being a village. It was the first time in ages that I'd been in the countryside at night, away from all types of light pollution and able to take in a star-saturated midnight sky.

Next up was Esquel, which is known for being close to both one of the nicest national parks in the Andes and also to a village founded by Welsh settlers. The park, Los Alerces, is indeed something to behold. With trees that are over two thousand years old, and lakes that look like something out of the garden of Eden, it's a very special place indeed.

This was also the first time in almost ten years that I spent a rainy day camping. Sitting in a tent, with little else to do but watch water slowly dripping through a hole in the roof wasn't the most enjoyable way to spend an evening, but the feeling of having such a fragile shelter between you and the storm is something that's hard to describe, in a way, cosy.

Trevelin, the Welsh colony, was a bit of a disappointment. Although the people who originally founded the village spoke Welsh fluently, after several generations the culture has been largely lost. What's left are English tea houses that boast wide varieties of biscuits and something of a British complexion in the locals, meaning lighter skin and more freckles than their compatriots of Latin ancestry.

Patagonia 2

From the oil plains of Neuquen, I caught a bus to San Martin de los Andes, near the border with Chile.

It's surprising how similar it is to other mountain resorts, for instance in Canada and Switzerland. The same log cabin architecture, all buildings no more than two stories high, and all signs made of hand crafted wood.

Moving south, my next stops were Villa La Angustura and Bariloche, which took me through the Seven Lakes Path, a stretch of winding dirt road that connects the towns. It was amazingly beautiful, one of the prettiest pieces of scenery I've seen.

Whereas Villa La Angustura is a relatively quiet village nestled in a valley, Bariloche is the long established economic center of the region. Most tourists head straight there, and it's one of the only towns in the region with a notable night life.

From Bariloche, I headed south to El Bolson.

This is basically the hippy mecca of Argentina, one of the few places where dreadlocked teenagers still roam the streets commonly. It was interesting to note the differences between the Argentine hippy and the North American variety. While both tend to be quite into handcrafts and talking about abstract ideas such as positive energy, the overall peaceful mindset seems to be missing in Argentina. And where most American and European hippies tend to be vegetarians, the Argentine type still love their asados (a slowly barbaqued beef).

The town is most known for it's crafts market, which is very nice, but at the same time a bit limited for the size. It tends to be 5 times bigger than others, but it ends up just being 5 of the same thing, over and over again. There are some nice things on offer, but nothing that would stand up to being in a backpack for the next 6 months.

While exploring the very nice hiking trails in the area, something that stood out were the decrepit hanging brides that connected sides of river banks. It was like something out of an Indiana Jones movie...

On my way out of El Bolson, one of the most depressing experiences of my trip happened as I was getting on a bus heading south. A crack-head (or someone on paco, a much cheaper, much more destructive Argentine version of the drug) walked up to me and told me that I owed him money. I say he was a crack-head because of the absolute crazed look in his eyes and his rotten teeth, despite only being in his twenties. He asserted that he was the owner of a campsite, and that I had stayed there the previous night and not paid. I had actually stayed in a hostel, but that didn't matter much to him. He showed me a piece of cardboard with a number scribbled on it, which was supposed to amount to proof of what he was saying. There were about 75 other people around me, all getting ready to get on the bus. When I told him that it wasn't mine, and that I had stayed in a hostel that night, he picked up on my accent and told me that as a gringo (roughly translated, a stupid American), I had to pay him. When I refused, he started punching me in the face.

Since I still had my bags on, I couldn't even defend myself. And of all of the people around me, all young and in good shape, not a single person offered to help me. I had to run around the group, while getting punched in the back of the head, into a shop (of which the girl threw me out because she 'didn't want to get involved'), to the door of a bus (of which the driver wouldn't let me on because my ticket was for the bus behind him, and capped things off by laughing at me), and finally around to another bus of which the driver reluctantly let me on board. Of the Argentines that I've told this story to, few are surprised. The degree of 'look after yourself, first and last' that actually goes on here is still shocking to me, even after having been here for a year. Luckily, I came out of it with only a slightly blackened eye, but things could have easily gotten much worse.

Patagonia 1

After leaving Buenos Aires shortly after the New Year, I flew to Neuquen, a petrol city in the south-central part of the country.

