Friday, June 13, 2008

Aprovechar Aprovechar

To start things off, I took a (unintentional) siesta from writing any entries which apparently don't get written on their own. Some updates though. First, I decided to cut my time short here in this lovely, tranquil country. The plan was to stay a year, as you're really just establishing a life for yourself the first semester and the second semester you really milk the country for what's it's worth (or to quote Jeremy's citric metaphor you "squeeze the orange"). The best translation in Spanish for this is aprovechar (to make the most of), and it has become a word I use even when talking in English.

Overall, I've really enjoyed my time and semester in Uruguay, and I want to "aprovechar" my time here. However, sitting in a three hour class after three hour class that could usually be condensed into a three minute lecture at Middlebury, I started to long for a stimulating class. More so, I was wondering if another semester down here was the best way to aprovechar my four year once-in-a-lifetime education for which my parents and Middlebury's endowment have scraped together about $250,000, which Ronald Liebowitz reminded me of with his inspiring "Welcome to Middlebury" speech. My conclusion? I have my whole life to return to Montevideo or another place in Latin America to work, travel or live if I want to. I have four years at Middlebury and "tá." That's it.

Now this is not to say the public university system is bad down here. On the contrary, it's pretty good with a lot of bright students, but it has a completely different structure geared more towards the long run. It seems very little emphasis is put on the "in-class" learning (most of what I've learned is from the readings), and much more on learning-by-doing. To graduate, students have an average of four to five years of class, sometimes an internship or two and several research projects of a range from 50-150 pages each (single spaced), depending on their own initiative. Essentially, on top of class, you have to write four or five theses. Add in a job, and the average student probably takes 7-8 years to graduate.

When you graduate, you have a well-respected degree, probably the equivalent of a Master's in the U.S., a good education and can get a good job. Supposedly, students graduating from the Econ school are recruited by the World Bank or IMF to work in Washington (unfortunately, Middlebury only lets us study in the Humanities school, which rumor has it is a century behind the other schools...I believe it). Bottom line, with a system geared more towards the long run in producing a person qualified to work in what they're studying, it's difficult to aprovechar if you're staying only a semester or a year, especially if you're studying something you don't study...I'm an International Politics and Economics major studying History down here.

Other news. A few weekends back I spent a short but packed weekend in Buenos Aires, and who would it turn out is studying in Buenos Aires? Alejandro Quiros, my long lost Costa Rican host brother. Turns out he got accepted to study at the University of Buenos Aires (one of the most prestigious universities in Latin America) where he's studying Economics. I met up with him and we got to catch up like old times, although he's become quite the aspiring intellectual. Within two minutes of seeing each other he moved the conversation on to discussing economic, political and social ideas, theories and policies, Neoliberalism, Marxism, etc. It was great to see him and catch up on our lives. Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture, but rest assured, he looks just like he did in Portland except for a lone dread that is embedded in his curls.

Non-news. Life in general has settled into a pretty regular routine. Classes four nights a week. Internship two days of the week. The rest of the time is filled with studying, getting together with friends for some mate and cookies (a mother of all Uruguayan traditions) or getting caught in a conversation with my host Mom. Yesterday I sat down at the table with her for some coffee and my daily fill of dulce de leche (caramelized condensed milk aka crack cocaine) and we ended up talking about everything from family and relationships to crime, suicide and depression (all while watching two hours of cartoons).

Despite being such a laid back country, Uruguay has one of the highest rates of depression and suicide in the world. I've started to wonder if it's because it's such a laid back country. Things are so laid back here that frequently there's not much going on. Some are juggling work, school, learning English and budgeting a monthly $250 salary that they have little time to get together with friends. The sense I've gotten from some people people is that there's too much solitude in their lives. Being from the U.S. and recognizing an opportunity for exploitation when I see one, I do so by talking to people who are usually more than eager to engage you in conversation and drill you about what you think of Uruguay. Many are often puzzled that someone from the U.S. would ever want to come to their country and they talk about how they hope to one day live in the U.S. or Spain. Nevertheless, while a significant portion of the country's youth is abroad (it's the oldest country in Latin America), most find their way back here to settle down.

Relating this all back to my host Mom and family, I'm very happy to be with a family down here. Sure there lots of familial customs that strike me as odd or inconvenient, such as the prep-school open door policy when someone of the opposite sex is in your room (friend or more). When my host Mom established the rule at the beginning of the semester, she said her son usually went to a hotel which seemed to work for him (thanks for the advice Mom!). From what I've gathered, it's a pretty universal rule in this country. A friend was complaining about the policy that she had no privacy when she was in a relationship, but she's resolute and implementing the exact same policy when she has kids. In general, my family has been incredibly nice and I always have some one there to talk to if I want. My respect for them has only grown with time too, both in the sense that they are a tight family and took me right in, but that they give me plenty of independence while still looking out for me.

On that note, let me leave you the top ten favorite dishes a friend of mine here excitedly rattled off one day:
  1. Rice, tuna and mayonnaise
  2. Beef milanesa (battered and fried/baked in oil) with mashed potatoes and mayonnaise (on everything)
  3. Beef milanesa with rice and mayonnaise (ditto)
  4. Chicken milanesa with rice and mayo
  5. Chicken milanesa with mashed potatoes and mayo
  6. Ham and cheese milanesa with rice/mashed potatoes and mayo
  7. Fish milanesa with rice/mashed potatoes and mayo
  8. Milanesa with rice/mashed potatoes dulce de leche and mayo
  9. Dulce de leche (straight)
  10. Mayo (straight)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Robbed. But not really.

Usually when you get robbed your just grateful to come away unscathed. Things were a little different this time. Here's the scoop: I (a group of us actually) got robbed, but then we got our money back. Here's the story, and pardon my digressions.

Friday night I got out of my dictatorships class at ten and went to a bar near campus for a grappa miel. Grappa is something of a liqueur made from the crap left over after grapes are pressed to make the juice that becomes wine (skin, seeds, etc.). Throw some honey in it and it's a tasty way to start off a cold night. As we were paying our bill, we had amassed 200 pesos (ten bucks) thus far for our grappa miels and pizza, and a woman walked up to our table. I assumed she was a waitress as she was acting as if she was going to take a plate away, but instead snatched the 200 pesos and took off running. Actually, more like swerving. I didn't really want to follow someone who had just robbed me down a dark street, but my friend Mauricio did, so I followed Mauricio. We quickly caught up to the woman a block away as she was clearly on one or many substances, one of which was likely pasta base (side note- pasta base is a drug made from the leftovers of everything else (crack, heroine), mixed with household chemicals (ammonia, bleach, whatever is at hand) and turns your brain to mush in about three months. It's something of an epidemic down here.).

