Feb 22, 2006

Pondering Post from Past in a Pretty Plush Place

    Buenos Aires is Big. Thirteen million people, about a third of Argentinas population, make this city the most populus in all of South America. Generally I'm not a huge fan of enormous cities but I was excited about this one. Ever since we started way back in Guatemala northbound travelers that Tyler and I met put Buenos Aires in a different class than everywhere else they visited. They would say something like:
"Quito has great mountains, there are rockin' dance clubs in Lima, Cuzco has ancient ruins and friendly Peruvians..." they would tell us before getting a goofy grin and saying, "...and then there is Buenos Aires. Well, you know, it's Buenos Aires"
    Although they might share some comments about huge streets and nice parks it was always a mystery what almost universally makes everyone who steps foot into the city want to stay for good. That's why, when Tyler and I had to book a flight home we thought this city might making a fitting finale for our epic adventure. That made sitting on the long bus ride from Mendoza a bus with Patricia curled in my arms a bittersweet moment. I was sad because the end of this long trip was rapidly approaching. But I was simultaneously excited to go to a legendary city with a lovely guide who has lived most of her life in the center of it all.

    This location, well situated on a river near the ocean, has had an irresistable allure for its entire history. It was first founded in 1536 but the natives weren't going to give it up without a fight so they kept the Spanish away for nearly 50 years. Eventually the Spanish rebuilt it, and mandated that almost all the trade from most of South America had to pass through its ports. The city thrived on this monopoly but the wealth attracted pirates and the English Navy (often one and the same) like moths to a flame. The Portugese built the city of Colonia across the river to facilitate raids and blackmarket trading and continually fought Spain for control. Eventually, when Argentina declared independence in 1816 it encouraged immigration to fill in its wide open landscapes but the massive immigration didn't go quite as planed. Many of those arriving fell so in love with the city they started in, Buenos Aires, that they never left. So the Italians, Jews, Koreans, Germans etc. collected in certain neighborhoods giving each a feel that was a combination of their old home and the new. The history of this special city had a profound effect in a couple ways.

    Although there are still plenty of people immigrating today time has blended all the disparate groups into proud porteños (people from BA). Walking the streets here, and much of Argentina, one is just as likely to see a blond Argentinian as someone with native heritage. Although many of the immigrants original cultural roots have long morphed into something new every neighborhood still retains a distinctive feel. Its many different faces is one of the many powerful allures of modern Buenos Aires. We could wake up in the morning and get a coffee in the bustling urban neighborhood of Congresso (much like Manhattan), spend the morning checking out street art in the working class but brilliantly colored Bocas, have lunch in the high cost and fancy area around Recoleta, have dinner near the Palermo zoos and gardens, and finally finish off the night dancing in the worlds center of Tango in San Telmo which looks and feels like an American movie from the 1920s. And that day only began to sample some of the faces of BA, every day there are even more places to taste.

    And a student of history trying to understand this cities mystique can't ignore one other consideration: wealth. For over four hundred years the trade, power, and population of one of the continents largest and most affluent countries (at times, it was of the most prosperous in the world) has been overwhelmingly concentrated in one Metropolis. These centuries of opulence have an effect on everyday life today. Everywhere in the world occasionally someone comes up with the idea to build something cool, start a festival tradition, make up a new dance, or coin a new word. And a people might immediately embrace it but often just wait until the person dies to do away with what they've tried to start. But some things, ideally the best things, slowly accrue as decades roll into centuries when great men and women take the time to invest their inspiration. And Buenos Aires has had the inspiration, the capacity and people for quite some time. Walking around I saw striking and grand buildings from nearly every architectural style since the 1600s. It rivals Rome in its numbers of public statues, fountains and feral city cats. The deep rooted culture extends far beyond its distinctive accent to include things like a subculture of Tangueros (people who dance, and live, Tango ) with their own words, attitude and lifestyle. It has urbane folks who regularly go to the opera as well parks where every weekend young people gather to practice circus skills (I saw a woman hang a trapeze off a tree in a crowded city park!). The city is very rich in every sense of the word.

