Jan 30, 2006

Dramatic Dinero Development

Cordoba Skyline

    It guess everyone loves a romantic story. My last post got more comments, and more email responses, than anything I've ever written for y'all before. Thanks for the kinds words! It is great to have people interact, great fun to write that blog post, but trust me... I'm having an even better time living it! Patricia (Pato) and I have been travelling together for about 3 weeks now and things are going brilliantly. I'll write more about that when I get a chance, and more pics up, but for now I'll give you a little background and use some random pictures from Tylers solo journey (because even though he's been mute on this site lately, he is still a clever photographer visiting amazing places.).

    One day I was complaining to Patricia about the fact that my money seems like it's worth less every day. Almost every time I go to an exchange booth, and see how much local currency I can get per dollar, it is lower than the time before. She rolled her eyes and told me I had no idea what bad was like. When we met, four years ago, she was overseas when her countries economy collapsed. She had the humiliating, and difficult, situation of trying to see how much she could change her Argentinian Pesos at exchange booths and seeing a big fat zero. Ouch!

    The story that led to that collapse is an interesting one, and explains some key things about how life is here now. In a lot of ways Argentina feels like home. It's organized, generally well maintained, and clean (Finally! Latin Americans who have a taboo against littering!). People are generally well educated (Argentina pays for university for all able students), well travelled and there is a high standard of living. Whats incongruous is that has a history of a developed country but the economy like it is developing. Although its a little more expensive here than Bolvia, things cost much less than a third of what one would pay in the US or Europe for equal or better quality. And Argentinians are really struggling: unemployment is high, poverty is on the increase and people generally feel like their opportunities in life are stifled.

    In the early 1990s Argentina was plagued with rampant inflation in part due to the huge payments it spent on maintaining its national debt. The president Carlos Saúl Menem came up with an idea that didn't sound too unreasonable; he linked the Argentinian Peso to the US dollar by declaring 1peso=$1. Although its risky to bind one economy to another it was a reasonably safe bet because the economies had some strong similarities. The US, at that time, had been led for over a decade by Republicans who enthusiastically borrowed money to finance tax cuts and deep military spending. The debt hobbled the US economy, much the way Argentinas debt crippled its, so the two countries functioned in much the same way. So, linking the peso to the dollar was like tieing a rope from a bicycle to the fender of an old slow car going about your speed. They may not get up the road much faster, but it'll probably even the ride out.

    All was well and good, until the Americans screwed things up by electing a Democrat in 1992. President Clinton had different priorities and one of them was to cut the deficit and ultimately to pay down some of the national debt. Between that, and some other shifts, the US economy took off like never before. The country went through the largest, and longest economic expansion in the history of the world. All with Argentina struggling to keep up. Its like that old car they tied onto turned out to be a Ferrari.

    In some ways, as the nineties went by, it was good for some Argentinians. Those who had money found it to be worth a lot as the US improved its own economy. Those who didn't have money in the bank, however, suffered. Argentina couldn't keep up with the US economy so soon everything they wanted to export was so outrageously expensive on the world market that no one would buy it. That made the incoming money too minimal to pay the interest on their debt.

    By the end of 2001 the IMF forced Argentina to service it's debt, which effectively made it detach its value from the dollar. As every day the value was less and less, Argentinians that had money in local banks (ie, the poor and middle class) rushed to banks to withdraw what they could before it fell in value further. The government, in turn, couldn't let that happen so they declared a limit on how much people could take out. So most people just has to watch as their savings halved, dropped to a third, and then less than a quarter. Foreign exchanges that Pato visited on her trip didn't want to deal with it so they simply said Argentian money was worth nothing.

    The economic collapse hurt and it hurt bad. Argentinians stormed the Pink Palace (their version of the White House), kicked out the president and trashed the place. People were killed in the many riots, and they went through 5 different presidents in 2 weeks.

    But, poco a poco (little by little,) things are getting better. Today one peso is worth about 1/3rd of the dollar and their economy is slowly coming back. And ironically in 2000 the US got tired of a having healthy economy and elected more Republicans. It happened too late for Argentina to catch up, but between the current governments appetite for more military spending and more massive tax cuts (mostly to the wealthy) the US needed to borrow nearly ¾ of a $Trillion last year just to pay the bills.