Mauricio and I each grabbed one of the woman's hands, and told her to give us the money back. We turned up a couple of coins in her pockets, but couldn't find the dough. The next half hour consisted of us and the owner of a small open air fruit market who knew her from the area asking for the money, while she would lie down, put her legs up in the air spread wide open, get back up, say she was getting the money and then lie back down again. At one point she suddenly lurched towards a bin a tomatoes from the market we were next to, grabbed one and crushed it with her hand as she bit into it, then threw it away and spat it out. The whole situation was a mess. Finally, when the police were about to arrive and the rest of the group had paid the bill and caught up to us, she reached down her pants, gave us the money and we were on our way.

The rest of the weekend was less eventful, minus an asado (barbeque) on Mother's Day (yes, it's down here too) during which I ate plates of sausage, ribs and steak, with leftovers for dinner (picture on left, my host Dad Carlos prepares the barbeque, on the left the first round of meats). One of the selections I think is called blood sausage in English, because when the slaughter the cow, they collect the blood, cook it down, mix it with some other stuff and form it into sausages. Word is that it's great for anemia! Luckily my physical for my soccer team included a cholesterol test and I don't appear to be in danger of a heart attack yet after vats upon vats of grease and deep fried meat, so I can continue with my Atkins-approved diet.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Photos from Montevideo and Córdoba

Check out some photos of Montevideo and Cordoba, Argentina, where we recently had a program trip for a long weekend:


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

"Live and work in the U.S. for one year!"

Such a phrase is not hard to come by down here while surfing the internet. None of that "Click here to claim your prize!" In a country that feels something between pity and ire towards the hard worker, it's odd to see an advertisement encouraging work. I'll save a few of my other peculiar observations for later. I'm trying to include pictures now, excuse any formatting irregularities. Onto more important things.

Classes. Since I also have an internship and Middlebury's "Cuaderno," a course that consists of keeping a blog in Spanish and doing a cultural project, I'm only supposed to take two classes that both meet six hours a week, which are 20th century History of Uruguay and an interdisciplinary course with the official name "Around the socio-political history of the Southern Cone of Latin America and Uruguay: Democratic crises, dictatorships and transition processes. Interdisciplinary focuses." I suppose instead of a class description below the title they prefer a descriptive title. Needless to say, the classes started off with a bang and I was really excited for them. Uruguay seemed to have an interesting history full of dictatorships, social and economic reforms/movements, etc. and the dictatorship class was covering interesting revolutions and political turmoil in Chile and Argentina, the latter which is a roller coaster ride of coups, "elections," left and right political movements, and oppressive dictatorships from WWII until the mid 80s. Albeit a brutal three hours, classes were small, teachers and reading were good, and there was a lot of class discussion (most of which I didn't understand). I could usually follow the teachers, but when students spoke up, forget about it. For being such a chilled out country, people (in particular the youth) feel compelled to talk as quickly as possible and enunciate as little as possible.

Picture break of the economic union Mercosur (Common Market of the South), where I began an internship about a month ago, and "Espacio Libre Bob Marley" which sits across the street from my house.

Classes are certainly different now. First, to say that having only three hour classes is brutal is
an understatement. The good readings for the most part stopped being assigned, and have been replaced by bibliographies with 30-40 books that are "recommended" to supplement the course. My ass that the professors have read all the books on the list. One of Ruby's classes has a 25 page bibliography. Worse is the class format. Words like "organization," "conscise" or "lesson plan" don't exist here. The professor shows up with the intention of talking most of the time and letting the students chime in when they want. One of our professors could condense his three hour classes into five or ten minutes with ease. Another class we spent three hours summarizing four assigned readings. Never mind analyzing the articles, sharing opinions or using them as a starting point for a discussion, these were just synopses. One student spent literally over an hour summarizing the article he was presenting. My dictatorship class has a good ten professors listed, and while the first two were good, the last two have excelled at talking in circles, going down tangents, talking about nothing and then repeating it all over again. The main teacher of my Uruguayan history class looks like a more grizzled Richard Gere who just reads for three hours from the notes he wrote the first time he taught the class. Let's just say it has certainly been a different academic experience from Middlebury. Next semester I'll be in a private university that follows the U.S. they say.

Although classes have become less than stimulating, other facets of life have continued to get better and better. Friendships continue to get stronger with Uruguayans, and I've definitely noticed my Spanish improving a lot. Just two weeks ago I had a good talk with Jeremy about how I didn't feel like my Spanish was improving, and decided I needed to make more of an effort to engage Uruguayans in conversation as much as possible. I think largely what happens is the change is gradual, but I feel like redoubling my efforts to talk and listen to more Spanish more has helped too. While there is no campus for the university (each "school" i.e. humanities, social sciences, engineering, etc. is located in a different part of town, meaning my campus consists of this one building above), I've spent more time hanging out around the cafeteria where classmates can frequently be found studying, drinking mate or grabbing lunch. Mauricio, a friend from class, talks so fast it used to sound more like he was the world's fastest gargler than speaking a language. Now it still sometimes sounds like he's speaking with a bar of soap in his mouth, but I can usually follow most of what he says. Some students in class used to impress me because they would talk very dynamically and clearly for ten minutes or more in a discussion, but now that I can usually understand them most of what they say seems to have very little to do with the class and at best, would be better left out of the discussion.

Smoke from Buenos Aires 400 kilometers away and a couch hanging out in a plaza...weird things happen down here.

Despite my occasional sarcasm, Uruguay is an amazing country. There really is no other country like it to compare it to, and for such a small country, it has its own unique flavor. Not only are people nicer here than anywhere else I´ve been in Latin America, I also love discovering new oddities every day about this country, such as that the country went to the trouble of declaring it illegal to drink mate while riding the bus or driving (probably for the better).

Lastly, a few things I've learned down here from Uruguayans or just observed in general:

  • Water is bad for you
  • Oil does not have fat in it
  • If you sleep without socks on you'll get sick
  • If you don't drink enough whiskey you'll get sick
  • The Chinese are dirty (not a general observation. All the Chinese I've met—Chinese here usually means from east Asia—have been very nice and one "Chinese" person from Taiwan invited me to drink tea at his house sometime)
  • Fanny packs are in- leather, denim, corduroy...just about any fabric
  • If you have a sweater and don't want to wear it, the stylish thing to do is tie the sleeves around the front of your neck and let it hang behind you...something of an improvised scarf
And some tasty new dishes...

  • Some type of pastry stuffed with tuna, mayonnaise and ketchup, left to ferment on the kitchen counter for 10 to 12 hours. I gagged before the first bite was down. The rest went straight to the dumpster outside since I wanted to sleep and not spend the night offering my dinner to the Porcelain God.
  • Chicken, rice, peas, carrots and a bag of mayonnaise (mayonnaise is quite the popular cuisine down here, sometimes when I'm offered it my response is "why?" for example, if I'm having eggs for breakfast.
  • The best way to make coffee is to leave the grinds in the coffee to brew for several hours, chill it overnight, and heat it up in the microwave the next day.
  • Re-deep fried vegetables. To give you some perspective, these make tempura taste and look like steamed vegetables. If you want to try it, saturate a sponge in oil and take a bite. Those... vegetables, along with milanesa (fried chicken) and hard boiled eggs was dinner one night. Talk about throwing a curve ball to your digestive system.

