Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Going Postal

29 March 2016

We're settled back in Buenos Aires for a few weeks, while we get organized for our next adventure.  Though somehow I seem to find adventure despite being in a busy city and taking tango lessons.

First, the coffee.  All around South America, we've found delightful coffee shops, cafés, and cafeterias - which in Spanish means coffee shop.  The cup of coffee, cafe con leche, latte, cappuccino, or whatever often comes with a little cookie on the side.  

This particular shop included a small bowl with two little cellophane wrapped and beribboned cookies, tiny little sandwich cookies of vanilla cookie with dulce de leche in the center.  Doll sized cookies.  But just so delightful with the little curling ribbon.  How could anyone resist a one-bite cookie with a ribbon?

So, my adventure in mailing two postcards.  You'd think this would be simple.  I bought two penguin postcards in Patagonia.  Addressed them, wrote my messages.  Got busy and neglected to find a post office in any of the towns along our return route to Buenos Aires.  Figured I'll just go to the post office here, no problem.  Although we've been to the PO here in Buenos Aires, and it's always busy.  You go in, take a number, and wait about half an hour for your number to be called.

Well, Richard wanted to buy some postcards, so we went to one of the news kiosks in the neighborhood and picked out some cards.  The vendor was also selling stamps.  So I figured I'd save some time and buy stamps right there, for the same price as the PO.  Plus he gave me a choice of stamps, and of course I picked the tango stamps.

Today, we went out walking, Richard needed some help with his computer.  We went by a post office (correos), and I brought in my postcards (postales) with the stamps (stampas) on them.  I tried to figure out if I could just put the stamped cards in the slot, and the lady at the desk called me over.  Oh no, she said, these aren't our stamps.  We're the Argentas correos, a private postal service.  Your stamps are DHL.  You must find the DHL office.  (Of course, that was all in Spanish, with the customer translating into English for me.)

NOOOOOO!!!!!!!!  Who ever heard of DHL sending post cards?????  And where's the DHL office???

We couldn't find the computer store we wanted, so we asked at a bookstore.  The two adorable older women spoke English, and the owner sent us to the computer repair shop she uses, one block over and up several more blocks.  

While Richard was getting help, I asked if anyone knew where the DHL office was.  The English speaking computer guy gave me directions - one more block over, around the corner, and halfway up the block.  So I headed off, except DHL wasn't there.  FedEx was!  I thought perhaps the man confused the two shipping agencies, so I went inside.  The young man there said yes, they are only FedEx, no, they don't take DHL stamps, he never heard of DHL sending postcards or any mail, only packages.

He then ran a check and said it would cost 800 pesos to mail the postcards to the US.  That's about $50+ US!  No thank you!  

Then he asked what DHL said, and I explained I had received directions to DHL, but they weren't here, only FedEx.  OH, he says, DHL is up around the next corner, just down the street!

I thank him and head off to DHL.  Their sign isn't visible from the road, but there was a caravan of their trucks lined up on the side.  I go inside.  I wait for a free agent.  I slide the two postcards to her, expecting to hear "We don't do mail."  Or "that will be another 700 pesos."  (My stamps were only 40 pesos, exactly what the real post office charges.)

No, she takes the two cards, checks for the stamps, and says, "Gracias."  I paused, waiting.  "That's it?" I asked.  "Si, si.  No problemo.  Con stampas," she replies.  "Okay, muchas gracias," I say.

Who knew it took so much to just mail two postcards??? 

Regarding the maps - the first shows the route we took heading south and around Patagonia.  The second shows the route we took northbound, back to Buenos Aires.  Not too much different, since we wanted to stick with the coast rather than heading across the desert and up the mountains.  We like beaches, and wanted to avoid cold.  While we returned to a few towns/hotels, we stayed at some new places as well.

And I'm still tangoing.  We learned a very dramatic sequence yesterday, which includes the woman doing a 3/4 turn on her left leg while her right leg is extended out and downward, making this grand sweeping motion as she dips a bit.  Then the man extends his right leg in the opposite direction, so the two of us are dipped down but like a giant triangle, with our right legs stretched outward.  Then shift weight to the right leg, stand upwards, step around him with the left foot, and go back to the twirling and twisting.  SO theatrical!

I need to bring my camera to tango class and take some photos.  Especially when the instructors dance, they're absolutely impressive!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Day of Remembrance For Truth And Justice

25 March 2016

I found these wonderful sugar packets in Patagonia - though I'm not sure if these are guanacos, or lambs.  The seals (or sea lions?  or elephant seals?) are great though.  