    Although wary of the big behomoth to the North the Argentinians are taking advantage of our shortsightedness. Much of their debt is held in dollars, and since the Republicans got back the value of a dollar has plummetted (today it is worth about half as much, compared to the Euro, when I met Patricia in Europe in 2002.) So quickly, before the US puts a Clinton back in the White House, they're paying off debt. Early last month Argentina paid off every last penny of its IMF debt before it was due, all $9.5Billion of it (the largest and most complex payment in history).

    Putting all this talk about money aside, another interesting thing is what happened to Argentina when everything collapsed.Today people go on vacations in their own spectacular country. They drive perfectly usable cars that are 4+ years old. I see them all over in parks, and immaculately clean center squares, with families. The eat the worlds best steak, and sip some of the worlds best wine at night. They sip Mate on a park bench, in lovely city, with good friend. I don't know what it was like before but I feel like this whole country is pulling wool over the eyes of economists. Despite the all the statistical financial reasons why life should be horribly difficult it seems pretty damn good to me.

Jan 24, 2006

Random Romantic Reunion of Ramblers

Granada, Spain
Granada, Spain in January 2002

    Exactly four years ago I was travelling in southern Spain. I first visited Granada with my mother and her fiance but after a couple days we had to leave. I loved that city so after they left I inexplicably wanted to return. I did, found a great hostel and had a wonderful time. On my last day there, before I went to Morocco I met an Argentinian woman called Pato. We hit it off right away, and had a wonderful, albiet brief, time together. We exchanged emails over the years, but after a while it slowed as we were living in different hemispheres and had little opportunity to reunite.

    When Tyler and I started this trip I wrote to Pato to let her know I was finally on my way to her country. But, to my dismay, the email bounced and I had no way of getting in touch with her. Dissappointed, Tyler and I continued our trek south.

    A few weeks ago, in Bolivia preparing for our entrance in Argentina, she wrote to me out of the blue to say hi from her home in Buenas Aires. I wrote back immediately with the news that we were closer to eachother than we'd been in four years. Tyler and I were heading towards Jujuy, a provence in the north and oddly she was simultaneously plotting a camping trip to Jujuy with two girlfriends. It all was an outrageous coincidence, like something out of Hollywood movie. After a flurry of emails we chose a spot to remeet and I spent the next couple weeks in anxious anticipation. I tried hard not to expect too much, and get my hopes up, but failed miserably.

    Tyler and I spent our first day in Argentina on a succession of long busrides so we could make it in time to meet her; finally arriving in Salta in the middle of the night. I got up early to meet her bus in the morning and was dazzled. Over the next few days I realized that my expectations were overblown and awry. She is a lot different than I remembered, she is better.

    I got a new travel partner and lost another. Throughout this whole trip we've been vaguely planning on making it to the southern tip of Argentina, the continent and the world. But Pato was planning on staying in the Jujuy to travel with her friends and having just remet her I was in no hurry to leave once again. Tyler, on the other hand, has his heart set on the penguins and glaciers in the south. So having spent more time together than most newlyweds we decided to part ways.

    We've seperated before, in Nicaragua, but for less time. Although I love my brother, and would do anything for him, spending so much time together (7+ months, almost always sharing our days) has inevitably led to small frusterations and annoyances. We still have a great time together, and look forward to a lot more, but both of us started craving a little space. Also, curiously, this seperation helps us both answer some questions we started this trip with. The very first post on this blog was written by Tyler describing our differences and what we hoped to learn down here. I've spent my adulthood travelling around the world fully connecting with little. Tyler, in turn, spent his former life almost never leaving Albany partly because he was happily together with a girl. We hoped this trip would help us learn from the other how to be more fully balanced. And now, independently, Tyler decided to give his wanderlust full reign and make a mad dash alone for the southern tip of the world. And I've chosen to spend the majority of my remaining time in one of the tiniest provences of Argentina because of wonderful girl.

