Run the equator: August 2007

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Africa, Africa!

Women singing on the Waterfront
in Cape Town

From the moment our 747 landed at the O.R. Tambo international airport in Johannesburg I knew that we were about to begin a new adventure. Colors, smells, landscapes, sounds, people and life in general, all was different from the manifestations of the continent we had left just a few hours earlier. Do you remember that feeling that comes over you when you arrive in a place you have never seen before, even if it’s just a few hours away from home? Do you recall that avalanche of sensations of all kinds whose only common feature is that they are all different and unfamiliar? One tries to absorb and process all that input, and in a few days it all becomes just normal and loses intensity, but the first day is always unforgettable.

I have already written about our days in Pretoria and our visa troubles. It turned out in the end, that the troubles weren’t as big as I had thought they could be – except for Zimbabwe - which we will not be visiting - getting all the other visas was just a breeze. Or course, we had to pay for them, sometimes up to $75; it surely doesn’t come out cheap to visit those wildlife reserves if you’re a gringo! How do they call gringos in Africa?

South Africa is a beautiful but uneasy place to travel to. You cannot avoid asking yourself the troubled and complex social questions that come naturally with this place, like a permanent and ominous cloud. What has changed since apartheid has fallen? Can whites and blacks reconcile and build up a future together? How can a white man live in this country without an overwhelming sense of guilt for the crimes of the past? How can a new national identity be built? How can prosperity be brought to the overwhelmingly poor black majority? Can something be done about the AIDS crisis and why is the government sticking their head in the sand? And my favorite: is Johannesburg really that dangerous?

As a traveler with an open eye I couldn’t help noticing the peculiar details. The streets we walked or driven on, whether they were in the suburbs in Pretoria or in downtown Johannesburg or anywhere in or around Cape Town, all looked spotless; there was not an ounce of garbage in sight. Although the situation in the townships may be different, street cleanliness in and around cities is an indication of strong civic sense, which in turn is a solid foundation for nation building.

Race issues are big in South Africa and it should be so, until all things about skin color have been discussed over and over, until everything was understood, and the words have been turned around so many times that they have become meaningless. While apartheid has ended and the majority has finally gained freedom, there hasn’t been a redistribution of wealth to accompany it. I think there shouldn’t be one at all – any form of reparation for immaterial injustices like the deprivation of freedom should consist in programs to create jobs and infrastructure, and to improve education and health systems. Anything remotely punitive would lead to a disaster - just look at neighboring Zimbabwe and what the redistribution of land owned by white farmers has brought them…

The economic differences still prevail and match the previous social differences. You cannot help notice that the majority of shop or restaurant owners and managers are white and that most of the occupants of the vehicles you see on the street are white as well. At all the mid-range restaurants we have dined, most of the clientele were white – they may have been mostly tourists, I don’t know. There is certainly an emerging black middle class but it will take a while until things change noticeably. If anything, there are big hopes for the future and the whole country seems to be going through a construction frenzy – new shopping malls, houses and apartment buildings are growing out of the dirt every day…

Why is crime so wide-spread in South Africa? Nothing happened to us (yet - knock on wood!) but everybody tells us that things are really bad. While we were in Cape Town the newspapers were full of articles about the resurgence of muggings against hikers on Table Mountain. The answer is obvious, crushing poverty and the lack of education are pushing destitute young men from the townships to crime. But is anything done to stop this? If you listened to South Africans' opinions about their government, you’d think there isn’t. Indeed, they have their troubles and creating jobs and schools is not easy and doesn’t happen overnight. But as a tourist, you can’t help noticing the almost complete lack of police on the streets. I have hardly seen a uniformed man or a patrol vehicle since I arrived here. Just drive for a few minutes in any town in the United States and count the police cruisers you cross… South America had police officers everywhere, some of them heavily armed; South Africa seems to lag far behind in the “Law & Order” chapter.

How long will it take until things will have visibly improved? Many years, I think; there have been only 15 since apartheid's end. To compare, Romania’s anti-communist revolution has been 18 years ago and the old mentalities are still alive and well. I have faith in human nature, but it takes an awfully long time to change…

I started to write a post about the beauty of Cape Town and the southern wine country and look what I came up with...

