Monday, November 29, 2010

That's All, Folks!

(Team Freedom29 - Day 1)

This is it - our last internet rendezvous and the post where I try to figure out what these last twenty or so weeks actually meant. To our family, friends and casual observers, please know that I tried my very best to write each of my previous posts in a way that I thought might be entertaining for you, and attempting to do so has provided me with a great deal of joy and satisfaction. This last time, however, my primary motivation is to record my thoughts before this airplane I'm riding in lands back home, so I apologize if the text seems long-winded or self-important. This will also be the first post where Kristin won't serve as my editor/conscience before my thoughts go up on the website (though she did make me promise that I wouldn't say anything preachy like "the things that you own end up owning you", which I think hamstrings me considerably...). Anyways, here goes nothing - I hope you'll indulge me this one last time. [Editor's note: the pictures below are some of my favourites from our trip.]

(Picture from The Lost City post)

(Picture from A la Cartagena post)

Truthfully, the thought of having to write this post and thereby acknowledge that this chapter of our lives has come to a conclusion has gotten me misty more times than the ending of Field of Dreams. Others certainly have travelled longer and gone further, but I can't really put into words what this trip has done for my emotional well-being and general outlook on life. We didn't do this trip because we needed to escape from our normal lives, but the distance and time away has delivered a clarity that I'm not sure I would have discovered in Calgary. Even though the end of the trip has brought me face-to-face with the realization that my future is still very much up-in-the-air, I've had ample opportunity to identify the aspects of my life that bring me happiness and fulfillment. I want to prioritize these things once I'm home; I want more of these things. It's not that I'm newly greedy or selfish, but slightly refocused. Normally, I wouldn't think of being unemployed as a positive, but in this instance it feels like a chance to find something I'm passionate about and something that accords with what I'd like for my personal life. I hope that I don't squander the opportunity.

(Picture from Cruzing for a Bruising post)

I've been asked a few times along the way if I had any regrets that we decided to embark on this adventure. I know regret - I'm the guy who put transition lenses into his most recent pair of everyday eyeglasses - but I will never regret that I just spent the last 140 days with the most important person in my life and that we have fostered an incalculable number of memories that, cliché as it may sound, we will share for a lifetime. I don't regret challenging myself to learn a new language (even if I wasn't great at it) or putting myself into unfamiliar and sometimes difficult situations. I also don't regret the opportunity to learn about cultures and people different than our own and, as a result, learn more about myself. Conversely, I have absolutely no doubt that if we had chosen not to do the trip back when we were still deliberating, I would always have felt some regret. I know Kristin feels the same way.

(Picture from Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail post)

Kristin spoke of being rejuvenated in her last contribution. Like her, I feel that the novelty and challenges of the trip melted away stress and left me feeling young again. Has the trip fundamentally changed who I am? Probably not. It's romantic to think a trip of this nature could set in motion a string of life-altering epiphanies (though, probably less "romantic" to my mother-in-law, who feared the trip would turn me into a globetrotting hippie who'd stay on the road forever and never give her grandbabies), but the changes I notice in myself are more subtle (or maybe it's just that I'm finally maturing). The trip also strongly reinforced the importance in my attempting to see life as a journey instead of a series of destinations. It's a lesson I find myself often losing sight of, but I think the times when I have it dialled-in makes me feel like a more attentive and empathetic person - someone I like better.

(Picture from With a Terrain of Salt post)

As for my beloved blog, I'm sad to report that it has provided us with neither fame nor fortune - the stated goals in our first post - and our coveted endorsement deal with Icebreaker never materialized. But Kristin and I already find ourselves rereading the posts constantly, so I know we've created something that we'll be able to enjoy for years to come. We also wanted the blog to help us stay connected and I think it's done that. We've received emails and Facebook messages from so many friends along the way who've wished us well or expressed excitement for things they saw on the site. What I didn't expect was that the blog would stir up something creative in me and help me realize how much I enjoy writing. I'd like to figure out a way to keep writing in some capacity when I'm home, as well as try to find some other outlets for my creative energy. In that vein, if you see me one year from now and I haven't learned to play whatever the guitar equivalent of Hot Cross Buns (the first song we learned on the Recorder in elementary school) is, you have my permission to slap me across the face. Just don't hit my nose - it's been through enough already.