Sometimes life is poetry.

Salt lakes in Jujuy, Argentina in January 2006

Jan 19, 2006

An Absence of Air and An Admission to Argentina

    I mentioned before that Potosi is high. In Denver, Colorado people gloat about their "Mile High" city, which is actually closer to sea level than it is to Potosi (which is at 4082m, or about 2½ miles up.) It's too high for trees or much water so it is a high altitude barren dessert. Gasping as we walked around this bustling city we puzzled what would inspire humans to build a city there.

    The answer is surprisingly easy. Under the rule of the Conquistadors an Indian farmer brought his "owner" a shiny rock that he had found. That rock turned out to be silver and when they looked a little more they discovered that Mt Potosi was made of the precious metal (not one penny of, incidentally, did it's discoverer ever get). It was the biggest find of silver in history and the Spanish were quick to take advantage. They used Indian slaves and some imported from Africa to pull wealth out of the earth and ship it back to Spain. Almost immediately, and for about a hundred years, the city they founded became one of the largest, and wealthiest, in the whole world. For many money came ridiculously easy. If they didn't have a mine of their own they just imported something on the long hard road up, charged an obscene price for it and got paid in freshly mined silver. Which, not coincidentally, made it the biggest and flashiest party center in the world for almost a century (at one time there were over 200 world famous prostitutes living there). Thats why the face of Bacchus (The roman God of wine and merrymaking) shows up all over town (thank you Alison, for the pic)

    But those who did the digging didn't have time to celebrate, between long hours of work and dying young. The conditions were, and are, terrible. Between black lung and mining accidents more than 8 Million have died since it's discovery (The Holocaust in WWII, for comparison, killed 6 Million people). The conditions then were hard, but they aren't too much better today. Today the mines are collectively owned by the miners and their pension goes to their relatives if they die young. Which is important, because even today statistically Potosi miners will probably die within ten years of stepping foot underground the for first time. This is a kind of heroism that they don't make Bruce Willis movies about. Imagine an 18 year old boy walking to work for the first time. He knows that he'll likely die before reaching thirty but he does it anyway because his family will get a small pension after he is gone.

    The next stop was Salar de Uyuni (The salt flats of Uyuni) one of the most psychedelic landscapes I've ever seen. The salt flats is a "lake" that extends for about 12,000 square kilometers only there is more salt than there is water. In the dry season you can stand ankle deep in pure white salt. In the summer (like it is now, here) there is just enough water to reflect the sky and surrounding mountains like a perfect mirror. Tyler, Andy, Io and I signed on to a 4 day jeep tour of the area which is where we met Hans Peter and Nick; two other adventurers in our jeep which. We visited a hotel made out of pure salt, cut from the ground in brick-like blocks and even visited an island in this sea of salt. Looking out from the island it looked like we were back on a Carribean but the ocean had frozen. We spent much of our time in the jeep, riding, but never really got bored. We were entertained by HPs Norwegian theories on how much people should work (as little as possible), American 70s music (driving through such a psychedelic place, listening to "YMCA" was more surreal than can be described) and a landscape quite unlike any other. On the second day they offered us Saltine crackers for a snack, but ironically... they weren´t salted. We all had a great time, but Io had a strange reaction to the hot and cold salty climate. She shrunk. A lot.
Tyler holding Io, our pocket sized friend
Io, our pocket-sized German.

    The salt sea was only the first day, and we spent another three traversing this exotic land. We saw geysers where the earth belched up thick clouds of sulfur and steam. We grinned as we saw white flamingos standing ankle deep in a brilliantly red lake. In some wild twist of erosion rocks were shaped like God was trying too see what gravity would let him get away with.

    Sadly, one morning we lost both Io and Nick. They both had flights to catch from Santiago, Chile and this tour took them close to the border so they hopped off at a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. The Latin American leg of Io's trip is finally over, but I don't feel too bad for her because the second part of her adventure has just begun. She is now in New Zealand, and plans to make it to Australia in time to see Andys triumphant return. We love you Io, and are looking forward to when you visit the MacAllen Bros!