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Latin America and you

It’s hard to part with a place that has become my home away from home for more than three months, but since I have already left it and I won’t be going back for a while, I think that part of the world deserves a few more words to sum up the time I spent there.

My trip to Latin America has made me see how little I know about other places. Whether I have read something in a book about Peru or seen a TV documentary about Bolivia, nothing prepared me for the actual experience. When you get onto an overcrowded “chicken bus” full of old ladies dressed in semi-traditional, semi-modern clothes, with deeply wrinkled sun-burned faces, carrying huge loads of god-knows-what and snotty children who look at you as if you were an alien from outer space, you may realize that although you and them are both humans, and as such, prone to the same feelings and reasoning, subtle cultural differences have pushed your worlds apart in a way that you are just beginning to grasp. From food and language to the understanding of time and personal space, from family relationships to the outlook on life, from money to economy and democracy, everything is just different enough to get you, the western traveler, to ask yourself a simple question: why?

I asked myself this question many times and I can’t say I always found answers. But at least I hope I have not gone through this trip across so many countries without learning some things. To begin with, there’s that quality that everybody has to develop in order to enjoy backpacking in foreign lands: an open, alert eye to see and absorb the unusual life scenes that unfold all around and to notice both the big picture and the details. But beyond that ineffable personal characteristic, there’s a host of practical learning that I’d be happy to share…