Luckily I was able to make use of Couchsurfing while there, and stayed with Daniela, a local girl who lives with her 5 year old daughter. Since Neuquen is largely an industrial city with little tourism industry, it would have been quite boring to stay in a hotel.

The streets often aren't named, but divided into blocks, where each block has a letter and number. Yet even these aren't marked, and the only way to find a street is to ask for directions while wandering around.

Also, the buses only accept pre-paid cards, and to get such a card, you have to be a resident of the town. Anyone from out of town has to ask if someone will swipe their card for him in exchange for the money the trip is worth.

Still, it's obvious that Neuquen is a city of opportunities. There is much more wealth on display than in other parts of the country, which is of course due to the amount of oil in the area. You can also tell that the city was assembled quite hastily. For instance, it's very difficult to walk along the sidewalks, as they aren't in a straight line, but tend to zig zag between the curb and the houses, and often go up and down in the form of stairs.

It also feels like a fairly protected city, spared from as many ghettos as other towns. There's also a sense of tranquillity that's missing in many other parts of the country.

Thursday, January 15


I finally got some pictures up, and they can be found at:

Sunday, January 4


I'll be leaving Buenos Aires in a few days. Although in some ways sad, it feels like it's time to move on.

I've had a very good time here this past year. It's been great to have such an immersion in a country, as the only other place where I've had such an opportunity is France.

My job was great, as, although the salary and hours weren't wonderful, working as an English teacher got me out in the community, and had me in constant contact with the local people. I've also been lucky in that, with very few exceptions, all of my students were friendly, interesting, and motivated. It's been a great experience.

I've also enjoyed the dance classes that I've taken, especially tango. It was a pity that I was never able to find a permanent partner, as there aren't many girls, or people in general for that matter, interested in dancing more than a few times a month.

Dancing 'rock' has also been fun. The closest comparison to this that I can think of would be that of an American high school dance from the 1950's. It's funny that it's so popular with the local twenty-somethings. In contrast, the crowds in tango classes are usually aged 40 plus. It's been a great way to meet locals my own age.

Yet despite feeling in many ways comfortable here, I have the feeling that if I were to stay next year, not much would change, and I'd be in the same situation that I am now. Even for local people, opportunities here are hard to come by. It's accepted (and expected) that you need contacts to get ahead, and I don't have any strong connections. Plus, I'd like to take advantage of the freedom that teaching English gives me, and see more of the country and continent. Also, the size of Buenos Aires is a bit much, particularly in the downtown core, which swells to more than 5 million people during the day. My girlfriend, Maria, and I having broken up means that I don't feel much tying me to the city.

At this point, my plans don't really extend past the summer. I'm going to spend the summer (January and February here in the Southern Hemisphere) exploring the south of the country, which is one of the most sparsely populated regions of the continent. Afterwards, I'll pass through the vineyards in the west. Unless I decide to stay there for the coming school year, I'll keep heading north afterwards, to Peru, Ecuador, and into central America.


Something that will come up quite often in the coming posts are hospitality networks such as Couchsurfing and Hospitality Club. For those not familiar with them, they're organisations based through the internet. The members offer to show you around the city they live in, and may even invite you to stay with them while you're in town. To many this sounds crazy, but I've found it be an invaluable tool when travelling. It's amazing how much deeper experiences can be. For instance, travelling around the Balkans in Eastern Europe was a fascinating experience, but only because I had local people to show me around, explaining the various parts of the culture and history of the area. Staying in hotels and going to the few museums of the region would have been a bit boring. Meeting and staying with families that had been on both sides of a war just a few years earlier was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life.

I used this site recently in Misiones and Paraguay, and I'll keep doing so in the coming months in the Patagonia (southern Argentina).

So for anyone wondering about what this was, this is the idea in a nutshell.


A few words about the blog in general... I'd like to keep posting regularly, but I doubt that I'll be able to. In the end, it's a bit boring to write this unless I have some interesting stories to tell, which is when I'm travelling. Otherwise, I just end up ranting about politics, either here or in Canada. Writing about daily routines is a bit tedious.

I think it would be realistic to post once or twice a month, but not necessarily at regular times. I won't always have access to the internet, as I'll be spending quite a bit of time in national parks and villages. So to follow what I'm up to, just check back every couple of weeks.