    Unfortunately our time in Bolvia also quickly drew to a close. From Uyuni we took an all night train to Tupiza on the worst train ever invented (I believe it was designed by ergonomic engineers with the goal of making it an utterly miserable experience for those too cheap to pay for first class). We passed, on a sleepless cramped night, the little town where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were finally gunned down. Andy stuck around long enough to hike around Tupiza, but then got on a bus bound North. We hope to see our staff botanist again on this trip, but he's gotta check out Venezuela first.

    From there it was a hop skip and a jump to the border where Tyler and I both took a deep breath and got ready for another horrendous border battle. We bought tickets, careful to pay little attention when they tried to confuse us by talking about time in Argentina and Bolivia. We didn´t want to be distracted by details and focused on getting the right price before we walked across the border. We had a few hours before the bus so we did some internet, spent the last of our Bolivars, and strolled to the border. They rushed us through the process, with several people in the long line telling us to cut ahead of them and 20 other patiently waiting latinos. It was uncomfortable to cut ahead, as the preferential treatment likely came due to our light skin, but it is also uncomfortable to tell people you don´t want the favor they are offering.

    Having rushed through the border we casually walked up to the bus and arrived half an hour early. We checked in to see where the bus would arrive and the woman only shook her head and pointed at the clock above her. Argentinian time is an hour ahead. Despite the fact that everyone we encountered at this border town giving us every possible break we still missed our bus. Doh!

Onward to Argentina!

Jan 14, 2006

Dinosaurs and Dazzling Diversity of Delicious Diversions


    By the time Christmas was behind us, Tyler were far too much in love with Sucre to have any intention of leaving. Tyler and I have been feeling a little weary for months now, and hanging out in one place with friends was too good to rush away from. So, we spent a few days doing the gringo tourist thing, including visiting the largest and most diverse collection of preserved dinosaur tracks in the world. It was as action packed as anything from the Cretaceous Period, 65 Million years ago, that I've ever seen... we saw one big set of tracks overlapping a set of smaller tracks. And then, mysteriously, the smaller tracks dissappeared. Yum, somebody ate well!

    Speaking of eating well, in all my travels I've discovered a counter intuitive rule about life on the road. The food in the poorest countries is exquisite and the food in wealthy and more developed countries is simple, boring, and of poor quality. Ok, I suppose that isn't entirely fair. It might have something to do with the fact that I always am travelling on a tight budget. And when I go to a wealthy country like France, I subsist mostly on the cheapest food I can buy at a supermarket. And when I find myself in a country where each dollar stretches far, I find myself at upmarket restaurants that at home wouldn't let a fellow like me walk through the door. So while in France I ate almost nothing but bread and cheap cheese but in Bolvia we went to an unbelievably chic French restaurant in the heart of downtown to eat a feast for $3. Bolivia is a country rich in resources, but deperately poor in coastline and economic stability. This is hard on both the downtrodden people and my expanding waistline.

    The meals were fantastic, but the chocolate, Oh God, the Chocolate! Ironically, although Cocoa was found and still is mostly produced in Latin America most random local candybars you will get down here are waxy or with too much or too little sugar. It gets so bad that I've caught myself craving just a generic Hersheys bar which is no stranger to wax itself. But the chocolate in Sucre was a shining exception. On a single street downtown I counted three high end chocolate shops that each sold some of the best wares I've ever sampled. Our praise of the chocolate was so high, in fact, that Tyler and I were able to lure Io, the smiling German we met in Peru, to backtrack on her plans and meet us in the "Chocolate city" of Sucre. It was a joyful chocolate coated reunion.