  • Learn the language – even if it’s just a few words to use at a restaurant in order to understand the menu or ask for the restrooms, speaking Spanish (or Portuguese if Brazil is your destination) will make a difference. It’s not that difficult. Since language is the first and most difficult cultural barrier between people, every little effort made in order to overcome a communication problem is like a friendly handshake. It’s a step toward a better, less frustrating trip for you and, why not, toward a better world.
  • Patience is the key – some tourists from “clockwork countries”, where most things related to business and facilities work as generally expected, would think that just because they paid their share, everything has to go exactly as they expect. It's not a wrong wish, but it will not work very well in Latin America. Buses are late and some roads are bad. People are late. Things break down often. Some things just won’t work today; you have to try again tomorrow… Businesses close and open unpredictably during siesta hours. Clerks in various offices, state-owned or private will take an insanely long time to solve a trivial task. Or they may completely ignore you while they talk with their friend who isn’t there to request a service, and just wants to have a chat instead. Most times the phrase “get me the manager” will get you a blank stare and a lie. Demanding that things be done now “or else”, American style, will just be met by the same incoherent explanations, embarrassed smiles and will antagonize people with little success. The solution? Explain (difficult, without knowing the language), talk, ask, smile, explain again using a different approach, explore the alternatives, keep calm and somehow, most difficult situations almost magically resolve themselves.
  • People will lie to you – they may do it on purpose or they may just withhold information they think is irrelevant to you. Asking many questions is the key. Again, it helps if you know the language, but English will work to some extent when dealing with hotels, restaurants and tour agencies. After a few interesting experiences we’ve come to mistrust any hostel when it came to the availability of hot water. We even used to turn the tap on and wait for the hot water to flow before getting the room. And sometimes it helps asking if there's any water at all.
  • It’s usually a safe place – although muggings and thefts will always happen in places where foreign travelers go, Latin America seems to take tourist protection seriously. In areas popular with the gringos there were policemen everywhere and most countries' police forces now have units that are dedicated to the protection of tourists. To us they were very helpful in Peru when $200 out of our money got stolen from the safe deposit box. Nowhere during my trip did I have the feeling that walking around with a huge SLR camera around my neck made me a target – although I didn’t provoke fate by walking around in shady areas or at night. I had my Leatherman and a pair of old sunglasses stolen from my backpack somewhere in Guatemala and I went through a theft attempt in Buenos Aires, but beyond this we were more afraid of germs and contaminated water than of thieves.
  • Get used with the other tourists – if you’re like me, there’s nothing more annoying than sight of a crowd of boisterous 21-year-olds Nordic-European-looking Americans on the streets of “my” South-American town... But they chose to visit that place the same way I did, so I don’t have more of a right to be there than they do. You have to either get used to the thought that you’re a gringo among many or get off the beaten trail and explore some remote corners. I know for sure that if I ever go back to Peru – which I’d love to do – I’ll surely try to stay away from Cuzco.
  • There’s a high chance that you will get sick – the longer you travel, the higher the chance. A healthy dose of paranoia is always needed when dealing with water-borne parasites, so don’t let your guard down and always purify the water or buy it at the store. Be especially wary of tea and coffee served in high-altitude places – the water needs to boil longer to kill all the germs and many times that doesn’t happen. But often you won’t have much of a choice, especially if you go on a hiking tour like the Inca trail. Then who gets sick is mostly a lottery, but nothing that Flagyl won’t fix…
  • Everything is negotiable – well, almost. Give it a try and in many cases prices will go down as you’re about to leave, or discounts not mentioned previously will suddenly become available. You shouldn’t try to squeeze the last penny from them, but you equally shouldn’t feel that you must pay what they ask just because the initial price was lower than what you would have paid back home anyway.
  • Learn some history – even if it’s just the condensed facts from the first chapter of your Lonely Planet guide, it will give you some context before you land in a place where great men unknown to you have given their names to streets and town squares.
  • Don’t be more local than the locals – that’s my ranting against “Andean pants” – a type of llama-wool pants with vertical stripes of all colors that can be bought in many markets in South America. They may be the traditional men’s garb in the Andean regions, but I have never seen a local wearing them in Ecuador, Peru or Bolivia. The tourists however… all the time. They really don’t look good with your Columbia Sportswear gore-tex jacket…
  • Money matters – although the dollar is still king in Latin America, we have used US cash in very few places (except for Ecuador which runs its economy in US dollars). Nowadays you can hardly find a town that’s worth visiting, without an ATM. And if you still have local money when crossing a border, there’s no problem exchanging the currency of the previous country with that of the next one. You can forget about traveler’s checks, they are a dying breed, and will usually get you a rate worse than cash or ATMs. We still have most of ours with us, and the ones we exchanged we did so only because we wanted to see if anyone takes them.
  • You can’t control the strikes – if the miners decide to block the roads you can’t do anything about it. Wait where you are or risk the bus or train trip and see what happens. If you are flexible, don’t mind staying in a place more than you planned, and can deal with taking the occasional 8-hour detour, the trip will still be a success. You’ll be able to say back home that you got stuck on the Altiplano because the miners didn't allow you to leave…
  • You can’t control the weather – everybody knows that, but in most Latin America you are in a weather conundrum: from tropic to tropic there are mostly two seasons: the wet one and the dry one. The wet season is not wet all the time but it may make for a really difficult experience if you plan to visit remote areas or do some hiking. And the mosquitoes are merciless. The dry season on the other hand is much better, but at high altitudes in Central America or the Andes, where most tourists go, it makes for very, very cold nights.
  • Everything is going to be ready in 10 minutes – seriously!

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Time to change continents

Latin America was beginning to feel too much like home after three-and-a-half months of asking "donde esta el bano" and saying "gracias" a thousand times a day. When things that were once so different, so new, start looking so familiar and cozy it is clearly time to leave, time to move on. At least that's true when it comes to traveling...

We're in Cape Town now, after a few days spent in Pretoria and a quick drive to Johannesburg. Having a rental car makes getting around much easier. We'll spend some time in and around Cape Town and then we'll head east to the Garden Route - a beautiful stretch of coast in the Western Cape province - before heading back to Cape Town on a different road, to start our overland tour going northwards.

One main reason for spending time in Pretoria was to apply for visas for those other African countries we will be visiting. Tanzania and Kenya formalities went smooth as ice, with a turnaround of one day each. Since we had the car, we were able to pick up the Tanzania visas and apply for Kenya the same morning. While for those two countries both of us needed visas, for the rest of them it was only I that had to get in line and beg. Malawi went surprisingly smooth - on the phone they told us it would take three days to issue the document, but when I got there they told me to return and pick it up the next day. Malawi was the friendliest consulate so far and the most pleasant surprise - apart from the fact that we drove to the wrong address in downtown Johannesburg, where the consulate had been before moving to the suburbs (I had forgotten to check before leaving), and then had to get directions to the new location over the phone and argue among ourselves over how to get there...