    It doesn't have the same reputation for Carnival that Rio, Brazil does but Andy and Tyler caught up with us again in time to find out that porteños still love to party (and hose down innocents with shaving cream). When Andy found me it was the fifth time I got to meet up with our favorite Australian on this trip. And then with only three days to go before our flight home Tyler finally showed up in Buenos Aires. I wasn't looking forward to telling our parents how I lost my little brother somewhere below the equator so I was relieved to see him. He did well on his solo journey; Tyler accomplished what we both vaguely set out to do. He got some spectacular pictures and stories from his trek through Chile to and around Ushuaia (the southernmost city in the world.)

    The better life is the faster time flies by. Before I knew it, the last full day of this long journey was upon us and Tyler and I were both feeling reflective. About two months ago we were so weary that although we were happy we had more travel ahead we started looking forward to going home. But by the time our departure finally came neither of us were ready to leave, our weariness had long since evaporated and I would have leapt at the opportunity to do it all over again. After such a long and incredible journey it is hard to remember what kind of life we left and what I was thinking when we set out. And then, by yet another outrageous coincidence, I got an email that told me exactly that.

It was precisely one year ago when our crazy idea for some sort of trip stopped being a fantasy. I had just given my friend (who was also my boss) two month notice, asked my housemates to start looking for a replacement and stared down the barrel of the unknown. I was excited. And scared. I called Tyler and sipped a beer while we tried to imagine what we were in for. We had very few specific plans outside of a one-way flight to Guatemala. We had some vague ideas about going to the southern tip of South America but we didn't know where we'd go, how long, nor where it'd end up. Although I didn't remember it until now, after hanging up I apparently decided to write to my future self. FutureMe.org is a free website that you use to write an email and specify when you want it sent to your email address; sort of digital time capsule. I sat down and wrote a message for exactly one year from then. I had no idea where I'd be when I recieved it and find it it an amazing coincidence that on the very last day of the trip I got this:
From: Micah -exactly one year ago-
To: Micah -today-
Date: Feb 21, 2006
Subject: Message from your past

    Greetings Micah. So, I'm awake, a wee bit drunk, and curious who the hades you are. I'm sitting in a nice room in Northampton, Mass. with a house full of great people that are both housemates and friends. I've got a girlfriend, Elizabeth, who I'm in the early giddy stages of falling in love with and a job I don't love... but certainly don't hate. I've got really good friends, I'm living in a wonderful, practically utopian place but my wanderlust is raging.
    I don't really understand why, but I'm anxiously planning on quitting my job, abandoning my life by living in South America for a few months and then moving to Colorado with Tyler. I'm craving the change, the escape, the freshness of a new place... but I'm worried I may be making a big mistake.
    I'm wondering if you, in retrospect, will be looking back to now as the best time in your life. And if you shake your head in disbelief that I gave it all up to, well, become you. I guess the thing that gives me a measure of courage is confidence in myself, in you. I feel like if your life isn't giving you what you want you will pack up and roll the dice again with another move. If the life I end up choosing isn't, in the end, satisfying, you'll find it within yourself to fix things. I don't know if it'll always work. I don't even know that it'll work for me now,
    I guess, on the balance, I just don't know. And so I don't know what to do. But I'm pretty sure I'm going to throw lifes dice once again to see what happens. And I hope you not only forgive me but thank me. But only time (and you) will tell if that really happens.