    Despite keeping myself busy in Sucre sleeping in, strolling the pedestrian streets, lounging in the plaza reading as the days rolled into weeks I decided to add even more to my stressful schedule. I called my secretary, and had her clear my timee enough to volunteer at a nearby orphanage. A friend Paul, had been volunteering at a local Catholic run orphanage for about a month and invited me to join. We walked over to the nice, clean and large orphanage and said a hello to the nuns working. Before we met the kids we quietly wandered through the halls, noted some lovely views and thought about how pleasant the day was. We heard some kids so opened a door and then WOOOOSH! We were swamped by 22 five and under screaming giggling kids screaming "Pappi, Pappi!" ("Daddy, Daddy!"). We played games. They squealed demands to be picked up, spun around and carried which I did 'til too exhausted to raise my arms. Exhausted I collapsed onto the ground where they piled on me giggling, drooling, smiling and playing. Before long I realized that despite all their entreaties for games and elevation the most important thing they were craving was human contact. A hyper kid kicking and crying turned to a ball of warm smiling putty when I reached an arm out from under the mass of other kids and pulled him into a hug. Every time I went it was gratifying, satisfying and one of the most fun things I've ever done. Not to mention tiring, after three hours at a time I could barely sum up the energy to walk my knackered body home.

    In much of my travels to other places I've always felt grateful, and a little guilty, when my monolingual nature alters the flow of conversation. For example I'd walk over to a table of French, Belgian, and Swiss friends chatting away and say "uh, Hi." There would be a moment of hesitation where they paused mid-conversation and switched their brains from French mode into English. Living in Europe as a monolingual American you quickly become grateful that much of the world values languages as much as my country values big loud cars. So when Ben mentioned, "I have a French friend from work who is a really great guy and I'd like to invite him out with us... but he doesn´t speak english," we happily agreed. When we switched the conversation from english into struggling spanish as Antoine sat down at our table I finally got to start paying back some of the lingual generosity that so many Europeans have shown me over the years. Speaking with him has been one of those seminal moments that has made practicing another language worth it. I suppose it helped my good feelings when, on a epic climb through 7 waterfalls with Antoine (a mountain guide at home) he declared our team "Los Fabulousos Gringos" ("The fabulous Gringos," Hell Yeah!).

    Our time in Sucre came to a crescendo on New Years. Paul, who we'd invited to the Christmas dinner insisted on returning the favor by cooking up a feast for New Years eve at the hostel. He cooked the main dish, many of us made a side dish, and everyone brought alcohol. Halfway through dinner we were singing and throwing lemons at eachother and lost all track of time. Somehow, some timekeeping person rallied the troops fifteen minutes before 2006 arrived and got us out the door singing and wobbling towards the Plaza central. The clock struck, and we were howling hugging and dancing. Much of merrymaking population in Sucre was with us there and before we knew it we were hugging and getting offered drinks by a plethora of the normally reserved Bolivians. We heard a brass band strolling by and suddenly we were in the road, dancing our way up front of them through the streets hand in hand with locals and eachother.
    We awoke in the first morning of 2006 with heads throbbing but faces smiling. Not being satified, we see what more we could do to abuse our poor, poor bodies. The next day we decided to get really, really High...

Welcome to Potosi, the Highest city in the world

Jan 2, 2006

History of Holiday Hullabaloo and Happenings

    I hope the holidays went well for everyone. It's sometimes difficult to be away from friends and family this time of year so I wanted to send each and every one of you a gift through the mail. And I found the perfect present, something distinctly Latin American that nobody would already have and you would never forget. Unfortunately, cooler heads prevailed and Tyler vetoed my idea of sending you each your very own dried Llama fetus.

    Battling with a little travel weariness, Tyler and I decided over a month ago that we were going to make a point to make this Holiday season special. But that´s easier said than done than when homeless and friendless in an exotic country, but we felt up to the task. Tyler and I had met a scruffy englishmen named Ben way back when we were studying in Casa Rosario and he'd since moved to Bolivia to volunteer with a non-profit working on their food supply (amoung other things). So, shortly after Machu Pichu Tyler, Andy and I did our best imitations of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance kid and made a run for the Bolivian border. After one long night on the bus, we found ourselves in Copacabana on Lake Tittikaka, the highest navigable lake in the world.

Remember back in Guatemala, when I was dazzled
by Lago Atitlan, another mountain lake far lower and smaller than this

 Tyler and sipped some of a goddawful tasting cactus tea and spent the day climbing mountains and walking along the coast.