However, I hit a wall with Zimbabwe - the Johannesburg consulate told us they were not expediting visa applications anymore, not even with the extra fee, and that the process will take a minimum of a week, whereby the passport will be sent to Zimbabwe and back. Hell! visa or not, my passport wasn't going to go to Harare without me, by rail, road, air or any other way. We decided therefore to forgo Zimbabwe altogether and cross directly into Zambia instead (no visas needed for all bona-fide tourists), where we will reunite with the tour three days later. The tour company agreed and will provide transportation from the border to Livingstone, by one of their preferred vendors. Only Botswana and Namibia are left now, and I will apply for the former tomorrow.

I don't have any pictures of Pretoria. When everybody - locals, tourists and travel guides alike - tells you that the crime rate in South Africa is appallingly high you start believing them. Although we never felt unsafe during our time there, I just didn't feel comfortable flashing a big and obviously expensive Canon SLR camera on the streets. Besides... there's really nothing to photograph in Pretoria. Now that I'm in Cape Town, the tourism capital of South Africa, I started to pull out the camera more often, but I still don't feel as much at ease as I was in South America.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

A last word about Buenos Aires

The Cabildo in Plaza de Mayo.
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the set

A two-week stay in a city should give anybody a pretty good picture of what that city is. Although the tourist perspective of things can never equate the experience of living long term in a place, it can lead to some good guesses. Moreover, this perspective can be brought closer to the "real thing" by renting an apartment instead of staying at a hotel. Insofar, I guess our experience is close to what Argentines may do if they took some vacation days but were too lazy to travel anywhere: wake up late, have coffee and "medialunas" (delicious mini-croissants), wander the streets, do some unplanned shopping, go to the park, tell yourself you'll be going soon to that museum you always wanted to see (but procrastinate again), have lunch in a busy cafe, waste the afternoon on the Internet and have a gigantic steak with a bottle of wine for dinner... I'm not sure if they would take pictures of their own city though...

My steak!

Buenos Aires is not so much a city to visit, but one to live in. Except for a small section of the cabildo (the Spanish-era city hall) there is almost no colonial architecture left; the museums are of local interest; the streets have a very uniform look with their ranges of 10- to 15-story-high residential buildings with shops and restaurants on the ground floor. But Buenos Aires has that unmistakable feel of a place who lives and breathes and changes, comes over you and conquers you. It looks "Eurpean" some say, and it definitely doesn't look like any other city we've seen on this continent. If you're looking for an "authentic" South American experience, with colonial history and indigenous culture this is not your place. Is it good? Is it bad? The answer would depend on who you ask...

Lunch and entertainment in Palermo

Buenos Aires is safe for walking, even at night and even while parading a big SLR camera around your neck (by that I mean - using common sense; I didn't try my chances in the rough spots) although I got through a - luckily unsuccessful robbery attempt; transport is cheap and easily available, and the food is delicious - a two-week steak diet hasn't hurt anybody yet. For us Buenos Aires was just what we needed after the Andean and indigenous experience, after all that trekking and having to throw the used toilet paper in the bin instead of flushing it... no more llamas please, give me elephants instead!

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Africa news agency reports...

... that the travelrats have landed in South Africa!

Yes, we are in Pretoria and if you ask me, it's quite nice... Actually, it resembles suburban America quite a lot. And even the food in restaurants feels a little like home: burgers, ribs, chicken skewers, huge breakfast portions...

But, hey, for the next three weeks we have a cell phone! And a car! Oh my!