On that note I'll leave you with this picture of Montevideo's self employed recycling service:

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Life in Uruguay: Hella chill

Jeremy's amazing ability at cranking out an entry per day this last week has inspired me to cough up something of my own. If you happen to pick up a copy of the first issue of Middlebury's very first IPE newsletter, you may realize this post has been 100% plagiarized from an article written by someone currently abroad in Montevideo. However, I don't think it's a violation of the school's honor code to plagiarize yourself on a personal blog, so I think I'll be okay. Sorry for anything you may find repetitious, but I didn't want to upset the "integrity" of this work of literature (that has very little to do with International Politics and Economics). I jest. It's late and I'm going to bed.

The pace of life is one of Montevideo’s most prominent qualities after a month and a half down here in Uruguay. This tiny South American country of just over three million people is nestled in between Argentine and Brazil on the Rio de la Plata, the world’s widest estuary, and the Atlantic Ocean. Commonly confused with the much poorer landlocked Paraguay, Uruguay is another world with one of Latin America’s most stable democracies and a large middle class flush with strong German and Italian heritages.

The beverage yerba mate, a South American infusion of hot water and the dried leaves from the yerba mate plant, is drank through a metal straw from a gourd and is the foundation of life here. People go about their day gourd-in-hand cradling a thermos between their arm and chest. The most popular activity in Uruguay is spending hours on end drinking the bitter beverage with friends on the Rambla, the boardwalk along the Rio de la Plata, to discuss politics (many are following the American primaries closely), socio-economic woes, soccer or just nothing; I had a 45 minute discussion the other day with a friend about the school’s photocopier.

While mate is certainly a very chill activity, the culture of tranquility does not stop there. One of the most common expressions is “todo tranqui” which is probably most appropriately translated as “everything’s chill.” I recently began an internship with Red Mercosur, a branch MERCOSUR, the economic union of South America. Red Mercosur is supposedly a network of institutions dedicated to economic research on regional integration, although my duties thus far have consisted of translating a few pages. I asked if there was a current project I could help with and was expecting to get a stack of TPS reports or something pertaining to economic development, trade or poverty in the context of regional integration. My supervisor’s response? “Todo tranqui.” I took that as a no and took another sip of mate while looking out over the waterfront from my desk by the window. Todo tranqui indeed.

There are certainly some trade-offs to todo tranqui. This country has got chilling down pat, but todo tranqui has probably resulted in a less productive and dynamic economy. Would Uruguayan’s give up some todo tranqui for more economic growth. I think not. People seem content to arrive at work anywhere between 10 in the morning and three in the afternoon to do their thing for a few hours before retiring to some mate. Could todo tranqui have a role in why Mercosur receives a lot of mixed press many people think it is inefficient or useless (many Uruguayans are in this boat)? Perhaps. If I can ever figure out exactly what it is that Red Mercosur does, or for that matter, Mercosur in general, I try and give you a better answer. Before I do that though, I need to take a break to chill and drink some mate.

Friday, April 11, 2008


Check out photos from Cerro Plomo in Chile by clicking on the picture below or the link the right dashboard. More are on their way with a few from from Brazil and Chile on the right dashboard as a preview of those to come.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Montevideo and my new fam

After quickly settling into my room on the night of March 5 and having dinner with my new family, I had the intention of hitting the sack like a rock, but my bed didn’t make it so easy for me. With a short bed, my feet didn’t even touch the bed, so my bedside table became an end-of-the-bed footrest. The searing pain in my back the next day told me this would take a bit to get used to. Dad, you can have this laugh, as I’ve been known to make the wise comment or two about your back. The next morning orientation began, and after our long trip back to Montevideo that included a sleepless night in BA, I was not eager to sit in a hotel room to have eight hours of logistical information thrown at us. A quick recap of the highlights of orientation...a couple of our meals were on Middlebury.

I quickly settled into life in Montevideo. I live two blocks from Jeremy, and Ruby Bolster, also from Middlebury, lives on my block, so we´ve spent a lot of time together. The pace of life is certainly slower here, which is frequently for the better, but can also translate to long, slow moving lines, and a more accurate translation for “ahora” (which literally means “now”) to mean anything from a few minutes from now to sometime before the world comes to an end. One of Montevideans (I don´t know if that´s a real word, but it works) favorite activities is to go the Rambla (the waterfront that stretches from Montevideo to Brazil) and drink mate for hours on end. It´s probably my favorite way to spend an afternoon here. For those who don’t know what mate is, yerba mate is a plant grown in the southern cone of South America and used to make a beverage similar to a tea. In a nutshell, to make the drink you fill a gourd up most of the way with herb, add hot water and drink the mixture through a metal straw with a strainer at the bottom so you don’t get a mouthful of leaves. Down here it is much more than a drink to most people. It is something to share with family and friends, to have as a study buddy (yes it does pack a bit of a punch), and there are a lot of traditions, customs and rules that go along with the preparation and consumption.

I´ve settled in well with my family, am live with an adorable old couple and their daughter in her late 20s or early 30s. They also have a son about the same age who left for Spain the day I arrived to visit friends and work for a while. They were quick to take me in and welcome me into their family. There have been a lot of things I´ve had to get adjusted to. First off is television. My family loves it. It´s on for about 95% of waking hours, and is the center of attention in the kitchen and where we eat. It´s one in the morning when I eat breakfast which is a short tangent to get sidetracked on now. They don´t eat breakfast other than coffee and milk, and say their stomachs feel bad if they eat in the morning. Back to television. It´s on all morning while my host dad and mom are around, usually watching it at the kitchen table. After my host dad goes to work around noon, the rest of the day my host mom is around with not much to do, and I think she mostly watches tv. Come evening when my host dad returns from work, he´s at at it again with the tv, and it´s on throughout dinner keeping us company right next to the table (we still have conversations, but it´s always right there if we want it), and they watch it until going to bed anywhere between midnight and 2, depending on what´s on.

Another difference is food. The staple in my house is milanesa, which is just battered and deep fried meat. We have chicken, veal or ham milanesa most nights of the week, accompanied with a type of fried or baked pastry, and sometimes a tomato salad smothered in vegetable oil and a little vinegar. Coke is the main beverage, which is "good because it helps hydrate you." They think it´s unhealthy to drink much water. Hmm...I guess between the coke and grease you get enough liquid each day. When we don´t have milanesa (we´re currently on three nights in a row), it´s usually either pasta or ravioli that´s been cooked for 30 minutes and left in the hot water until serving time, which can sometimes be a while. Needless to say, it usually disintegrates when you try to eat it. Since my other meal there is breakfast, they assumed that all Americans only eat fruit loops and frosted flakes, so they invested in a few boxes of the former and 4.5 pounds of the latter. They were blown away and think I´m a professional chef after I made an omelete, and couldn´t understand why I would want to eat something like granola, which they had never seen and were so puzzled as to why someone would want to eat cat food.