    It's not often one asks oneself for either forgiveness or appreciation so I'll answer.
    Micah, you didn't have the foggiest idea what you were in for. It was crazy to gamble so much that you loved on the throw of metaphysical dice. As much as you knew you were going into the unknown, you were confident that you knew yourself. And that this knowledge would be a constant that would carry you through the trip and beyond. But somewhere along this trip you lost even that. I am not the same person that left for this incredible trip. It is said that "You can't find yourself until you lose yourself." You did the losing and I'm happy to say I that did the finding.
    This trip was a huge gamble. And you, you lucky bastard, won. And although I honestly don't know where our life will take me I found more than either of us could have imagined in Latin America. And for this incredible gift, Thank You!
PS Estudias tus Castellano!
Flowers and a Rock
The adventure, and this blog, aren't over!
If Living Deliberately is worth anything as a life philosophy it must apply to the world of alarm clocks and bills as well as that of mangos and the constellation of the Southern Cross.
I intend to find out and will share more stories and pictures along the way.
So keep coming back to read about the next chapter in the adventures of the Brothers MacAllen

Feb 17, 2006

An Abrupt Absence of Andes

    I feel at home in the mountains. Even when they are exotic and in the opposite hemisphere to those I learned to love as a child. That probably has something to do with why I've spent over 3 months of this trip in the Andes. We entered the Andes as we roared out of Colombia into Ecuador and kept our altitude high throughout most of that country, Peru, Bolivia, and even into Argentina. I've been reluctant to leave the thin air, but as our flight out is from the sea level its due to happen sooner or later. Fortunately we found a spectacular way to leave the mountains behind. Pato, a British friend Tom, and I abandoned the buses and rode bicycles the last 50Km out of the mountains. Quebrada de Cafayate is a national park we passed through on our way to Cafayate. We rented bikes, and hopped off the bus at the top of the park and zipped through the (mostly downhill) fifty kilometers of a surreal landscape.

    Cafayate itself is a city where the Andes shrink from mountains to hills to a deep flat valley. The valley itself has a hot and dry, climate ideally suited to growing grapes so its major industry is wine. It is said (by locals) that Mendoza is known for making most of Argentinas wine but that Cafayate makes the best wine. Not to be remiss in my responsibilities I sampled the wares. A lot of wares. We went from vineyard to vineyard getting tours of the vineyards, the process the little bar in the end where they gave us free samples. Being all very respectable they provided places to spit it out after tasting it so one doesn't get intoxicated. Have no fear, my dear reader, I most certainly did not spit.

    It wasn't all bike riding and wine, there was music and dancing too! Pato, it turns out, is a big fan of traditional music. So, while travelling together we inevitably end up at places called peñas. It's somewhere between a folk concert, and dinner at a nice restaurant with a dash of dance club thrown in if the mood is right. While eating dinner a succession of groups playing traditional ballads come on to perform with music, stories, and sometimes professional dancers. It's a lot of fun and as the night winds on often the crowd joins in the festivities and hops on the dance floor for some bailando!

    Interest in slow traditional music is by no means limited to older people in Argentina. I was repeatedly surprised to be at peñas where, at 28, I was older than average. Hippies and partiers who looked like they should be going to a techno dance party sat smiling listening slow ancient ballads. Knowing that, its little surprise that Los Divideros Divididos, one of the top rock bands in Argentina blends traditional lyrics and melodies into their hard driving sound. An it's no further surprise that upon hearing the Divideros were giving a free concert in a tiny town called Amaicha del Valle nearby that we hightailed there. It was a GREAT show.

    Slowed only slightly we continued our quest for wine across the wide plains on our way to Mendoza. Argentina, much like the US, is blessed with huge wide open grasslands. Perhaps not as visually stunning as mountains the plains, known here as Pampas, are invaluable for growing food. The Pampas are how Argentina became legendary for beef, feeds itself and exports food, and even produced it's own brand of cowboy. And Argentinian cowboy, called a Gaucho, roamed the Pampas on horseback weilding bolas (weights attached to a rope, thrown to tangle the feet of their target) where American cowboys used lassos. Both cowboys and Gauchos play a cherished role in their respective countries both as what little boys aspire to be and how the country sees itself. Both are legendary for their personal independence, courage, skills on horseback, hard living, and sad romantic songs. It's a reputation well earned by some and abused by others.