So, just to check if we have any friends left back home, here's our number:
+27 (0)76 541 1756.
27 is the country code. I really dn't know if you have to dial the 0 or not. It's free for me and an international call for you.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

The Books and the Road

Before starting this trip I thought that once I wouldn't have a job and the many social engagements associated to urban life I would indeed have more time for that all-too-neglected activity which I love: reading. It wasn't meant to be this way; work and all its problems that take most of our time during the day have been replaced with other activities, equally time-consuming: moving from place to place, seeing things worth seeing, looking for hotel rooms, browsing for good deals at markets, sorting and uploading pictures, blogging and so on. Honestly, I haven't read more than I would have if I had stayed home.

Here's the list, and I'll be keeping it updated as I move from volume to volume across continents.

  • Mario Puzo - I folli muoiono (in Italian). I had this book for a while but never got to read it. I started it shortly before leaving as part of my lecture plan that every now and then includes books in all the secondary languages I know, just so I don't forget them. A passable story with not much substance or convincing drama, but easy to read, even translated in Italian. The book was a hardback monster in larger format, so I was more than happy to abandon it once finished at the Rio-Bec Dreams jungle lodge in Mexico. I was so sick of carrying it around that I didn't even want to keep it with me until I could trade it for something else...
  • Spanish in 10 minutes a day. Ok, you may not want to call this a real book but I read it from cover to cover, I even filled in the blanks. It's a very-very beginner level self-study Spanish course, and was a useful introduction to the language.
  • Richard I'Anson - Travel photography. A few basic notions of photography, didn't get very deep, but it had nice pictures and taught me enough about aperture, shutter speed, depth of field, exposure and framing to get me started.
  • P.J. Woodehouse - Very good, Jeeves. A spirited dose of British humor at its best, this book is about one of those Victorian gentlemen who seemed to go merrily through life doing... nothing, and about his talented "gentleman's personal gentleman" who could fix any problem and get his master out of trouble, no matter how embarrassing the situation.
  • Fred Vargas - Coule la Seine (in French). I found this very light-to-read and short policier on the boat that we were cruising with in the Galapagos. There was nothing else to read...
  • Don Gold - Nicht nur Tauben sterben im Park (in German). OK, so there was something else to read on the boat but it was really bad. A New-York cop-story piece of garbage (quite short, luckily) translated from English, which I would have never touched, had it been in its original language. But since it was in German, it was just part of "the plan" (see first item on this list) and reading it served a higher purpose. I didn't have a dictionary, but the two Germans we had on board were never very far.
  • Charles Berlitz - Spanish step by step. This is a step up from the beginner book and it was of invaluable help, since it contains all the Spanish grammar in 25 simple, concise lessons.
  • Elizabeth Kostova - The Historian. A Dracula tale, not badly written, but too predictable and lacking in suspense and drama. It's a book that you want to like but you can't because you feel that it's just missing something...
  • John Fowles - The Ivory Tower. I picked this book of short stories at the "La Cupula" hotel in Copacabana, Bolivia and realized that I had already read it long ago, translated in Romanian. I'm not sure if I liked it the first time but I wasn't very impressed now and only found the title story interesting. I was in fact quite annoyed with his fragmented, stream-of-consciousness writing.
  • Jorge Luis Borges - Fictions. I bought this book in Salta, read it while in Buenos Aires and now I can't forgive myself for not having discovered earlier the amazing writing of Borges. What a mistake!
  • Orhan Pamuk - Mein Name ist Rot. Although it was a German translation (picked from among trash at a hostel in Uyuni, Bolivia) and I didn't have a dictionary, I managed to do quite fine and finish this wonderful story about painting, love and the conflict of ideas between East and West in the golden age of the Ottoman Empire.
  • Richard Marius - A writer's companion. Better writing, that's what I need now, and this is a great book for every wannabe essay-author.
  • Khaled Hosseini - The Kite Runner. I liked this book but there was something about Hosseini's style that bothered me - was it his abuse of drama-loaded plotlines or the way he uses adjectives?
  • Chris Hoarie and Peter Chippendale - What is Islam?. A non-judgemental and non-proselytizing journalistic book about the history and meanings of Islam, for western-world people who want to make sense of all the confusion spread around by media and TV.
  • Pearl S. Buck - The Three Daughters of Madame Liang. A story of the revolutionary times and the beginnings of modern China, through the eyes of a family of three sisters, educated in America, and of their mother. Interesting, but for a Nobel-prize author I found the writing surprisingly poor.
  • Jean Sasson - Princess. A horribly-written and sometimes self-serving but nevertheless credible "real" story about the women of the royal house of Saudi Arabia. There has to be someone who can write about the plight of women in some Islamic countries better than this woman!