When I do update this, I'll probably announce it through my status on facebook. For anyone whom I'm not connected to via a friend link on that page, just search for Ian Barrett in the Argentina network. I'm pretty sure I'm the only one!

Also, I recently bought a digital camera, and will be posting a few pictures from my trip. I'll post a link here as soon as I get them up on the internet.


Someone anonymously posted a comment a few entries ago, telling me that I'm a bit of a snob when I write, and that I criticise Argentina too much. I hope this isn't how things have come across, as I've been quite happy here. When I first arrived, there was definitely a bit of culture shock, mostly due to the amount of poverty and the sheer size of the city. Still, I think that in general I've criticised the government of Canada more than anything else over the years, since it's frustrating to see things going so much worse than they were, or than they need to be. I could rant about Stephen Harper, the current Prime Minister, for quite some time.

Finally, I feel badly about not responding to many of the comments that were left in the last year. I do read them, and will try to be better with that in the future. If anyone does have any comments or criticisms, I'd very much appreciate hearing them, as of course I'm looking for ways to improve my writing style or in selecting what I choose to write about.

Thursday, January 1


I've been teaching English in Buenos Aires all year. It's been a great way to get to know the local people, and hence the culture. My days, although long (most days I worked 14 to 16 hours including transit), are basically spent socializing, as Argentine English teachers are perfectly capable of teaching grammar. Those students lucky enough to have a native speaker as a teacher usually just want to converse as much as possible.

It's given me a fantastic window into how people here view their country, and the world. Although proud of many aspects of their culture, Argentines also tend to ignore very large parts of it. Very few dance, either tango, folklore, rock, or otherwise, despite having one of the most vibrant dance scenes in the world. Also, relatively few drink wine, yet their country produces some of the finest in the world, and at a very affordable price. And as with most countries, very few local people have properly explored regions outside of where they live.

Yet there is also a sense of relativism that the rest of the world could learn from. Due mostly to the number of financial crises the country has endured over the last 50 years, people don't put nearly as high of a concern on financial issues as in other parts of the developed world. Although obviously concerned about their economic well being, they have learned to concentrate more heavily on other aspects of their lives, such as family, sports, or cuisine. After all, so many people lost everything (for many, a lifetime's savings) in period of a few days in 2001, that if they hadn't looked elsewhere, they might well have gone insane. This view has been especially welcome given the current world economic situation. Despite my savings having slimmed considerably, due both to falling stocks and the falling Canadian dollar, and a very uncertain 2009 already underway, I really don't feel stressed. I have no idea how long I'll be able to travel, but people here have taught me to make the most of what we have, and handle whatever the future brings in the best way possible. Argentines have learned to be very resourceful.

An example is my landlord, who, although at an age where he should be thinking of retiring, realizes that isn't likely. Pensions here are virtually non-existent for many people. A combination of financial instability and poor governmental and/or personal management has put many in a very difficult situation. Many pensioners get less than $200 a month. To put this into perspective, my rent, for a very small room in Buenos Aires, is $290.

So, as a way to compensate, he uses what he has: A condominium with 3 spare rooms, left over from when his children were younger, which he rents out to foreigners living in the city. In this way, he makes enough to get by, but not more. Still, he has a very positive attitude towards life, always looking on the bright side. He, and many others.

The attitudes of the middle class are in stark contrast to the government. The endemic corruption and short-sightedness of several generations of politicians have brought the country from one political problem to another, of varying degrees. In the year that I've been here, the biggest was a farming strike which brought the country to a standstill. There was also an abrupt nationalization of a private pension scheme, which wrecked havoc on a banking industry already reeling from the international crisis. The private scheme was in many ways poorly planned, but it would have been hard to pick a worse time to nationalize it. Many Argentines felt it was a money-grab by the government in a time of falling commodity prices, which had severely reduced government revenue. Politicians are often accused of spending pension money whenever they please. Thus the low payments to people who are collecting pensions after they retire.

On a brighter note, something fantastic is the cuisine. Even though the most well-known parts of it involve meat, I've been able to enjoy things like fresh raviolis, which I'd never even thought of before. It's hard to describe fresh pasta until you've tried it. But it will definitely be hard going back to eating the boxed variety when I leave Buenos Aires.