Lucas, the Gaucho

    It is often said that those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it but that's only half the story. Some who know go to great lengths to repeat it. George Bush Jr. has a degree in history so it's likely he knows the story of Juan Manuel de Rosas ; a man who had a similar trajectory to power 170 years ago as he has now.
In the 1820s Argentina struggled to find balance between its strong central government based out of Buenos Aires, and the desire of the more scattered rural people to have a more decentralized system sharing power throughout the country. Rosas carefully cultivated his image as a Gaucho so as he clawed his way into government he was a hero those who wanted the Big Mean Government to have less power in their lives. They trusted that because of his image he'd fight hard to maintain their indepedence. By 1829 Rosas worked his way into absolute power but proved to be a very different kind of leader. He consolidated power in his own type of Central government, one ruled by him exclusively for 23 years. He formed a brutal secret police, hung the corpses of his dissenters in the Central Plaza and put only friends in positions of power. He used fear, war, and the church (his picture was hung in churches all over) to hold onto power for decades until he was defeated and exiled from the country. There was plenty of dissent but a sizable portion of the population never lost faith in him because they trusted he was a Gaucho and never bothered to look beyond his words to his actions. I find it a curious coincidence that a man born in a mansion in Connecticut worked hard to build an image as a Texan cowboy on his ascent to power. And that he too preached the evils of Big Government before he expanded both the size and power of the centralized government. But a cowboy wouldn't ever do that, would they?

I love tree lined pedestrian avenues!

    Mendoza is, without a doubt, one of the most livable cities I've had the pleasure to encounter. It is full of vast tree lined avenues with sidewalks 10meters (30ft) across. Its a city designed around the idea of strolling down the sidewalk, stopping for a coffee at an outdoor cafe, before winding your way to the Museo de Arte Moderno. The city was lovely, the wine delicious and the weather was great. It made it difficult to leave, on a long overnight bus, to the final destination of this long strange trip... the legendary Buenos Aires.


Feb 10, 2006

Gleeful Gringo Gap

    "The Gringo Trail" is a phrase South American travellers use often. It refers to the long chain of cities and destinations that North American and European travellers tend to visit. Even though we all fancy ourselves to be rugged individuals ultimately we're a big group of individuals often visiting the same places so we often run into eachother, over and over, along the way. When we met long term travellers in Central America one of the first questions asked is "are you going North or South?" Tyler and I were headed south, so when we met someone going north we grilled them with questions about where we should go next because they probably had similar interests. When we met someone also going south, we almost always knew we had previously visited some of the same cities, the same places in the same order. Furthermore, when it came time to say goodbye we'd do so with a smirk, knowing that we might run into eachother again along the way. The gringo trail isn't as straightforward in South America, now that east and west are options, but it exists nonetheless. Almost anyone who goes to Peru goes to Lima, Cuzco and Machu-Pichu and if they made the trek into Bolivia we might see them again at Lake Titicaca or Salar de Uyuni. The trail is exciting because it is determined by the cool destinations but Tyler and I discovered, several times, that sometimes things are even better off the trail.

    It's easy, while on the trail, to forget that the majority of the country your visiting is different. Off the trail it's hard to find English speakers, organized trips and familiar food. I've been thinking this a lot recently because I've been well off of it for about a month now. Travelling with a trio of Argentinian girls has been an entirely different experience than anything else I've done on this trip. Coupling that with the fact that Argentina is itself, in many way, exceptional has lead to a feeling that this is a different trip than the one I was on before.

Argentinian Travellers, waiting for a bus

    Some things are similar; there are a lot of shaggy travellers with a wanderlust. More so than any other Latin American nationalities young Argentinians, it turns out, love to move. Everywhere I looked while wandering around Jujuy I see scores of new Che Gueveras on his youthful journeys. But it's not only men, in about equal measure I constantly see groups of 2-5 (lovely!) girlfriends seeing the world together. I can't imagine what I did to be this lucky, perhaps I cured a major disease in a former life, but I got to travel in one of these groups with Pato and two other Porteñas (women from Buenas Aires) all over Jujuy.