  • Yann Martel - Story of Pi. A beautifully written, captivating, and easy to read book. The story, however, seems to have a few distinct threads, that do not connect, as I had expected, to form a unit of meaning and symbols. It's as if the author has tried to say too much and some bricks have remained unused at the end.
  • Khaled Hosseini - A Thousand Splendid Suns. His first book was drama incarnate; this second one is even more tear-wrenching. His stories start to sound more and more like south-American telenovelas. Please, cut a little on the drama content - it may actually be more convincing...
  • Cecil Helman - Suburban Shaman. An easy read about the transformation of the relationship of medicine to man, throughout the years. The author, a doctor himself, deplores - but with sufficient irony to avoid sounding righteous - the state of modern medicine which has become extremely depersonalized, and focused on "repairing" defective body parts instead of healing a person. He sees the family doctor as the last link with a long tradition of healing and comforting, perpetuated by shamans in primitive cultures around the globe.
  • Simon Cox - An A to Z of Ancient Egypt. A simple, superficial reference book, made of disconnected chapters - therefore, not requiring too much concentration, useful for pumping up our flimsy knowledge of the many gods and pharaohs before visiting Egypt.
  • John Updike - Trust Me. Beautiful stories about husbands and wives and lovers and cheaters. It's all very American and somehow very sad. I know I have read The Centaur by Updike long ago, but I don't remember the story. This book made me want to read more of him.
  • Greg Marinovich & Joao Silva - The Bang-Bang Club. It's written in a dry, matter-of-fact, sometimes uninspired style, but it offers an amazing, chilling insight into the political events and the horrific violence that followed the breakdown of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
  • Vikas Swarup - Q&A. Funny, upbeat and captivating, this story - which is both part-time comedy and half-way tragedy - of a poor boy from the slums who wins a TV trivia-quiz, will lighten up your day. Besides, it's about India, Bollywood, and becoming a billionaire... how can you not like it?
  • Jacqueline Susann - Valley of the dolls. This was better than I expected. It reads fast and unchallenging but the characters are very likeable and the story is gripping. And since it's all about a couple of beautiful troubled girls, and it doesn't have a happy ending, I guess it was worth the couple of evenings i sacrificed to it.
  • Gregory David Roberts - Shantaram. A wonderful book about the adventures of an Australian fugitive from justice in Bombay. The story is a little too long (900+ pages) and mid-way through the second half it lost some of the grip it had on me. Roberts' writing is profound and entertaining but his biggest strength sometimes turns into his worst weakness: he's a little too good with the metaphors and ends up using too many of them, too often. But overall, the merits of the book far outweigh its shortcomings.
  • Isabel Allende - Daughter of Fortune. From life in the expatriate British community in Valparaiso to the practice of ancient traditional Chinese medicine to the gold fever that gripped California in the mid-eighteenhundreds, Allende knows it all. Funny, epic and well-documented yet witout getting into unessential historical details, the story unfolds gracefully and makes you love the characters.
  • Sarah Macdonald - Holy Cow!. A spirited story about one woman's journey through the spiritual supermarket that is India. It starts funny and frantic and continues in the same easy, almost journalistic tone while the story becomes progressively deeper, more serious and thought-provoking. A must for any westerner who would like to understand a bit of that maniacal, overwhelming country.
  • Loung Ung - First They Killed my Father. A harrowing book covering the experience of a young girl from Phnom Penh in Khmer Rouge-ruled Cambodia. While her first-person story is no doubt true and the atrocities described should make us feel ashamed of belonging to the same human race that has engendered the genocidal Pol Pot, it was nonetheless boring to tears...
  • Graham Greene - Brighton Rock. I always loved Greene's gangster and spy stories; they are interesting precisely because he focuses on the inner conflicts of the characters instead of only caring about the action and the suspense. This one, a story about a boy-gangster in pre-war England, is no exception. However, the 1930's British gang-slang is a little awkward.
  • Rohinton Mistry - A Fine Balance. I started this book in Thailand but I only finished it almost a month after returning to Seattle. The "fine balance" in question is that invisible tipping point where happiness turns into sadness, where material security becomes inescapable poverty, when foes become friends and life flows into death. It's a sad and tear-wrenching book inspired by the everyday tragedies of millions of Indians, but it avoids the temptation of becoming downright sappy, like Khaled Hosseini's Afghan stories. As you put it down having read the last page, you may bitterly realize that all characters have been abandoned by fate to misery and death; but even as this thought crosses your mind, a smile takes over your face - somewhere, somehow, the balance has been restored.
About the business of finding books while traveling...