Perhaps even better than the pasta is the ice cream. Argentines have really mastered it. In my neighborhood, there are about 12 gelato cafes, each with between 20 and 40 different flavours, and all reasonably priced. The extremely strong Italian influence on Buenos Aires is the source (almost everyone here has some Italian heritage), but the people here have managed to surpass the teachers, and by quite a bit!

Despite having delicious food, people manage to stay in good shape in general. This does have it's darker side, as eating disorders are extremely common, but at the same time, people appreciate the need to exercise and not over-eat. It's not to say that everyone should have the same body type, but in Canada and particularly the U.S., it's sad when someone can't walk up a flight or two of stairs without feeling like they're going to fall over.

Something else that I find interesting is that there isn't much individuality in terms of fashion here. Everyone could be more or less categorized in a similar way, in sharp contrast to North America or Europe, where people often define themselves by what they wear, especially teenagers. There really aren't many punks, hippies, goths, etc. Whether this is a good or bad thing would depend on who you ask, but people definitely take care in their appearances!

Saturday, December 27

Grasp 3

The bus came a few minutes early, and after bargaining with the driver over the price (their reflex is to try to charge foreigners as much as possible, and since the driver could again barely speak Spanish, working out a fair price took a bit of time) and convincing him that, unlike Americans, Canadians don't need visas to enter Bolivia (since Canada and the U.S. are not the same country, something that he had a hard time grasping), I was on my way.

I only spent a few hours in Bolivia, but from what I could gather, there is a very strong anti-American (hence the visa requirements) and as a consequence, anti-any-foreigner-that-seems-American sentiment as well among the officials. All of the offices of immigration had giant paintings of Evo Morales, the current president, and the first aboriginal to hold the position. He's very outspokenly anti-American. I don't know if this acts as throwing gas on the fire, or if Americans are always treated so badly there.

Overall, I didn't have any major problems, except for being yelled at by the officials a bit, for instance to stand here, or sit there, not to move, not to talk back, as they wanted to show me who was in charge. Yet after a few minutes wait, they stamped my passport and I was on my way.

In the southeastern part of the country at least, there is absolutely no organization in terms of public transport. The other lady who had been on the bus with me (there were only two of us making the trip, which was hopefully just a slow day for the bus company...) asked me where I was going, and I answered the border with Argentina. She said that she was going the same way, but that we had to get a cab there, and so it would be best to look for three other people to fill up the car. The border was 100 k.m. away, and with 5 people, she said the cost would be $2 each, much more affordable than the $5 it would have been with just the two of us. It only took a few minutes to find others who were interested in making the trip, and we were quickly on our way.

Two things that I was very thankful for during this whole escapade were being able to speak Spanish and having thought of picking up twenty one-dollar American bills before starting the trip. It made life much easier, as I could pay people easily without requiring change. Yet I get the feeling that someone who isn't able to communicate in Spanish would be in for a rough ride. I tended to get a bit more respect for being able to talk to them, but in the end, I still had to argue with many people I met in order to get information or a fair price. As far as money goes, it's not so much about the amount in and of itself, as much as a matter of general principal. If you don't stand up for yourself, you won't get any respect at all. It's no fun traveling through an area where you're treated like a joke.

Crossing the border into Argentina was a hassle, as on top of the usual bureaucracy, there's a long (but completely inefficient) process of checking people at the border for drugs. Apparently, most drugs in Argentina come in through the border with Bolivia. The process is basically that they make you wait for a few hours, then ram their hands around in your bag, and send you on your way.

More strange was that apparently, some very stupid tourists cross here as well. I was approached both before and after crossing the border, by local people with ridiculously obvious scams. The first, before the border, told me that he could get me across in a fraction of the time if I gave him my passport. In return, he would give me an Argentine I.D. and meet me on the other side to trade back.

The other, who was walking around on the other side of the border, had a strange uniform and was yelling at foreigners that they had to show him their passports. When he started hassling me, I told him that I had already shown my passport, and wasn't going to do so again. If you use an aggressive enough tone, they don't persist very long, and move on to look for tourists that are a bit more clueless.

Once moving again in Argentina, I caught a bus to Salta, the capital of the one of the mountainous northern provinces. The bus was extremely slow, due both to stopping in every collection of houses that passed for a village, and because the provincial government has set up a series of 'check points' along the highway, which are just like borders. Here the provincial police hassle anyone looking suspicious and ask to see documents.