    The small provence of Jujuy is not on the Gringo trail, it barely recieves three pages in our travel guidebook but having been there I have no idea why not. It's on the top of Argentina, where the high Andes of Bolivia plow into Argentina before dramatically plunging down into the lower plains. In one small area we found 4 very different climates. One day we were in the tiny low elevation town of San Francisco, pushing our way through thick rainforest jungle while on an Indiana Jones-esque adventure. And then the next day, and a few hours on a bus later, we saw the much more arid town of Pulmamarca. In addition to seeing traditional dances on the center square we saw entire mountains painted with such impossible colors its hard to concieve. From there, an hour on a bus took us to high altitude lakes of salt. We visited countless small towns, a medium sized city, and constantly drank in mountain geology unlike anything I've ever seen. This region is mostly undiscovered by Gringos like myself but is far from undiscovered. The low cost of living, plethora of unique cultures and spectacular scenery draws Argentinian travellers like moths to a flame.

It's been a well needed, but nonetheless difficult, workout for my Spanish. Not only has my meager vocabulary been pushed beyond its limits, but just to complicate my life Argentina has a much faster and much different accent. For example, instead of pronouncing "-y-" and "-ll-" with a y sound, like everyone else, the Argentinians use a sh sound. So words I've long been comfortable with, like "Yo" (I), are suddenly hard to recognize in a conversation. But I'm getting it, slowly but surely, and despite triggering much laughter along the way patient folks along the way have coached me along. I've found it to be better than any spanish class to sip maté and try to stay engaged in a conversation. Partly, because the topics are more interesting and fun. But mostly because I'm quickly becoming hooked on maté!

    Maté is a decidely Argentinian and Uruguayan tradition. It's a kind of tea, called Yerba, that you fill a special cup with. After adding about a quarter cup of near boiling water to the mix, you sip it with a special straw that filters out the tea (Sampa, the guy on the left in the picture to the left, is drinking maté). After sipping it all, the Maté gets refilled and passed to the next person in the circle (or the closest stranger, as this is a tradition that makes friends with everyone in Argentina). Every group of Argentinian travellers always has at least one steel thermos of hot water with them so they can be prepared for maté on a moments notice. Maté itself has a strong bitter, taste (although some add sugar) and has a reviving affect not unlike coffee. I like the taste, and the effect, but I really love the tradition. It's a great excuse to sit in a park with friend and talk while the cup goes around. But, its nearly as easy to sit in a park alone and offer a cup to a stranger as an excuse to start a conversation.

    Conversations with newfound friends have been great and I've finally begun to think in Spanish enough to not be constantly translating in my head. I've been a little more engaged in the culture I'm in and learning a lot more. Particularly, not surprisingly, learning a lot more about Patricia. The day we met in Granada was great, but over the last month I keep shaking my head in disbelief that there was so much I didn't know about her. Now she is finishing up her studies of Psychoanalysis, focused on working with kids, but has a history more varied than my own. She has worked as a waitress, studied theater and spent years working as a circus performer. She was an only child to older parents in a country with a long and troubled history and grew up (and still lives) in one of the worlds most vibrant cities. But despite the differences in histories we've found a lot in common an urge to stand apart from groups and an itch to see more of the world. Somehow, when I met her in Granada, I had the impression she was a lovely and fun but mostly superficial person. I was still looking forward to re-meeting her but when I did I was shocked to find myself in great conversations about literature and life philosophies. It's funny how four years, several thousand miles and a lot more time together can change things.

    Another misconception was what I was in for. I was expecting to stick around the small state of Jujuy until we meandered back to Buenas Aires together. I should've realized that I was with another traveler and that she has a bigger appetite to see this country than I. So, after we saw her friends off, we kept moving. But now, having discovered a mutual interest in red wine we were on a mission. Argentina is world famous for it's vineyards and if we take a few long bus trips....
Tom, a very happy boy