(Picture from Paying it Forward post)

For those that haven't fallen asleep yet, let me start wrapping this up by saying that I feel very lucky. I feel very lucky to have been born in a country where it's possible to enjoy a seemingly endless list of freedoms and luxuries that are far too easy to take for granted. I feel lucky to have the backing of amazing family and friends in all of my endeavors. More than anything else I feel lucky to have Kristin. With the possible exception of her evil right foot, I couldn't ask for anything more from the person I get to share my life with or from a travel companion. I'm proud of the person that she is and I'm proud of the person that she was on the trip (true to herself, but full of pleasant surprises). I wouldn't have wanted to do any part of this adventure without her (and never would have gone on a trip like this if we hadn't met), but, with her there by my side, I could have stayed away indefinitely. Maybe most importantly of all, she believes in me so strongly and supports me so completely that I feel like I can do anything I put my mind to. Ultimately, that's all I really need to be happy, wherever we might happen to be.

(Picture from Falling for Floripa post)

A couple of blogs I've seen capped off their final post with an impressive quote from a historical figure, philosopher or poet. Unfortunately, I'm not so well-read as those bloggers, but I like the concept. In any event, I can't think of anything more fitting than what I've reproduced below, courtesy of the late, great Dicky Fox:

Hey, I don't have all the answers. In life, to be honest, I've failed as much as I've succeeded. But I love my wife. I love my life. And I wish you my kind of success.

Thanks for reading.

(Team Freedom 29 - Final Day)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The End of the Line

The unexpected, final stop on our South American odyssey was the city of Buenos Aires. On a trip that I would say has had its fair share of adventures, I'm (mostly) happy that the Argentinian capital proved to be a microcosm of the same. Interaction with locals? Yes. Culture? Absolutely. Personal safety concerns? You'd better believe it. All in all, Buenos Aires turned out to be one of the best cities I've ever visited. That said, it definitely had some big city issues.... but I'm getting ahead of myself. In the words of Coldplay: Oh, let's go back to the start.

It was tough to know what to expect leading up to our arrival - about half of the people we met on our travels who had been to BsAs totally raved about it and the other half had absolutely nothing good to say about it (culminating in a Londoner telling us right before we arrived that it was, quite plainly, "a dump"). Appearance-wise, the streets looked decidedly European. Hobbles (the nickname I've given to my gimpy wife) was reminded of Paris and I was taken back down Memory Lane to Vienna. Our neighbourhood was filled with dozens of parks and the jacaranda trees lining the wide avenues and narrow streets alike were all in bloom, meaning that the city was teeming with purple flowers that filled with air with a pleasant, sweet fragrance. I guess if you had Hay Fever you would be less impressed, but I think the "dump" theory can pretty much be discarded.

For us, travelling is walking, and watching Hobbles limp to the grocery store on a daily basis (so as not to be left out of the evening's wine selection process) was truly an inspirational sight. Of course, as I would hope has become obvious by now, I kid. To be truthful, I arrived in BsAs upset that Kristin's injury probably meant that we wouldn't have an opportunity to properly experience the surroundings, but Kristin has willed herself to see about as much of the city as could have been expected from someone with a broken bone in their foot and probably more than 90% of able-bodied people could have managed. She has never ceased to amaze me on this trip.

While simply wandering the city, sampling the amazing cuisine and doing our first shopping of the trip have been memorable, we uncharacteristically planned some extras in BsAs that we were particularly excited about. In no particular order, I would say that the anticipated highlights of our stay in BsAs were: (1) the apartment we rented; (2) taking in a tango show; and (3) attending a soccer match.

1. Our apartment was a shade over 300 square feet, but, after more than four months on the move, you could have easily convinced me that it was five times as large. It's incredible what can excite you on the road. Kristin was ecstatic that there was a table to eat at and I was just tickled pink that our space was big enough to house a box of cereal and a carton of milk. It's also great that an apartment of this size takes only about 30 seconds to tidy up (or so Kristin tells me....).

2. The idea of attending a tango show probably was more appealing to Kristin prior to booking, but the production she picked out was unbelievably professional and sexy. That's right, parents - I'm saying the word "sexy" in a public forum. Basically, it was dancing, singing, acting and orchestra all rolled into one, and the best dancing I've ever seen to boot. It also didn't hurt that we ran into a live, public ballet production with about 20,000 spectators immediately outside the theatre and in front of one of the city's main landmarks (check out the obelisk in our pics) on the way to the show. These things just don't happen back home.