Although predictable, the food is alright and sometimes we have a good surprise, such as Gnocchi on the 29th of every month, which is eaten with money underneath your plate (old tradition to have a month of good money) or a good stew. It could be worse, so I´m not complaining (or am I?). Plus, I´m on my own for lunch (which is almost always milanesa for them), so I made a trek to the supermarket to buy non-deep fried foods and vegetables.

Although I miss Mom´s cooking, I still like my family and they´re really nice. They´re happy to answer any questions, we have some good conversations, I have my own room, they let me have friends over (but, like prep school, if it´s a girl, friend or more, they want the door to be open) and they sometimes ask what I want to watch during dinner! To boot my host mom always makes a delicious fresh juice mixture that may include any of the following: orange, peach, apple, carrot, melon and vermouth. They can be intense sometimes, as every night before I´ve had a bite of dinner, my mom asks in her booming voice(almost demands): ¨Eric! Do you like it? Is it good?¨¨Yes, this milanesa, it´s something special.¨I don´t need to try the food anymore to know what it´s going to taste like.

Enough for now, more on classes, university life, internships, etc. in the future.

A Quick Recap: 5 countries and 140 hours in buses

For those who don’t want to read everything below, or you just want a stop-by-stop recap, get out your Atlas or map and read on:

January (with Lizz): I started in Niteroi (across the bay from Rio), Brazil, spent a week there and in Rio. From there, a bus north to Salvador for three days, another bus north to Maceio for another three days, followed by a final northbound bus to the twin cities of Recife and Olinda for two more days. Bus back to Salvador for a night before a flight back to Niteroi for a few nights. (In come Andy and Wendy for a week) Short bus south to Ilha Grande in the state of Rio for two nights, followed by a night back in Niteroi before a flight to Iguazu Falls for three more nights. Return to Niteroi for five days before Carnaval.

February (with Lizz, David, Sage and Jeremy): David and Sage arrive for the four days of Carnaval, followed by three more days in Niteroi and Rio. We flew south to Florianopolis, Brazil for two nights before continuing on a bus to Montevideo, Uruguay for two more nights. Bus and boat ride to Buenos Aires (in comes Jeremy) for five days before a bus west to Mendoza for five more days. Bus west to Santiago for a two days, mountaineering trip up Cerro Plomo outside Santiago, bus back to Buenos Aires and from there boat/bus to Montevideo.

Into Thinner Air: February 24-March 5

After traveling with someone for two months where you are living together day and night, it´s weird to say goodbye, especially at six in the morning. We loaded up the trunk of the taxi with our backpacks precariously sticking halfway out the trunk. Lizz and I said our goodbyes (I don´t blame Sage for not getting up) before I joined the rest of our bags and the comatose bodies of David and Jeremy (who rallied through the night and were ready to crash) that were piled inside the cab. The ride to Santiago was gorgeous as it cuts right through the Andes and passes Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in the Americas, and was only made better by eating fresh empanadas from a road side stand while watching Steven Seagal kill bad guys with a wine glass.

The only problem with the trip was crossing into Chile. Maybe the altitude slows them down, because at 12,000 feet at Paso de los Libertadores, Chile and Argentina seem to have worked together to develop as inefficient a border crossing as possible. It took them over two hours to give everyone on our bus the two stamps to leave Argentina and enter Chile. Maybe a few more of the soldiers standing around could have set down their machine guns and picked up a stamp to help with the process. At least they forgot to charge each of us the $135 entrance fee that Americans have to pay. I guess the wait was worth it.We arrived late in the afternoon to meet our friend Sergio Juarez. David and I met Sergio when we did a NOLS course in the Chilean Patagonia in 2005. After becoming close friends over the three months down there, we hadn’t seen Sergio in three years, who has since become a father of the most adorable kid Santi. David, Jeremy and I stayed at with Sergio, Santi and his wonderful wife Kara in their house in the hills above Santiago. Over the next couple days we hung out, went hiking, climbing and had some serious bro sessions drinking mate (Santi at one and half years already loves it), listening to Jack Johnson and catching up. It was a very welcome break from cities and hostels.

Our time with David came to an end, as he had to head off to Valparaiso to study, and Jeremy and I asked Sergio, an expert guide around the area, for a good backpacking or mountaineering trip to celebrate my 21st birthday. We decided to try and summit Cerro Plomo, a 5450 meter (about 18,000 ft) peak a couple hours outside Santiago. Sergio outfitted us with all the gear and clothes we didn’t already have, and we packed up our ice axes, crampons and 25 hot dogs we bought for a dollar at the supermarket.We headed out on February 27th, my birthday, and were driven up an endless number of treacherous switchbacks to the trailhead at 12,000 and said our goodbyes to David, who was starting his program in another day. Jeremy and I hiked in for several hours, every step revealing a more gorgeous landscape and intimidating Cerro Plomo towering over us. We set up camp below 12,000 ft that evening and took a break to watch the sun set over the valley we were camped in and the mountains beyond. Although not the traditional way of celebrating your 21st birthday, I can´t complain, as it was certainly one of the best birthdays I´ve had.

When we got some food and the stove out to cook dinner, when we realized something was missing. The stove pump. Sergio had loaned us a stove and we had two bottles of fuel, but in the process of a quick stove review at Sergio´s house, the pump was left behind in the kitchen. Without the pump, the stove was useless. I suppose we could have tried pouring some gas on the ground, lighting it and holding a pot over it while burning our hands to a crisp. We went with an alternative and went to our neighbors a few hundred meters away to see if they happened to have a pump for an MSR Whisperlite™, a very difficult task as Chilean Spanish most closely resembles gibberish. You may not understand what they say, but Chileans can be extremely generous and nice, and the couple, much more prepared than us with two stoves, loaned us a stove and some fuel for a day, allowing us to eat that night and the next morning.The next day was a six-hour ascent up to the highest camp at over 14,000 feet. When we were at the more popular of the two base camps (an hour below where we camped), we ran into a group coming down from the summit. They didn’t even get close to the summit, which had been the story for everyone that week. When it came up that we didn’t have a stove pump, they asked if we were returning to Santiago after, and when we replied yes, they gave us a stove and more fuel (again, they had two), wrote down an address and phone number in Santiago and continued on their way as Jeremy and I continued on ours, speechless.