Seeing as it took 14 hours to make it from the border to 500 kilometers inside the province, I started to appreciate the anything-goes style of Paraguay and Bolivia. There, if you can get the hang of things, it's possible to make very good time. I covered the 600 kilometers from the Paraguayan village where I started to the border between Bolivia and Argentina in 7 hours. I wouldn't complain if it seemed that the bureaucracy that I went through on the way to Salta was achieving something, but the customs officials or provincial police really weren't doing anything. Just sitting around and then briefly poking through bags. At the very least they could have kicked the con-artists out of the area around the border crossing.

Salta is a very beautiful area, where the landscapes change very quickly. Dry plains dotted with cacti give way to fields and mountains in the space of a few hundred meters.

A German man staying at the same hostel offered to rent a car if a few other people would pitch in to split the costs, thereby allowing us to explore the parks and villages around the main city. It was nice to see the local landscapes, as they are indeed very beautiful, but in the end I didn't have a good time. It started to feel more like a high school field trip. It was me, the German driver, an Australian guy and his Korean girlfriend, who had only met a few days before and were extremely affectionate, and a very strong-willed teenage Dutch girl.

I didn't really have much in common with the rest of the group, as they stopped every 5 kilometers to take pictures of the mountains, but were not at all interested in exploring the villages or trying to get an idea of what life is like in the area. It was a pity, because I was very curious. It's a very isolated area, with service only by dirt road. There are hardly any houses, and the people are all of aboriginal origin. The houses are made of a strange pink clay, the same color as the soil.

Grasp 2

Paraguay has been described as an improvised country, which seems to be pretty accurate. After a long string of dictators, they tend to be quite suspicious of authority in any form. Though currently, their democratically elected president is a former priest and overall nice guy, so hopefully things will improve.

Another example of their difficult past is that, a bit more than 100 years ago, 90% of the population was killed or executed after losing a war with Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. They also lost 75% of their territory, and obviously ceased to be a major regional power.

Today, the language of the middle and upper class is Spanish, but everyone speaks Guarani, a native language which is the mother tongue of the lower class. Many people that I met could barely speak Spanish.

Taking a bus to Asuncion, the capital city, was another example of how chaotic things can be. At every stop, some people would come on the bus selling everything from pastries to balloons for children. Many people make a living by roaming the streets, selling whatever they can. You buy what comes your way, as the prices are lower than in shops.

In Asuncion, things can be even crazier. The markets are something to behold, as they stretch for many blocks, and have no order to them at all. The shopkeepers are very aggressive, and the girls who work there come up to when you walk by, rubbing your arm and asking you (in a very suggestive tone) what you're looking for. To find something in particular, you either need someone with you who knows that particular market, or you need enough luck to find it by chance.

Also, it would be a very difficult place to get around not speaking Spanish, as hardly anyone speaks English, and prices are hardly ever marked. Meaning that no matter who you are, you have to have an idea of what things are worth before going shopping, or you'll end up having your pants pulled down over the price. Particularly if you're a foreigner.

One of the most interesting parts of Asuncion is the trade fairs, which are much smaller than the markets, and specialize in crafts and other traditional hand-made decorations. It's amazing how intricate some of the designs are, and how little they cost. A piece of cloth that took someone a month to weave might sell for as little as $10.

Luckily, I had people to show me around the whole time I was there. I stayed with Malvi, who lives just outside of Asuncion in San Lorenzo. She was very kind and showed me around the whole region, from hectic Asuncion to the quieter villages a few kilometers away, such as Altos and San Bernadino. I also met Rocio, who studies history at the local university, and explained a great deal of what happened over the last couple of centuries in Paraguay.

After leaving the Asuncion area, I headed to the extremely isolated west of the country. There are hardly any tourists, and only a few villages, most of which settled by German Mennonites a few generations ago. The contrast of day-to-day life was quite striking. The Germans have maintained their language and their trademark efficiency, having built a community in one of the least hospitable regions of a relatively poor country up to a point where their towns have a similar standard of living to certain areas of Europe. At the same time, you can tell that they are used to isolation, as although some are very friendly, many can be rather rude, ignoring you when you talk to them or just answering you with a grunt.