3. Of all the things we had planned, I was most jacked about the prospect of attending a soccer match featuring the La Boca Juinors (Maradonna's old team), especially after the big stadium I wanted to visit in Rio de Janeiro turned out to be closed in preparation for the 2014 World Cup. The La Boca neighbourhood and the soccer matches there are notoriously sketchy, so we went the safe route by paying a little more to go with a tour operator. After being briefed on the dangers of the neighbourhood, we were given a final set of instructions which included, "do not for any reason show your tickets to anybody, even if they claim to be police officers, as this is incredibly dangerous." So, you can imagine how thrilled we were when, five seconds after exiting our van, we were met by some very, very large men claiming to be police officers and demanding to see our tickets. This is where the expertise of our guide was to factor in, but I have never seen someone more petrified in my life. The twenty or so minutes that followed were infinitely more terrifying than when we were actually robbed in Colombia. After all of us had been stripped of our tickets (we were told that they were the type of tickets that should not have been sold to us in the first place .... or some BS like that), we were told to get back into the van along with the "police officers" and some other tourists they had rounded up, the former of which would make sure that we got seats inside the stadium. When we informed our guide that we had no intention of getting back into the van with these men, he told us that the one man had a gun and he would have to ask whether we would be allowed to leave. Ultimately, six of the 12 of us refused to get in the van and, after being followed down the street by some pretty creepy people, got into taxis and left the area. I had to settle for watching part of the soccer match on TV, but it was good to emerge from the crooked cop/thug shakedown relatively unscathed.

The soccer incident wasn't enough to taint what I felt was an utterly amazing city, but after a thwarted pickpocketing attempt on the subway a couple of days later, I think I'm finally looking forward to going home to Calgary for the first time (where most of the creeps spend the winter in Vancouver).

Our pictures from Buenos Aires are here. My final blog post is in the pipe. I'll post it sometime after I get home. Catch you on the flip side...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

He Said, She Said

In a decision that has been very difficult to make, I'm sad to announce that our trip is coming to an end in five days. Kristin's foot is still giving her a lot of trouble and has made it so that we can't travel in the way that we are accustomed to and enjoy. Our hope is that the frigid weather and limited sunshine of December in Calgary will allow it to heal properly. [Editor's note: Deep breaths, Kevin. Deep breaths.]

The past few days have provided ample opportunity for us to reflect back on our trip and to think about what lies ahead. Out of this process came the idea for this blog entry (sadly, Kristin's last contribution to the blog). Here's how it works - we interviewed one ridiculously attractive travel blogging couple and asked them the same four questions. They produced their answers independently of one another and we have posted them below without alteration.

1. Which is your favourite place that you visited on the trip?

She-KLong: That's a toughie because each place has been so different and I have loved them all for different reasons, but I would have to say my favourite place that we "travelled" was Bolivia. It has the greatest indigenous population in South America (over 60%) and this "living historical culture" (I read this description somewhere and really liked it) was very interesting for one of my favourite pastimes, people watching. My favourite place that we "vacationed" (see distinction between travelling and vacationing here) was Salta in Northwestern Argentina. Salta has good, inexpensive food and wine, lots of activities to do in its surroundings, and is still somewhat "undiscovered" by tourists.

He-KLong: Asking me to choose the favourite place we visited is a lot like asking a parent to identify their favourite child (in which case, might I suggest that you can never go wrong in choosing the oldest son...). In terms of an experience, I have would have to say that Ciudad Perdida probably remains my most vivid memory and the one I find that Kristin and I relive most often. Picking a country would be much tougher, as I've enjoyed each for different reasons and they have all been spectacular. In a pinch, I would probably opt for Colombia, largely due to the fact that the people there who didn't rob us were some of the friendliest I've ever met and were the most welcoming of the countries we visited.

2. What has been the most difficult part of travelling in South America?

She-KLong: I guess one of the most difficult parts of long term travel in South America for me was having to pack my backpack with equipment and clothes for all different climates. We experienced temperatures ranging from -10 to +30 degrees Celsius, so this left very little room for "luxury items" (I note that Kevin considers the jeans I brought a "luxury item" - who considers one pair of jeans a "luxury item"?!). Another difficult part for me was having to get by with my limited spanish. I have learned that I am horrible at learning new languages and it was frustrating not to be able to communicate more with locals and sometimes having to rely on Kevin to get my point across (apparently, along with blogging, picking up new languages with ease is one of my husband's hidden talents).