    I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn´t gasping for air because of some scary adverse reaction to the tea but for the (only slightly more comforting) reason that we were so high up there IS no air. The weather that day was ideal, Tyler discovered that he is a rock (ask him to explain) and I had an adventure myself. The only person who didn´t have so much fun was Andy who had been feeling under the weather since Cusco and spent the day in bed. The next day, we woke up and took an overnight bus to wake up in the chaotic city of La Paz.

    We only had that day to walk around that city, but from what we gathered the entire city seemed to be a market. Everyone seemed to be adamantly and strenuously selling anything and everything you can imagine, including the Llama fetuses above, on every square inch of sidewalk. I used to think that the people in New York City were the most pushy salesmen, but La Paz raises the bar to a whole new level. This is a city that convinced the whole world that the capital city of Bolivia is NOT Sucre, like it was established in the constitution, but La Paz (which annoys the folks from Sucre to no end). Until NYC has the president living in Manhattan instead of Washington DC I will consider them woefully outclassed.

    The next overnight bus took us to Cochabamba, ever closer to our Christmas in Sucre. As the holiday season went by I found I prefer the media culture down here to that at home in the US. There is much to love about the US in Christmas season, but the advertising for the consumer culture rachets up to a fever pitch starting the moment they take down Halloween decorations all the way through New Years.
    Here its more about family and friends because people don't have the same resources to consume as much so no one screams at them to Buy! Buy! Buy!. Well, I am embarassed to admit, almost no company here is that crass and materialistic. Coca-Cola has a long history of weilding the advertising savvy it learned in the media saturated US on populations that aren't accustomed to the barrage of ads that Americans see everyday. For example, while walking around Cochabamba we came across a huge "Christmas tree," in the center of town made out of 2L Coke bottles. Now I understand why, after watching people who can´t afford a meal drink soda by the liter, so many have so few teeth.

Micah getting molested by a monkey

    But Cochabamba was only a stopover, and we quickly hopped on another bus to Villa Tunari. That tiny, remote, town buried deep in the jungle that we thought we'd escape the election chaos in. That wasn´t the only reason however, the biggest one was to visit the Inta Warri Yassi animal refuge. They have a constantly changing cast of volunteers who work to take care of formerly captive, or injured monkeys, birds, and pumas. In much of the world there are some (arguably pretty reasonable) regulations about how much education and experience one needs to, say, take a fully grown puma for a walk. Here in Bolivia, however, you only need to arrive and say you are willing to volunteer for a month+. We, sadly, didn´t have enough time to do anything but visit for a day but even that felt like climbing into the monkey cage in a zoo. Within a minute of sitting down in their part of the park we had monkeys climbing all over us. We spent hours playing, tickling babies, and having our pockets thouroughly searched by nimble furry fingers.

    One day and one night bus later we finally arrived, with glee, to Sucre. Here we caught up with the legendary Ben Upchurch to show us around town. With a few days to prepare before Christmas we leapt into it. In addition to our "old" friends (Ben and Andy) we met a bunch of new friends at the hostel and invited them to celebrate with us at Bens apartment with us (poor bloke, he had no idea what he was in for). And then, to make this Bolivian Christmas one I'll be talking about for years, we went out and got ourselves a live somewhat bewildered turkey in a burlap bag. Thank God Ben had known what he was doing, and led as all through the process... from snapping its neck, to plucking, to gutting, to cooking.

One unhappy turkey (and the worst part of its day is to come!)Killing the turkeyPlucking the TurkeyOne plucked Turkey
Pulling out the innardsYum, looks like his last meal was corn!From bug eyed bird in a bag to dinner!Carving the turkey

    Although I eat meat when I'm travelling otherwise I've been a vegetarian for about 6 years now which made the turkey preparation a bit more difficult. Although it made me a bit woozy to see the turkey flop around and blink its eyes with it´s neck broken it somehow seems better to be a part of the whole process of killing, cooking, and eating.
    And so, two countries and countless adventures after we we decided to make Christmas special...

Christmas Dinner
...it was a Brilliant success!