We got into camp very tirebut hoped to attempt the summit the next day if conditions were good. After twiddling our thumbs for a few hours around camp we began to feel the altitude as headaches and nausea set in. Okay, Jeremy is much more a man than I was my head and tummy that were hurting, and they continued into the night, a sign I probably wouldn´t want to ascend another 4,000 ft hours before the sun comes up. That afternoon clouds rolled in along with some snow, and before long we found ourselves literally in the middle of a thunderstorm surrounded by our metal gear. Our three stoves and accompanying fuel reassured us that if we got struck by lightning it would be quick and painless. The next day we were both feeling better, and took the time to eat plain hot dogs and enjoy the views of the most spectacular mountains either of us had seen.

Summit day. Since we were at the higher of the two base camps, the other which had a few groups, we figured we could get a late start and hit the trail around four that crystal clear and bone chilling morning. As we climbed along in the starlight, we could see the lights of Santiago far below us. A French couple caught up with us and we took turns cutting fresh tracks up the mountain through the knee-deep snow, pausing occasionally to try and catch our breath in the thin air. Watching the sunrise over the Andes was nothing short of incredible, and I came to the conclusion that although South America has some great cities, its real gems are outside, having seen beaches, waterfalls and mountains. Again, every step revealed a more spectacular view of the Andes as Santiago disappeared beneath a thick layer of haze and smog. Late that morning, we reached a plateau before the last push of 150 vertical meters below the summit. The French couple, by now wasted on altitude and struggling to put together coherent sentences, decided to turn around while Jeremy and I trudged on.

Our first steps up the incredibly steep slope sunk all the way down to our waists. The weather holding, we continued up but the deep snow and steep face were quickly sapping our remaining strength, and after a third to halfway up about to collapse from exhaustion with a long descent ahead of us, we made the difficult decision to turn around about 100 meters below the top. The top was so close right in front of us, but it probably would have taken another hour to get there. While the ascent took seven hours, it took us just an hour and a half to get back to camp. Once we got our boots off, we didn’t have the strength/will to do anything with ourselves for a couple hours, and I imagine our conversation went something like this: “Bro, that was sick.” “Yeah. Man. Legit.” “For sure.” “Word.” Pretty content with how far we had made it (I had never been much higher than 10,000 feet) we become very happy that we turned around when we did, as a large group we could see descending that we had passed on our way down, disappeared into a cloud of snow and lightning that engulfed us too. Hopefully they didn’t die. If we had been a little scared the day before in a cloud of lightning, this time we figured that the best thing we could do to hope we didn’t get struck by lightning was to pass out and dream about Argentine girls.

We hiked out the next morning at nine as we were meeting Sergio that afternoon. We were happy we weren’t going for the summit that day, as it had snowed 8-12 inches in the last 18 hours. We made it out quickly in less than four hours, Sergio showed up 10 minutes later and we headed down. We filled Sergio in about our trip and stopped at a roadside stand with a backyard patio overlooking the hills for steak sandwiches and mote, a delicious sweet drink made with barley (no it’s not beer). Let’s just say it beat the hot dogs we had been eating for the last four days. Back at Sergio’s house we unpacked, showered, repacked, chilled, slept and headed to the bus terminal at eight the next morning after stopping by our friend’s work. I felt very American walking into a very serious and formal office building in jeans, a t-shirt and a stove/gas in hand.

As we had come to discover while traveling, things just work out, and the trend certainly continued that day. We had no idea if we would be able to get tickets to Buenos Aires that day or even the next, but when we walked up to our friend Cata International at the bus terminal, they had two seats for us on a direct bus to BA leaving in 10 min. Perfect. We got on the bus, with all the usual suspects—hot meals, movies that made up stereotypes about the Northwest, hot stewardess, wine and whiskey (the stewardess kept insisting on refilling my glass)—and pulled into BA exactly 24 hours later. We settled into a different hostel this time that was very nice and met a friendly old man in his late 70s. He was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s but was heading home after a month of traveling. He could not stop talking about how great the army was, but I decided to keep the conversation friendly and not give him my piece of mind.

The next morning, after a night out in BA that is the antithesis of a good night of sleep, we headed to the boat terminal to catch our ride back to Montevideo. It was about two miles away, so we figured the taxi could get us there in a couple minutes. We pulled up an hour later, thirty minutes after our boat was scheduled to depart. Not too pleased, we went inside, checked in, went through security, got our passports stamped and realized our boat hadn’t even boarded yet. God bless (Latin) America. It was a long trip to Montevideo and we got to our host families’ houses that evening after another 10-hour trip. I don’t think it needs to be said we were both exhausted after a five-day mountaineering trip, a 24 hour bus ride to BA, a sleepless night out and another 10 hour trip. I was looking forward to settling down and having a life.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Spare any Change? Not in Argentina- February 15-24

Montevideo lies east of Buenos Aires across the Rio de la Plata. If you want a better visual, go to Google Maps ® or Earth ™. To get from Montevideo to Buenos Aires, there are normally two economical ways: by boat or by bus. However, in the days of tree huggers, by bus is not so easy. This is not because buses and cars pollute (buses are actually about as fuel efficient as it goes), but because some Argentines got it into their head to block the border crossing between Argentina and Uruguay in protest of two paper mills being built by Finnish and Spanish companies along the Uruguay River, the Rio Grande of Argentina and Uruguay (with fewer swimmers). But why the protests? Is there some concern for the pollution from the paper mills? Yes, paper mills do pollute, as your nose tells you as you drive by one. Were these paper mills deemed environmentally safe by the WHO and WTO because these paper mills are using newer technology? Yes. Did the International Court at The Hague rule in favor of Uruguay that these mills were okay to build? Yes. Does Argentina have old paper mills along the same river that pollute a lot? Yes. Can Argentines sometimes be stubborn, arrogant and think they´re more important than everyone else? They give New Englanders a run for their money, but unlike the latter, I still like them.

As the Rio de la Plata is the widest river in the world[1], the boat ride across is no taxi ride in Venice. There’s a high speed catamaran direct from Montevideo to Buenos Aires that’s three hours, but the more economical and popular option is to take a two hour bus ride east to the town Colonia in Uruguay, and from there take a shorter ferry ride to Buenos Aires as the river is much narrow there (you still can’t see the other side of the river from Colonia). The fast catamaran makes the trip in an hour with the biggest wake I’ve ever seen (I’m by no means an accomplished boater, so that statement doesn’t carry much weight). Once we arrived in BA, “the Paris of the Southern Hemisphere,”[2] we checked into the hostel where Jeremy Bittlingmeier Martin was staying, who had arrived a few days before us. Jeremy is studying in Montevideo with me and came to travel for a few weeks before. Unfortunately, the hostel gave us the boot the next morning because we hadn’t paid for more than one night, so we spent the next two hours calling every hostel we could. Since it was a weekend and we were a group of five now, after calling 20 hostels with no luck we started with hotels and struck gold with a nice and really cheap hotel with an insane deaf man working at the desk. While calling 20 hostels and not having a place to sleep is a little stressful, the whole thing was a blessing in disguise, and I was perfectly happy to get out of the last hostel that was run by assholes. The bros shared a triple and the women a double, and the private bathroom equipped with a bidet was a much needed break from hostels, which while most of them had bidets, you only want to share a bidet with so many people…