He-KLong: Without a doubt, the most difficult part of the trip was the Golf video game in the on-board entertainment system for Avianca Airlines flights. 350-yard par 3s? 600-yard par 4s?? Give me a break. A distant second would be the not infrequent stomach issues we experienced along the way and, worse, the constant fear of future stomach issues. By the time we left Bolivia, I had become so conditioned by signs of impending stomach danger that even overhearing a rumble from Kristin's stomach was enough to have me reaching for the Bisbacter (South American Pepto rip-off). Not being able to automatically assume that food was safe to eat definitely took some getting used to.

3. What will you miss the most about the trip?

She-KLong: Oh my goodness, I do not know where to start. I have never felt as excited, challenged and rejuvenated as I have on this trip and I know I will miss that. I am going to miss experiencing, doing and seeing as much as possible everyday because you never know if you are going to be back again. Also, you know how you do things while travelling that you would never do at home? I am going to miss this general attitude... Also, after spending 24/7 with Kevin for the past 4 and a half months, I bet I will go through a bit of Kevin withdrawal.

He-Klong: I'll miss so many things about the trip. Most of all, I'll miss that every day here is an opportunity to share something new and exciting with my wife. One of my favourite memories from the trip was the time in Peru (before I had replaced my watch) when I asked Kristin what day of the week it was. Without looking at her watch, she responded casually and in all seriousness, "Wednesday'ish," and continued about her business. Kristin is the ultimate planner and the unexpected response sent me into hysterics. In addition to the laughter, I just remember how wonderful it was to see her so content and carefree and I'm so happy that I was a part of it.

4. What excites you most about going back home?

She-Klong: Of course number one is seeing and catching up with my family and friends, even though, according to Kevin, while away I have talked to my Mom on Skype an "embarrassing amount for someone who is almost 30". Other perks will be being able to flush toilet paper down the toilet, not worrying about personal security nearly to the same degree and not worrying about the food you eat making you sick.

He-Klong: I know I should probably say "catching up with friends and family" or a"resuming my career" (wow, putting that last part into words just made me throw up in my mouth...), but I'm going to have to go with "the ability to flush toilet paper". I don't know anything about how plumbing works. I don't know why the systems here can't handle paper of any sort but in junior high school we never seemed to have any problem when we were flushing the gym shorts of people who forgot to close their locker doors down the toilet. Regardless, it will be good to go home and flush with impunity once again (paper, that is, not gym shorts).

* * * * *

The blog is now officially on the endangered species list. Two posts left.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Trio for Rio

Freedom29's first visitor has come and gone. For eight days we explored, socialized and waited out torrential downpours with Kristin's cousin, Brittney. I briefly considered allowing Britt a guest post to describe her experiences, but, after considering the popularity of Kristin's earlier posts, I just couldn't risk being the third most popular author on my own blog and decided to write the post myself. Don't judge.

Before Britt's arrival, the idea of walking around Brazil with two lovely ladies on my arm had me feeling a lot like "Kevin Long - Rock Star". In reality, the experience left me feeling a lot more like "Kevin Long - Man Purse". Honestly, there were times when those two helped ensure my cargo shorts were more loaded up than Batman's utility belt, and the combination of money, cameras and keys I was carrying probably made me the poster boy for the muggable Rio tourist. Thankfully, I was not depossessed of any belongings along the way and I got even with the girls by pretending from time to time that I wasn't carrying enough money on me for them to buy their precious caipirinhas. Passive aggressive? Maybe. Satisfying? Remarkably so.

For Britt's visit, we planned four nights in Rio de Janeiro (Kristin and I arrived a day earlier and had a fifth night), three nights on beautiful Ilha Grande and our last night in the colonial, waterside town of Paraty and its UNESCO protected historic center. It was a good itinerary with largely disappointing weather. After one rainy day in Rio, the rain started again after our first night in Ilha Grande and never stopped. I found it tough not to feel bad for Britt that so many days of her stay were marred by bad weather and even tougher not to feel bad for myself that we invited down somebody who would bring such foul weather with her from Calgary. Notwithstanding the rain, I would say (and I really hope that Britt would agree) that we still managed to have a really good time and share a lot of laughs. Britt was also a good sport about the comically small room we shared in Rio (which is one downside of letting the backpackers choose the accommodation), which probably wasn't the ideal setting for a person with an actual job to unwind during their vacation time.