A traveler who cares about his spirit cannot do without books. On such a long trip like ours, carrying many books from home is impractical and among the ones we did carry, priority was given to travel guides, Lonely Planet, Moon and the likes. So the literature-loving traveler has to rely on finding books in his own language at his destination.

On the road, the most common source of books are book exchanges at backpacker hostels, where books can be traded two-for-one or one-and-some-money-for-one. But while the offer isn't lacking, the quality is abysmally poor. The exchanges abound in "light reading" in all languages (mostly English) - thrillers, spy novels (choose between Tom Clancy and "Tom Clancy's" - the connoisseurs know the difference), cop stories, and romance novels. They usually hold worn paperbacks with vivid colors and bold epithets on the back cover, like "riveting", "adrenalin-loaded" or - according to subject - "sensual" and "emotionally-charged". On the average, it's just a heap of dung, but with enough patience you can find the occasional diamond in the rough - in an Internet-cafe in Copacabana I saw something by Virginia Woolf, but as I came back half hour later with my book to trade, it was already gone.

On the other hand, you have the local bookstores which sometimes carry English books, usually at exorbitant prices. One can find the same paperback garbage there, but the chance of finding something good is significantly better. In fact, in Buenos Aires, almost every bookstore we visited had an English section. Other languages are almost impossible to find. The biggest disappointment was the "Los Amigos Del Libro" bookstore in La Paz, which according to Lonely Planet, was said to have many books in foreign languages. As we finally saw the bookstore open after a long weekend and a day of official festivities, we realized that they had almost exclusively romance novels, some as old as the 50's! Five racks of covers with enamored couples in various poses of passion and abandonment would make anybody run away and lose faith in humanity!

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Sunday, August 5, 2007

Still breathing the good air

Guardian angels. Too many.
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the set

We spend most of our "tourist time" walking around town and breathing in the city's wonderful energy. There aren't many museums worth seeing in Buenos Aires and sadly, the most famous sight in the guide book is the Recoleta cemetery, which is indeed a landmark, but could hardly symbolize a city as alive and vibrant as our temporary hometown is. We didn't waste the evenings either, which were mostly put to use to sample the town's excellent culinary offerings. Just so we don't get disgusted with so much grilled meat we decided to alternate the foods at dinner - one day parilla ("grill" in Spanish) the next day something different: Indian, Thai, Italian, Chinese, you name it; there's something for every taste.

Ominous sky

The weather has been quite unfriendly to both tourists and locals, with temperatures hitting the lowest point in more than 80 years. The cold is annoying as it is - as if we hadn't had enough of it in Peru and Bolivia! - but the cloudy skies and the rain make it worse by taking away even that last pleasure which travelers can usually still enjoy when everything else goes wrong: taking pictures. That is, until today, when we were blessed with perfect blue skies and shirt-worthy temperatures; you know, the kind of winter weather that in Seattle makes a part of the population leave the house wearing shorts and T-shirts while the normal people still have their jackets on. I spent my daylight hours outside, clicking away at streets, parks and people.