I have to admit I'm sorry they didn't have any penguins on the sugar.

When we drive around a country, we take frequent breaks.  Coffee breaks, stretch breaks, bathroom breaks, etc.  

We stopped at this little shop in the middle of somewhere, and I noticed one of the red shrines to Gauchito Antonia Gil.  So I went over to see what was inside.

It was wonderful!  Full of little ceramic statues of Gil, with a few wooden figures, a picture attached to a water bottle, tons of candles, and who knows what else.  Plus a bandana along with the red flags.

So what could I do, I left a cough drop (only thing I had on me), and asked for a safe trip home.  When in Rome or Argentina, and all that.

We spent a night in Dolores, Argentina - isn't that a wonderful name for a city?  I think it would be a great stage name for when I become a professional tango dancer.

Anyway, we're now back in Buenos Aires.  We spent a night near the airport, and turned in the car on time.  No one was at the rental agency office, so we put the keys in the drop box, along with the parking stub and a note saying in which row to find the car.  Took a taxi back to our hotel.  Started unpacking, and Richard found that he still had the car registration papers in his pocket!!!  

We found a phone number for the agency, and asked our hotel staff to call and assist us.  But there was no answer.  We called the help center, but again, no answer.  So the staff suggested we go to the major bus and ferry terminal, not far from our hotel, where this particular company has a full office.

It seemed like a reasonable way to handle the situation, and we couldn't just hold onto the registration papers waiting for them to call us.  We took a taxi over, found the office, and explained the situation.  The young man didn't speak English very well, and eventually an older man came back from lunch and spoke with us.  His English was better, and once he understood the problem he said fine, just give us the papers, and we'll get them to the office at the airport, no problem.

Then he asked us about the car, how did everything go.  So we described the problem with the stupid headlight not working, calling the company for help, being told the light was our responsibility, and then being stopped by the police for no light.  That we then had a service station put in a bulb, and finding their wasn't even a bulb in there.  The older man went into his own pocket and reimbursed us for the bulb!  How nice can you get!?!  We also told them that they need to get the airport office to pay more attention to the cars.

President Obama and family were in the country for two days, and I'm sure people in the US have seen some of the events.  A meeting with Argentinian President Macri at Casa Rosada, a talk with young entrepreneurs, the short tango dance, and a visit to a memorial to the 30,000 people who "disappeared" during the oppressive military regime following the 1976 coup d'etat.  Obama's visit overlapped with March 24, the 40 year anniversary of the coup, the date designated the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice.

So yesterday, 24 March, there was a huge march and demonstration and what people here call a "manifestation." There were still posters all over the streets, new graffiti on the walls, people marching with flags and tee shirts, in work groups and families and neighborhoods and with friends.  

Of course, many Argentinians felt that the timing of the US president's visit was bad, that it was like a slap in the face of the Argentinian people.  The US didn't exactly back the military in the coup, but remained uninvolved as some 30,000 people simply disappeared.  There were mass executions, mass burials, and people are still unsure what happened to their missing family members.

That was the visual that was most disturbing to me, the endless blue banner showing photos of people who are missing and assumed dead, people who simply disappeared.  Even at seven photos across, that's over 4000 rows of photos.  Thirty thousand missing people.  Just, gone.

The blue banner was in the middle of Avenida de Mayo, which was closed to traffic as people marched to Plaza de Mayo, the park facing Casa Rosada.  And that blue banner stretched endlessly into the distance in both directions.  That's how many people were disappeared.

It's frightening that this happened within our lifetimes.  It's frightening that the world didn't step in, the United Nations didn't send peace keeping forces, that no one intervened and insisted the executions stop, that basic human rights be observed.

This is part of what President Obama spoke about during his visit, as he promised to declassify and release more US documents relating to this dark period of Argentinian history.  The date of his visit, coinciding with this anniversary, was most likely planned to represent an acceptance of US involvement (or rather deliberate non-involvement) in the situation, an acceptance of blame and fault.  While also building new and better relationships for both politics and trade.

One can only hope.




Friday, March 18, 2016

Dusty Days Patagonia Ways

18 March 2016

We're on the last several days of our road trip, so we've shortened our driving time and are slowly making our way back to Buenos Aires.  And we've tried to spend time in places we didn't see on our way south, as well as revisiting places we liked previously.