Some brief Rio thoughts: If there's a more beautiful city in the world, it's hard to imagine what it would have to look like. Rio's blessed with so many beautiful features that it almost seems like an embarrassment of riches. Kristin loved the long beaches that lined the city (particularly Copacabana Beach), Britt loved the Big Jesus watching over the city, and I loved the severity of the mountains jutting out of the water or protuding alongside neighbourhoods throughout the city. We only saw a handful of the many neighbourhoods I would have liked to have visited, but I found them each to have their own character and worthy of a return visit. In addition to its physical beauty, I also felt like the city had its own pulse that seemed to strengthen with the temperature. On the day it rained, it almost seemed like the city was in a state of mourning or hibernation. The pulse, of course, is a function of the people, and watching the cariocas and their love affair with the beach was fascinating and probably would be a reason to make the trip by itself.

Like other large cities we've visited in South America, there is an obvious divide between poor and wealthy citizens, but the socioeconomic groups live in much closer proximity to one another in Rio, where favelas are built illegally on many of the mountains that I mentioned in the previous paragraph (and elsewhere around and throughout the city - approximately 900 in total). We had an opportunity to visit one of such favela - the largest in Latin America, with approximately 200,000 residents - through an organized tour. I was initially a bit reluctant to pay somebody to take us on what amounts to a tour of low-income people and their homes, but the tour was organized in a way that was not exploitative, was highly educational for outsiders, and we were given numerous opportunities to spend our money in the community and see how the tours are helping to develop social services for people in need. It truly was an eye-opening experience and the individual motor-scooter rides into and up the favelas was a pee-your-pants good time.

Finally, we end off with some unfortunate news. Some weeks ago, Kristin developed a nagging pain in her foot, likely as a result of too much walking and hiking. Sadly, it has continued to worsen and now it appears Kristin has developed a stress fracture in the foot and will be in a boot cast for the foreseeable future. The good news is that the name of the cast is the "Bota Robocop", which is super bad ass and makes me wish I too had robotic appendages. The bad news is that it isn't entirely clear at this point what the injury means to the rest of our trip. Hopefully a few days to heal and bottle of Malbec or two in Buenos Aires (where we arrive on Monday) will shed some light on the situation.

Our pictures from our time with Britt are here. You'll notice that they fall off completely after the rains started.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Paying it Forward

I think we're getting half decent at this South American backpacking thing. We've learned a lot by doing, but we've also picked up some helpful hints from other travellers along the way. As such, to mark the four-month anniversary of our trip and to give back to the travelling community, I've cobbled together a couple of pieces of advice from our experiences that you might not find in a guidebook. I hope somebody out there finds them helpful.

Understanding Tripadvisor

Almost exclusively, we rely on Tripadvisor reviews to determine which hostels, pousadas or B&Bs we'll be staying at. While that is probably not particularly helpful in and of itself, I think understanding what the reviews are actually saying is a bit of an art and I have some suggestions for would-be backpackers looking for a translation. In addition to taking all outliers with a grain of salt (i.e. if the reviews for a place are nearly universally positive or negative, you can usually ignore the reviews that don't fit), it's important to understand the inflationary/deflationary impact that certain types of backpacker reviews can have on the overall score given to your potential lodging. Certain words or phrases are indicators that you may be reading such a review. Here are three examples:

(1) Reviewer says: "This was the best hostel I have ever stayed at in my life. I had the most amazing time and wish I could have stayed there forever. Go here!!"

Possible translation: "I hooked up with somebody way out of my league at this hostel. I stil can't believe my good fortune/their poor judgement. If this had been a roach motel, I would have given it a perfect rating. Man, they were so much hotter than me."

Analysis: These reviews are often easy to pick out because they give virtually no detail on why the experience was so awesome. It's like the reviewer is still in shock that the hook up happened at all and can only provide a review that is akin to a verbal fist pump.

(2) Reviewer says: "Pretty decent hostel, but probably only worth one night."

Possible translation: "I hooked up with somebody way out of my league at this hostel the first night, but then they found somebody more attractive the second night and I was unceremoniously tossed aside."

Analysis: A variant of the Type 1 class, these typically come with a fairly low rating for the hostel. It is worth noting the the likelihood that you are looking at either a Type 1 or 2 type of review increases dramatically if the reviewer's profile indicates that they are (i) Male, (ii) Australian and (iii) between the ages of 18 and 24... some stereotypes exist for a reason.