The first thing I noticed about Buenos Aires was that there are a lot more Americans. Other than the few Americans I had been traveling with, I hadn’t met a single American during my six weeks in Brazil or Uruguay, but I met several in the first day in BA. Hold it, the first thing I noticed was the number of beautiful women walking the streets and in the nightclubs. Brazil has a lot of beautiful women, but wow, the scenery in BA is spectacular, even though Lizz and Sage might try to tell you otherwise[3]. That night we went out with two girls from BA named Lucy and Maia, whom Lizz and I met while in the northeast of Brazil. We spent the next few days walking through the neighborhoods and markets of Buenos Aires, passing through the rustic/artsy San Telmo, trendy Recoleta that is also home to the famous but creepy graveyard where Evita Peron lies, ritzy Palermo, sketchy Microcentro, colorful La Boca (home to the famous Boca Juniors) and revitalized Puerto Madero, the Pearl District of BA (sorry if you’re not from Portland for that one). In addition we consumed a large amount of steak at a very low price. Every restaurant serves several cuts, and the steak is always very good. Argentina is home to the expansive Pampas, which provide a lot of space for a lot of cows to graze, walk around aimlessly and whatever else it is that cows do. For health or environmentally conscious folk, I don’t think “free-range” is in their vocabulary here, because they know no other way to raise cattle. With so many restaurants serving great meat, where did we eat lunch while in Puerto Madero? Hooters. Great views. Wings. Beer. Nothing else must be said.

One of Argentina’s current crises (it’s hard to keep track of them all), which is especially bad in BA, is a lack of change. Not change as in Barack Obama, but change as in coins. The current “change crisis” is due to inflation, which has caused the coins’ metal to be worth more than their face values. As a result, people hoard the coins and take them to Paraguay where they can sell the metal for a profit, leaving few coins in the Argentine economy. If you want to take a bus, which only take coins, the hardest part is not figuring out which bus to take but amassing a collection of coins to pay for your fare. One night when we wanted to take a bus, it took a good half hour for us to get enough change together. We were on a street full of shops and vendors, and the first shop I went into a flirtatious smile was all it took to get the cute girl working the register to give me two coins for a bill. Our luck ran out after that, and stores wouldn’t even sell us products because they didn’t have change, or didn’t want to give us change. As a last resort I ended up haggling with a street kid for 10 minutes and got him to give me a one-peso coin for a two-peso bill. I’m still holding on to the few Argentine coins I have for the next time I’m in Buenos Aires, minus the peso that Sage popped the middle out of to wear as a ring.

After two days, David and Jeremy took off for Mendoza to escape from the city, and Lizz, Sage and I followed three days later. We had time to see all the neighborhoods we wanted to see and on our last day took a train out for a day at El Tigre, the delta where the Rio Paraná (the river from Iguazu Falls) breaks up into hundreds of channels before emptying its brown, sediment laden contents into the Rio de la Plata. There’s a cute little town but the main attraction is taking a tour boat through the vast network of canals. That night Lizz, Sage and I hopped on a bus for the 14-hour ride through the Pampas to Mendoza, a city and province on the border with Chile and even more beautiful women than BA. While Brazil has a pretty good bus system and you can travel long distances in comfort, Argentina has got it beat. Our double decker bus was equipped with leather seats that lean all the way back along with a leg and foot rest, complimentary dinner, breakfast, wine and whiskey, and bad horror movies.

In Mendoza, there’s a lot to do, if you have the money. There’s hiking, backpacking, rafting, horseback riding, wine tours, lots of good restaurants and a good night life. While all these attractions are cheaper than in the U.S., most of them are still out of range of a really tight budget. We spent a couple days hanging around the city and talked to a few tourist agencies before David and Jeremy returned. Once the whole group was back together, we found a wine tour for a great price, and on the tour stopped at an olive oil plantation, and industrial winery and a family operated winery, which were all fantastic to see. Mendoza is the heart of wine country in Argentina, the largest wine producer in the world.[4] In the area around the city of Mendoza, there are over 400 wineries. If you can make it to Mendoza and like wine, you’re in for a treat for some cheap but tasty wine. We bought bottles at the family operated winery for six dollars that they sell for 60 dollars in the U.S.

For our last day, I was itching to get out of the city and into the mountains. While I love cities, I had been doing city after city for almost two months, and wanted a little change of scenery. Lizz and I decided to go to on a hike around Potrerillos, which the tourism information center in town recommended. Once we were on the bus they said to take, we had gathered that we would pull into a bus terminal or stop that said “Potrerillos,” from which we could ask around about a hike. No so. After a couple of hours, there weren’t many people left. We asked a group of people where to get off, and they said we were at the last stop, and there was only one more bus returning to the city that day. It turns out our destination was nothing more than a region, and there is no central town. We got off the bus with the group of friends, and with rain clouds bearing down on us, they invited us into their house where we hung out with them and waited for the rain to pass. They were incredibly nice but also very weird. When the rain passed, Lizz and I had time for a little stroll through the rural neighborhood before catching the last bus to the city (which of course showed up 45 min late).

Our time traveling together had come to an end, as David, Jeremy and I had a bus ticket to Santiago the next morning. Lizz had to head back to Florianopolis in a couple days for her next semester, and Sage stayed behind for another day with Lizz before heading to Valparaiso in Chile.

[1] So says Jeremy Martin. I have yet to verify that statement on Wikipedia, but it works for me.

[2] I have never been to Paris, so I have no idea, I’m just quoting the Lonely Planet.

[3] They are just jealous.

[4] So said our wine guide. I have also yet to verify this statement on Wikipedia.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Carnaval, Florianopolis and Montevideo: Jan 26-Feb 15

With Andy and Wendy back home in the states, Lizz and I had several days to kill in Niteroi before David Small and Sage Sipchen arrived from Middlebury at the beginning of February for Carnaval. We got a little taste of Carnaval before the real thing started. Lizz and I had gone to a bloco with Andy and Wendy their last day. A bloco is a street party/parade that follows a truck loaded with speakers and a huge samba band and dancers on top of the speakers. The truck drives down a street very slowly with thousands of people around and behind it dancing, drinking, singing and peeing. There is no shortage of food and especially beer, with vendors lining the streets and walking through the crowds selling Skol and Antartica, the PBR and High Life of Brazil. While Carnaval in Rio is more famous for its fancy balls and the Sambódromo (more on this in a bit), the Carnaval that most people in Rio actually celebrate is on the street...because it´s free. An environmental feature of the blocos (and every outdoor party in Brazil) is the collection of cans. When you are done with your beer, you can hold up your can or toss it on the ground and within five seconds someone comes running up with a huge bag of cans to collect the deposit. I once saw two people fighting over can. It´s a little sad having an underclass of people shuffling in between your legs, but Brazil can boast that it has an aluminum can recycling rate of 98%. During the rest of our time before Carnaval, Lizz and I toured around Rio some more, went to the beach and moved in to the apartment of some of her friends from school where we stayed for the duration of our time in Niteroi/Rio. The last day before Carnaval officially began, we went to another bloco in Rio where I had fifty reais (about 30 dollars) stolen from my pocket, the only trouble I´ve had my whole time down here.