On Sunday we changed apartments and moved from the downtown-shopping district to the upscale Recoleta neighborhood. The new apartment is a little different and that difference takes in both advantages and disadvantages. The studio we had for the first week was nice and modern, close to cafes and restaurants bursting with patrons all day long, had cable TV, central heating and a great view - but it was, well... a studio, quite small (more like a hotel room than an apartment,) lacked Internet access (I was able to catch a very weak, unencrypted wireless signal out on the balcony,) and the kitchen area was minuscule - there wasn't even enough space to dry the dishes.

The new place is larger and has a real bedroom, which makes it easier for us to do different things at the same time without annoying each other, like say, watching TV and sleeping. It has cable Internet and a larger kitchen, but it has no central heating - air conditioning instead, fine - the windows look to an inner shaft of the building so there's not much light, and the noisy elevator engine is right next door. On top of this, the TV set is a wreck and although there is cable available, the old Toshiba box is quite inept at scanning channels. It took me some time to figure out that by scanning multiple times, different channels populate the TV's 30 slots each time. There might even be a method to the madness, as if scanning once would get you the sports, scanning twice the music, and a third time would bring you the movies.

We reunited again with Michael and Mor, our friends from the Galapagos cruise, and we'll be spending some time together. It's the end of the trip for them and the end of a chapter for us. There are lions and elephants ahead...

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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

I've lost my common sense... but it feels good!

San Telmo's Sunday antiques market
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the set

Anybody but the most hardcore of backpackers would be happy to enjoy a little bit of urban comfort after three months of cheap hostels, scorching deserts, mountain hikes in thin air, mosquito-infested jungle rides, and the crossing of the out-worldly Altiplano. So when we got to Buenos Aires and moved into our rented studio near Plaza San Martin, I finally felt like my old yuppie self again.

Renting an apartment - as opposed to staying in a hotel - offers a couple of advantages to the weary traveler, starting with that minute but important psychological change: it feels like a home. And for us, wandering bums carrying all our belongings from place to place in two huge backpacks, this made quite a difference. To be able to cook your meal if you want or to have a room that looks more homelike than the average impersonal hotel room is quite good, but for me, the most important is not to have to go through a reception area as I leave the building. And the fact that we don't have to be paranoid about the valuables left in the room when we go out...

For the last few days all we did was a lot of walking and a lot of eating. The weather is quite cold but bearable and it only rained once so far.

Something like that, for example

All big cities have something about them that makes them look, in a sense, identical. The vibrancy of the streets, the cars following one another like disciplined armies of ants, the legions of people buzzing around chaotically guided by an unknown and mysterious purpose, the businessmen in suits having lunches at sidewalk cafes, the glitzy windows of downtown boutiques - it all makes my head spin as with the effect of a wonderful, adrenaline-releasing drug. There are small-town people an big-town people - I belong to the latter category; whenever I get to a place like this I wish I could live here. Seattle has always been too small a town for me...

Romanians, it's not Dacia 1300, it's
an Argentine-produced Renault 12!

But urban living comes at a price: we quickly got tired and somehow ashamed of walking around and going to restaurants dressed in our grubby backpacker clothes - the bulky Keen hiking shoes, the all-too-sporty Marmot windbreaker - and it only got worse when I left my jeans at the laundry and had to wear the "jungle-pants" for one day... so we went shopping. This was understandable and expected coming from Angela, but from me and my stance of "I don't need to buy anything" it's nothing short of a religious conversion. I got myself a leather jacket, a sweater and black, city shoes. Angela got much more, I won't mention it all here, but it starts with a leather jacket as well... All those things we bought are practically bargains (my jacket would be about US$140, which is quite a steal at home) but they quickly add up so we stopped horrified after a while, before our bank account got into a coma... We'll have to get rid of it all and ship it home before we leave Argentina, but at least, for the next two weeks... we'll look good! Even I!

Old, backpacking Fritz
New, city Fritz

And as a bonus, I found the elusive item I've been chasing through all of Central and South America: a circular polarizing filter for my camera. It was quite expensive - about US$30 - but what the hell, I wasn't going to let this opportunity slip away. So if anything, my pictures should improve. If they don't, I only have my skills to blame, not the technology.

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