(3) Reviewer says: "DO NOT STAY HERE!!!!!!!!!!! [Insert laundry list of complaints]"

Possible translation: "I am very tough to please and/or I just finished a 30-hour bus ride. I'm not in a good mood and somebody is going to pay!"

Analysis: Amazingly, the accuracy of a review does not always correlate perfectly with the number of exclamation marks that a reviewer uses. Some negative reviews are justified, but those that nitpick every single detail and don't mention any positive or redeeming factors are often suspect. That said, we typically read criticisms about cleanliness, safety and unfriendly staff more closely. Also, backpackers are loathe to pack up all of their things, throw on their 30-pound packs and move along unnecessarily. If the reviewer mentions they switched to another hostel in the same city, that's probably a pretty big red flag that something wasn't right.

Long Bus Rides

No, I don't have any hints about how to increase your likelihood of surviving South American bus rides (which I'm still convinced is some function of sheer luck) or how to figure out bus timetables with any degree of confidence. But since many of the buses we have ridden are not equipped with toilets and pit stops are few and far inbetween, the urgent need to use the washroom on a trip can ruin an otherwise run-of-the-mill, horrifying bus ride through the Andes. To combat this evil, for those of you who have been stricken with alarmingly small bladders like myself, I highly recommend intentional and thorough pre-departure dehydration. WARNING: I actually think this advice is directly contrary to what is suggested by physicians when travelling at high altitudes, so it may not be for everyone. That said, I'd rather stagger off the bus upon arrival and overpay for the first water bottle offered to me than be one of those people who ends the ride with their legs crossed and tears streaming down their face.

Seizing the Day

This heading isn't meant to be advice; more of an apology. I started this blog with the intention of including a couple of additional headings, but then we arrived in Rio yesterday right after I wrote the bus paragraph and ... wow, this city is cool. As a result, I'm tucking away the laptop, cutting this post a little short and heading back out to explore. Instead of more advice (which I'm sure you were all really craving ...), I've added a few pictures from our time in Trindade, Brazil, which you can see here.

As an update, Kristin's cousin is joining us from Calgary later today for about a week of Brazil time. She isn't 29 and she still has a job, but we've still decided to make her an honorary Freedom29er all the same. If she brings a Blackberry into our hostel room, however, I'm giving her the boot. Just kidding. Sort of.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Falling for Floripa

And we're back! Sorry for the long lag between posts. We've been.... well ... not busy per se, but....ummm.... oh wow, this is getting awkward. Let's just pick up from the where we left off, post 23-hour bus ride. Good? Good.

Tired of the rivers and lakes that we were used to, we ignored TLC's well-known advice and went chasing waterfalls. What we tracked down was Iguazu Falls at the intersection of the Argentinian, Brazilian and Paraguayan borders (and visited the Argentinian side of the Falls). How good was it? Well, I love waterfalls, so I would have been school-girl giddy with whatever we happened to find there. Kristin, on the other hand, doesn't particularly care for waterfalls [Editor's note: honestly, who doesn't like waterfalls?], told me she had been unimpressed by Niagara Falls [Editor's note: tough crowd, though I note she did have good things to say about the nearby wineries] and appeared to be feigning interest prior to her arrival after I made her promise not to ruin the visit for me. When we finally got there, however, Kristin was a convert - snapping photos like a crazy person and giggling after all of the good mistings. Not even the scolding she got from a park ranger for feeding wildlife could dampen her enthusiasm. Conclusion? Either Iguazu Falls > Niagara Falls or Kristin was still loopy from the big beer I made her split with me the night before we visited. Either way, it's good to have her on our side now. On to Brazil!

Other than a couple of bus rides, five nights in Florianopolis (or "Floripa" to those of us who are in tight) was responsible for our first impression of Brazil. I think we chose wisely. The whole of Santa Catarina Island (of which Floripa is a part) has a population in the neighbourhood of 400,000, who were the fittest and, objectively, probably the most beautiful people we've come across on our trip to date. Organic and other healthy foods dominated most menus in town and visiting outside of the high-season for Brazilian tourism meant that everybody was incredibly laid back and one could find hikes and beaches without any other people during the weekdays. I'm giving the whole town one gold star since it was one of its hostels that finally granted my wish of an all-you-can-eat South American barbecue, but then taking the gold star away because board shorts in town (which I am in dire need of) cost between CDN$90-160.

By my count, it took us about three days to figure out the right mix for the Floripa coastal experience.