The first morning of Carnaval, I caught a bus to pick up David at the airport, we dropped his stuff off at the apartment in Niteroi, had lunch and hopped on a boat to Rio. I thought the blocos we had been to were pretty wild and crazy, but they did not prepare me for what we saw once we got off the boat. Rio Branco, the busiest street in downtown rio, was impassable because of the wall of people. We pushed and fought our way down the street to meet up with some friends, but had to take a detour on a slightly more manageable side street. We had few more hours before picking Sage up at the airport, so we stayed downtown and went to a bloco. After picking up Sage, the four of us went to the Sambódromo for the night. The Sambódromo is a stadium designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer to look like a street for Samba schools to parade down and compete against each other during the four days of Carnaval. Each Samba school from the Rio area (a couple dozen in all) comes with thousands of dancers, drummers, singers and floats for their hour of glory. We stayed around to watch four samba schools which were all very impressive. I have never seen such elaborate costumes or floats, the best being the topless women wearing a bead or two down below. On our taxi ride through downtown back to the boat to Niteroi, the sidewalks and streets were lined with mountains of garbage (with not a single beer can in sight).

Over the four days of Carnaval, we divided our time pretty evenly: 12 hours at blocos and 12 hours sleeping. We´d wake up around three or four in the afternoon and come back between four and five the next morning. Lizz´s friends that we stayed with- Vanessa, Renan, Celhao and Ana Laura- were incredibly nice, fun and took us out with them every day to the best blocos with their friends. We become close friends with them despite the strong language barrier (Vanessa was the only one who spoke English) communicating with bits of Portuguese and English, and lots of hand gestures. Our last day of Carnaval we went to a gay bloco, which was (unhomophobically) the least enjoyable one. The bloco was packed so much you couldn´t move around and ended up getting shoved around a lot. Also, I couldn´t take my eyes off the ground. In Brazil, especially during Carnaval, making eye contact with someone means you want to make out with them, and every time I looked up there were twenty 250 pound shirtless body-builders staring me down begging me to look at them with a few moving in for the kill...I´d go hide behind Lizz.

After Carnaval, we stayed around during the resaca (literally means hangover and refers to the rest of the week following Carnaval) to rest up before making our way to Buenos Aires to rendezvouz with our good friend Jeremy Martin from Middlebury. David and Sage were able to see what Rio is normally like- we spent some time downtown, at the beach and at Rio´s famous Pao de Azucar (Sugarloaf), a massive semi-phallic rock jutting up out of the water over Rio. Coincidentally, if you forget the nasal pronunciation at the end of Pao like every gringo, it means dick. We preferred the name Sugardick. The resaca over, we hopped on a 3:40am flight south to Florianopolis (for the same price as a 25 hr bus ride), where Lizz is studying for the spring. She dropped off a big suitcase she didn´t want for travel around with, and we took advantage of our two nights there to explore the colorful city that´s on a beautiful island with 42 beaches. Lizz is going there to study? Hmm...

The next stop before Buenos Aires was Montevideo, Uruguay, which laid a 20 hour bus ride south of Florianopolis where I´ll be studying for the rest of the year. I met my host family and dropped a few things I didn´t want to travel with anymore (i.e. computer). I really liked my family and think they will be easy and fun to live with. We took a couple days to explore the city which was awesome, eat a lot of great steak and stay up late hanging out with people from all over the world from our hostel. There was a plaza or park on every other corner, and everyone goes about their day drinking yerba mate. It may be the national drink of Argentina, but in Uruguay mate is life. With life defined by mate, it goes at a very slow pace, and everyone seemed very laid back...not a bad place to spend a year in my opinion.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Wrath of Christ and Iguazu Falls: Jan 18-25

Andy and Wendy were delayed and arrived a day late in Rio, so we only had one day to tour the city with them before our first excursion. We took them around downtown for a couple hours before taking a train up to the top of Corcovado, the mountain home to Cristo Redentor, the 110 ft statue of JC. While 110 feet of Jesus is very impressive, the real treat is the gorgeous views of Rio, Bahia Guanabara and Niteroi across the water. We could see the rich neighborhoods of Copacobana and Ipanema that are bordered by the ocean, lakes, mountains and favelas. From such a high point, I could barely make out the end of the bay with more mountains beyond. Unfortunately, our lovely date with Cristo was cut short by a storm that reaked havoc on us. We took cover under a tent outside as it started to rain like I have never seen before. Stairs turned into rushing waterfalls and I stood in a few inches standing water under the tent. Gale force winds came out of nowhere snapping table umbrellas and tossing chairs around on an outdoor patio, and we had to take cover in a restaurant 30 feet away with a hundred other people. 30 feet was far enough that by the time I got inside I was soaked through and through. After the winds and rain let up an hour later, we tried to catch a train back down but the train was not running because trees were lying across the tracks. Taxis don't go to the top of the mountain (because it's such a long drive) unless you pay them to take you up and wait to take you back down while you get your pictures and souvenirs. We ended up paying a taxi driver to leave his group he was waiting for and take us down and then return for his group. The drive down showed the real destruction of the storm, with trees and branches everywhere that the taxi could barely squeeze through. The many tourist vans and buses didn't have a chance of getting down, and I have no idea how long it took for the hundreds of other people stranded up top. The taxi dropped us off at Angela Evancie's apartment, a friend from Middlebury living in Rio for two weeks. It was great to trade stories while we calmed down and grabbed dinner nearby.