The heat in the region is absolutely incredible. It topped 45 degrees at one point. It's hard to describe. Like a warm globe enveloping your whole body. When you have to walk anywhere, it's important to go slowly, or you may pass out. Plus, it's necessary to carry water on you at all times. There's a certain sort of insect indigenous to the area that's something like a cricket, but much louder, and which chirps incessantly at all times. They're everywhere. You can really get the feeling that you're in a different world.

The Mennonites of the region feel a very strong connection to Canada. Their history in a nutshell is that they were originally expelled from Germany over 300 years ago, and found refuge for several centuries in Russia. Yet when Stalin came to power, they were again forced to flee, and the original destination was Canada. Unfortunately, immigration laws had recently been tightened due to the Great Depression, and only the fit and able-bodied were accepted by the Canadian government. So although many still settled in various regions of Canada, others had to look for another answer. Paraguay was chosen, as it was one of the few countries offering them both land and the possibility to bring whoever they liked, in particular the sick and elderly. As a consequence, many of the Paraguayan Mennonites have family in Canada, and in some cases, even have Canadian citizenship.

A darker side of their history is that it was also a destination of choice for Nazis fleeing prosecution in Europe. I wasn't able to find out exactly how much influence they had over the community, as it's not the sort of thing you can safely bring up in conversation with a local person. One thing that I did find rather shocking was some of the material for sale in a local bookshop. Some comics for children dealt with religious matter in a very disturbing way, equating Catholics, Nazis, and members of the KKK. Apparently, the last Pope will be the Antichrist. I wish that I'd had more time to dig around the shop, but the shop keeper was giving me strange looks, so it seemed better to quietly exit. Getting on their bad side, considering that it really is the middle of nowhere, would have been a bad idea.

Getting from western Paraguay back to Argentina was also a bit of a challenge. There are no direct roads to the northwestern region of Argentina. There are buses that cover the route through Bolivia, but they only go at 2 in the morning. As a consequence, I had a 6 hour stop-over in a small, mostly aboriginal village after catching a local bus from the regional capital, Filidelfia. There really wasn't much to do, but I found a small canteen where a few of the locals had gathered, drinking beer and playing volleyball on a court to the side. It was all somehow a bit surreal, as the idea of watching a group of aboriginal Paraguayan men, joined by an local ethnic German girl, all speaking Guarani, playing volleyball in the dark, was not exactly how I expected to spend the evening. They spoke a bit of Spanish, and so we were able to communicate somewhat, but the conversation couldn't get much beyond where I was from and how in the hell I had found my way to their part of the world. Several of them tried to talk me into staying, and offered to let me sleep at their houses.

Something that I find fascinating is that they have only been sedentary for a few generations. As recently as 1975, many were still hunters/gatherers, roaming the land dressed in hides. Yet as they say, 'Once you've tasted bread, you can never go back to the bush'.

There was no bus station per se, and as most people never go to Bolivia, none of the locals could agree on the best place to catch it. Since customs for the border is located in the town (though the border is a few hundred kilometers away), it seemed as good of a place as any to wait for it. Apparently Bolivia and Paraguay are still on bad terms due to a territorial war 80 years ago, of which Paraguay mostly won. As a consequence there isn't much traffic to speak of on the (dirt) road connecting them, and so figuring out how to go from one country to the other is a bit difficult.

Friday, December 26

Grasp 1

A few hours after finishing my classes for the year here in Argentina, I caught a bus to the north of the country, which I've been eager to explore for quite some time.

My first stop was Posadas, the capital city of the province called Misiones.

Posadas is a quiet town, but large enough to have everything you could need. I stayed with Fabricio, an Argentine who, although not from Posadas, has lived there for several years.

He was kind enough to show me around the town, and give me all the information I needed to explore the region farther.

One of the main attractions were some of the Jesuit ruins about 50 k.m. outside the city. Although they were mostly a collection of stones piled up to form walls, it was interesting to learn more about their cultures. Apparently, the Jesuits were a group of Catholic missionaries (which is perhaps where the name Misiones came from) who arrived to 'do the work of Christ'. They built up villages from scratch, forging their way through the jungle. Perhaps their most important contribution was protecting the local aboriginal tribes from the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers. As a consequence, Guarani, the aboriginal language, is still the official language of Paraguay, whereas aboriginals in the rest of Argentina were either assimilated or exterminated.