Day 1: Hit some popular beaches. Verdict: Good.
Day 2: Hiked through some tropical forest. Verdict: Good.
Day 3: Hiked through some tropical forest to deserted beaches. Verdict: Booyah!

Having mastered the program so early, I could focus my Day 4 efforts on trying surfing for the first time (Floripa is generally regarded as Brazil's surfing paradise). My take: It's tougher than I had imagined and the beach we were at wasn't exactly for beginners. I got up'ish a few times, but never coasted all of the way to the shore as I had envisioned. Kristin's take (after watching from the shore): For the blog, she recommended that I emphasize pictures that showed me with the surf board on the beach rather than the ones that showed me with the surf board in the water. Ouch!

You can check out some of our pictures from Iguazu and Floripa here. What's next for us? We're heading up the coast to check out some more beaches and take some yoga lessons. Hopefully then we'll feel more rested. I know, I hate me too.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

There Can Only Be One

Move over Arequipa. Salta, Argentina is taking over as my new home away from home in the Southern Hemisphere. First off, I'd like to say that I'm very disappointed in Arequipa for only being able to hang on to the crown for a month. Frankly, I had expected more. Secondly, I'd like to apologize to our readers for the oversight of annointing a city in the first place that didn't come from a wine-growing region. You can be sure that I won't make that mistake again. So, why Salta? In addition to the wine (which has restored the healthy black glow to Kristin's teeth that we all know and love), the weather is warm, but comfortable (we were strolling around in t-shirts past 1 a.m.), the people are friendly (which is why we weren't afraid to walk around past 1 a.m.), there are lots of parks, shops and pedestrian-only streets (which make for great people watching) and the food options/prices make it seem like the town was created for thrifty, beef-loving Italians (which are my kind of people). The last item may prove to be more of an Argentina thing than a Salta thing, but I'm willing to give Salta credit until I see that it is otherwise.

[Aside #1: The only thing which detracted from my Salta experience was the bit I read in one of the guidebooks before arriving which said that travellers should really try to get invited to an asado (an Argentinian private barbecue, where copious amounts of fire-roasted beef and wine are typically served). What does that mean .... try to get invited? I can't get my best friends back home to invite me over for a barbecue, but now I'm supposed to try and get Argentinian strangers to invite me to one of theirs? I think the best offer I've received to-date was a drag off of somebody's cigarette. Until I find one, I'm compensating by ordering beef at every meal.]

After three days in Salta, we headed a few hours south to the town of Cafayate - in Northwest Argentina's canyon and wine country - where day-to-day life seemed to largely revolve around the main church and evening dinners out with family and friends. Our plans for Cafayate were ambitious - we wanted to mix a modest amount of exercise into the rigorous eating and drinking schedule we developed in Salta. The exercise included hiking around local vineyards and was highlighted by a 50km bike ride through the red canyons and desert of the Quebrada de Cafayate. In anticipation of the bike ride and after much searching, Kristin managed to procure what I'm convinced were the only two bicycle helmets in town. The man who rented the helmets said two things which turned out not to be in my favour: (1) We could only rent his helmets if we also rented his bikes (which meant that I was stuck with a bike seat from the 19th century which violated me so badly that I am still walking gingerly); and (2) we had to pay the full-date rate in advance, but if we got the bikes back to him by a certain time - which he didn't think would be possible - he would refund us 40% of our money (which got Kristin's competitive fires going and ended any possibility of the romantic, Wedding Crashers-like bike ride that I had been envisioning). Kristin happily turned a portion of the inevitable refund we received into 250 grams of ice cream at a local parlor.

[Aside #2: Presumably because Argentina seems so modern in comparison to some of the places we've visited, Kristin informed me a couple of days after our arrival in Salta that we are no longer really travelling.... we are vacationing. Now, I'm not sure that there is a need to differentiate, but if "vacationing" means that I won't be sprinting to the washroom after meals and the showers won't give me mild electric shocks from time to time, vacation suits me just fine. I note that I am writing this post in the middle of a 23-hour bus ride. No word yet from Kristin on whether this constitutes vacationing or travelling, but my aching back tells me that it is still probably the latter.]

Our pictures from Salta and the surrounding area are here. We're heading into Brazil in short order. If I discover there is more travelling to be done there, I hope to post another blog in the next few days. Otherwise, I'm sorry to inform you that I don't blog while on "vacation"...