The next day we went to Ilha Grande, a beautiful island a few hours south or Rio. The island is almost entirely undeveloped and cars are not allowed, as such to reach most of the beaches you have to take a boat or hike through the jungle. The downside was that it rained most of the time and we never saw any sun. Despite the weather, we still hiked through the jungle for three hours to the island's most famous beach for some body surfing and wine (Wendy insisted on it and Andy carried it). After two nights, we returned to Rio for an evening at a Samba club in Lapa (Rio's party neighborhood) and caught a flight to Foz do Iguacu, the Brazilian city nearby Iguazu Falls. Iguazu Falls is the largest waterfall system in the world with an average of 275 waterfalls where the Rio Parana splits into many sections and falls several hundred feet. The falls lie right on the border of Argentina and Brazil (Paraguay isn't far away), and you can only see one side a day. We spent our first day on the Brazil side, which has the better views of all the falls, and our second day on the Argentina side, where you get a lot closer to the falls. The falls are beyond words or pictures, but I will say they are something to be reckoned with. The sheer volume and roar of falling water is awesome, especially when you take a boat up to the foot of some of the waterfalls to get soaked. During our time at the falls, we also went to a cool bird park nearby where we held parrots and saw a lot of toucans, as well as ventured to Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, which lies a friendship bridge away from Brazil. A while back, Brazil and Paraguay decided to build this "Friendship Bridge" where you can cross back and forth between the countries without the hassle of customs or immigration (sadly this means no passport stamp as proof of my visit to Paraguay). Word has it that the bridge has made drug trafficking a lot easier. The only reasons to go to Ciudad del Este are to see a poor city lacking any type of organization or urban planning, to buy cheap stuff and to get Chinese Food. The Chinese restaurant was one of the only places that looked edible, and while no Panda Express, it far surpassed my expectations for Paraguayan Chinese food and the shrimp-filled wantons stayed down.

It was a great week traveling with Andy and Wendy, and they were both incredibly nice and generous, and great traveling companions. Seeing Iguazu Falls was a dream come true, and Lizz and I relished a week of nice hotels and delicious meals.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Rio and the Northeast or Brazil: Jan 1-17

I realize I am writing about this a little bit after that fact, but I just finally got my blog up and running, so I´ll try and recap my experiences as best I can.

I left Portland, OR in the morning on New Years Eve, and after my most mellow and quiet New Years to date, arrived in Rio de Janeiro at eight in the morning on New Years Day. It was another thirty minutes to Lizz´s house in Niteroi, the city across the bay from Rio where she had been studying for the last semester. The taxi ride from the airport is not the best introduction to Brazil as you pass through some of the worst sections of the city, but it served as a reminder that I would not just be seeing beautiful women and beaches. The next five days Lizz and I spent in Rio and Niteroi where I really enjoyed meeting some of her friends and seeing where she had been living for the last six months. We toured it's historic center, browsed through enormous markets, walked through it's bohemian neighborhood and soaked up some vitamin d on it's sandy waterfronts. Rio is the most visually stunning city I´ve been to, as it´s nestled in and around enormous mountains, beaches, an enormous bay that goes inland for miles with a 10 mile bridge crossing it, and of course lots of beautiful women. To top it off, over 100 feet of Jesus looks over the city day and night from the dramatic mountain Corcovado.

Not all of Rio is beautiful and glorious though. Rio´s slums (favelas) are not technically a part of the city. Someone sees an undeveloped hill, builds a shantyhouse, and everyone else follows. Pretty soon, the houses are stacked on top of each other. This means of course most favelas do not have electricity, water and the worst, sewage disposal. Given that 40-60% of Rio´s population lives in favelas, you can only imagine where the shit goes. Rio's largest favela Rosinha has a population of about 150,000 people. It's a city within a city. While some of Rio's favelas are just poor slums, others are controlled by drug lords who provide security for the residents of the favela. One of Lizz's friends Celhao, who lived in a favela for a couple years of his life, described how the drug dealers have a agreements with the police where the police don't enter the favelas. At night, there are vendors on the street with a menu of drugs for sale.

After a good five days in the city and a night out in Lapa, one of Rio´s biggest night spots, Lizz and I caught a thirty-hour bus ride north to the colonial city of Salvador on the coast. Although Salvador is a large city of a couple million, it has a fairly compact historical center. Brazil has a lot more blacks than most other Latin American countries, as about 70% of all slaves that came to the western hemisphere came to Brazil to work it's vast plantations. Back in the day, Salvador was Brazil´s capital, most important city (it still has one of the largest harbors in the world) and the center of it´s slave trade. As a result, it is a very black city with a rich African heritage. In Salvador, we found a cheap inn on the edge of the historical center called the Pelourinho (Portuguese for whipping post) where we spent the next three days walking the streets lined with shops, cafes, bars, churches and museums. There´s also rarely a moment where you don´t either music and drums echoing through the streets. One of Salvador´s most impressive sights is the Igreja de Sao Francisco, a church with an interior coated with about a ton of gold leaf. The inside glows with gold and elaborate woodwork.

One of our nights in Salvador, we went to a Candomble ceremony. Candomble is a religion that is a fusion of Catholicism, as well as African and indigenous spiritualities that was practiced by slaves and is still very important today in the area. The ceremony took place at a small house on the edge of the city, and Lizz and I were in a room with about twenty other people. In the center of the room a circle of people danced around singing chants while others played drums. It's a very casual ceremony as people will smile, laugh and talk to each other at times, but at any moment a person in the room becomes possessed by an African or Indian spirit or god. As they convulse around with eyes rolled back, others rush to their side to keep them from falling and lead them to another room. The person later comes back dressed in the clothing of the spirit or god that has possessed them. Still possessed, they puff on a cigar and continue to participate in the ceremony. It was a very strange but fascinating ritual, but after a couple of hours of standing in the smoky room, we were ready to leave along with the other three in our group. Our guide said that the rituals would continue for several more hours.

On a slightly different note, I also tried out my new sunga (speedo), which are the thing to wear to the beaches in Brazil. Although great for beach activities like soccer or volleyball, it's not so great for Vermont winter thighs. Despite my rigorous application and reapplication or sunscreen, my thighs were a crimson red that night with a wicked burn line. The pain was so great I was not able to bring my sunga to the beach again for a while.

After Salvador, we caught a 12-hour bus ride north to Maceio, an uninteresting city with some of Brazil's best beaches. There's not much to do in the city, but we divided our time between the beaches in the city and a beach next to a coconut plantation outside the city that was incredible (board shorts for me this week). At our hostel in Maceio, we met some great people from Brazil, Buenos Aires and Sweden. After a few days in Maceio, we continued north to the twin coastal cities or Recife and Olinda with our new friends from Buenos Aires Maia and Lucy. The city of Recife was okay with some nice historical streets, but it was pretty dirty and a few hours was enough for me. Olinda on the other hand is Brazil's largest preserved historical city full with 35 churches and a lot more artists. We spent a day and a half walking through an infinite number of art galleries and along the cafe and mural lined streets. A day and a half was not enough for me here, but we had a flight to catch from Salvador to Rio, so we hopped on a 18 hour overnight bus to Salvador. We had another day in Salvador before we got back to Rio to meet up with Lizz's Dad Andy and his fiance Wendy who were flying in for a weeklong visit.

It was a great two weeks on the road and covered a lot of distance. Always on top of the details, Lizz calculated that we spent 60 hours on buses. While the bus rides were very tolerable, I was still grateful for a two hour flight back to Rio from Salvador as opposed to 30 hours on the bus. While Brazil had previously been the country that burned rainforests and cited as one of the world's top emerging economies, I was gaining a better perspective of just how large (larger than the 48 states) and diverse Brazil is.