After leaving Posadas, I continued north to the IguazĂș waterfalls, which border with Brazil. They are very impressive, but at the same time very developed, to the point where it can lose it's charm a bit. Still, some of the hikes through the rain forest and away from the waterfalls were very lovely. The variety of insects that you meet along the trail is amazing. There are also many interesting animals, but they tend to be a bit shyer. I saw a sign saying don't feed the monkeys, but unfortunately no monkeys came by to say hello, so it didn't really matter.

Thursday, July 31


At the beginning of the month, my girlfriend Maria and I took a trip, first to Cordoba, and then to Uruguay.

Cordoba is the second biggest city in Argentina, and about ten hours from Buenos Aires by bus.

The inter-city buses are extremely comfortable, complete with a stewardess, meals, and an extra large reclining seat. They also play movies, though the DVDs usually skipped. We ended up playing chess until the volume was finally cut so we could get some sleep.

Once in Cordoba, we stayed with Maria's brother, Mati, and his girlfriend, Raquel. They were both kind enough to show us around for the week, taking us to various villages in the area.

Perhaps the biggest difference that I saw was the attitude of the people.

Having spent most of my time in Buenos Aires, it wasn't really clear whether the rudeness of the people in the capital city was just a trait of people there, or something more general. Yet I finally confirmed that Buenos Aires is to Argentina what mega-cities are to most countries; the heart of it's culture, but at the same time somewhat cold and in many ways unwelcoming.

The majority of people that I met outside of the Buenos Aires area were very polite, and the overall feeling of stress in the capital city didn't extend much past the city limits. Cordoba is a nice size, roughly one million people, meaning that there's always something to do. We went to a melonga, which is a bit like a slow version of tango, as well as to a few parties. I found that my Spanish improved somewhat while I was there, as I was usually surrounded by people who either didn't speak English, or, at the very least, were speaking Spanish to each other. Unfortunately, I still wasn't able to jump easily into conversations, but if I concentrated, I could usually follow what others were saying.

During the days, we went to villages such as La Falda (which translates to The Lap) and Carlos Paz. Both were very pretty. In La Falda we walked around a small park and climbed up behind a waterfall, and in Carlos Paz we had a picnic by a lake. One thing that was a bit depressing was the amount of pollution all over the area. People in Argentina really don't pay much attention to the environment, and in order to be able to sit on the grass to eat our lunch, I had to push the trash out of our way with my foot.

After Cordoba and a quick stop back in Buenos Aires, we continued to Uruguay, to see my friends in Montevideo, Gonzalo and Alejandra. As before, Montevideo was pretty, and very quiet. Though it seemed like there was a bit more hustle and bustle there than the last time I was in town.

We mostly walked around the city, and also went to a party being put on by friends of Alejandra. It was quite international, and was open to Couchsurfers, a social networking website that organizes parties all over the world. There were, among others, people from Slovakia, India, Germany, and the United States.


The cultural make-up of Argentina is quite interesting. Although there is a complete lack of Africans and Muslims (I haven't seen more than a handful of people from either ethnic group) there is a significant Korean and Chinese population here. Most of the Chinese people own grocery stores, or internet and calling shops. Yet at the same time, I notice that many of the owners of these stores are quite strange. It's hard to put my finger on exactly why and how. Yet most times when I walk into one of their stores, the owners are arguing and yelling at each other. They very rarely seem happy. It may have something to do with their not speaking Spanish (or English, for that matter). They don't seem to be motivated to learn the national language at all. Their lives must be quite isolated, as the Asian communities are quite small.

Overall, most of the immigrants come from neighboring countries, such as Paraguay and Bolivia. There are also a large number from Columbia. Many people come here to study, as the universities are free to everyone.

Although I haven't been to either Bolivia or Paraguay, I find it hard to understand why so many come here. They almost always get stuck in low paying jobs, and Buenos Aires is not a cheap city by South American standards. Making minimum wage, it's almost impossible to afford even rent and food. Yet it must be better than how things are in the countries that many of these people come from. Bolivia and Paraguay have reputations as being the poorest countries in the continent, yet not having been there, it's hard to imagine what it could be like. Strangest of all is why more don't head farther south, as I've heard that the economy in the oil rich regions of southern Argentina is much stronger, and it's relatively easy to find a good paying job.