We spent two days in Las Grutas, and then one night in Viedma, where we had stayed earlier.  Then one day in Monte Hermoso, another very pretty beach town.  Of course, the water always seems to be way too cold, we dip our toes and shiver and that's about it.  But we like beaches, so we're staying along the coast as much as we can.

Our  rental car has been a bit problematic.  It took a few days but we realized there's a law or regulation that vehicles on the highways must drive with lights on.  This makes sense given that many of the highways have very long flat straightaways that go on for miles and miles (or kilometers and kilometers).  When passing all the trucks, it's necessary to see long distances, and having lights on the oncoming traffic really helps prevent head-on collisions.

So we started driving with our lights on.  And realized that we only have one working headlight.  On the passenger side.  

We've had police give us a flashing light hand signal, and other drivers have flashed their lights at us.  We called the rental company and said that they've rented us a car that doesn't meet the country requirements, because we're supposed to have working lights and we only have one headlight.  They said we're responsible for the lights.  (WHAT?!?!?!)  

We figured we'd just give them back the car in the same condition they gave it to us - with only one working headlight.

We finally were stopped by two police officers who were checking registrations and licenses.  In our bad Spanish, we explained that this was a rental, we know we only have one light, we called the company, they said they wouldn't pay to fix the light.  I told the officers they should write a ticket to the rental company.  Another driver helped translate, and then another officer who spoke some English came over to discuss this with us.  It was a mess, with all this back and forth and translating.  Plus one officer reached in and fiddled with the light switches, trying to see if we were just doing something wrong and if he could make the lights work.  (As if the lights are different in North American versus South American cars?)

Eventually, the police jotted down the license plate number (one plate is also missing .....), as well as driver's license numbers.  The older officer went on and on in Spanish, the only part I understood was something about driving with the grace of God.  We were both totally confused and had no idea if we were getting a ticket or not.  

And then the older policeman shook our hands, he and Richard did fist bumps (daps in VI), and that was it.  They told us goodbye.  It wasted a good 15-20 minutes, but it was pretty funny once the situation was finally over.

As we drove away, we realized the inside light was on.  We checked all the doors.  We fiddled with the switches.  No idea what was wrong nor how to fix it.  Plus that one headlight?  Now on high beams.  Either off, or one high beam.  Oy!  

I finally figured out that we needed to push the light switch IN, and the inside light went off.  But we were still stuck with one light not working, and the working light on high.

So at the next gas station, I first asked the attendants if they had a windshield repair kit.  (We have a ding from a pebble.  Apparently we're also responsible for the windows.)  No, they don't.  But they seemed very helpful.  I figured since they seemed willing to help, I'd see if they could fix our light.  Again, I tried to explain we had a light problem, only one light; that we called the rental company but they said the light was our responsibility; and that the police stopped us, so I would like to fix it.

The two men came and looked at the car.  Opened the hood and opened the light.  And found that the light bulb was missing.  Just, not there.  At all.  Nada.  Nothing.  We were rented a car without a light bulb.  (How can they do that????)  You can bet they'll hear from us about this, complete with a bill.  Because yes, we bought the light bulb and my friendly gas station guys installed it for us.  For a whopping 65 pesos (about $4 US).  

It's always something!

Okay, this little furry animal that has a squirrel-like face and a baby bunny body is a cavy (sometimes spelled cavie - but I don't know if that sounds like cah-vee as in cat, or cay-vee as in cave).  Anyway, this is a cute little rodent that's related to guinea pigs.  Cavies live in both the plains, deserts, and mountains of Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile.  There are different kinds of cavies, but they look pretty much the same to those of us who aren't rodent specialists.  Much cuter than a rat, and almost friendly.  There were three or four - one was brave and ventured out from the storage area, the other two or three were chasing each other all around.  I also saw one in Punta Tombo.  Very cute little guys.

Gauchito Antonio Gil.  We see various shrines along the road, usually red with red flags flying in the wind.  We finally stopped to look at some in a group, and several had pictures of Gauchito Antonio Gil.  I've seen his photo, this same exact poster, in various places along our route, and wondered about who is this person and why are there so many shrines for him.

His full name was Antonio Mamerto Gil Núñez, and he was born in the 1840s, supposedly near the town of Mercedes.  He died on 8 January 1878.  His life story has become legend, so some of the details are, well, perhaps not so accurate.  But he has become the most important and prominent gaucho saint in Argentina.

The short story is that Antonio Gil grew up as a farmworker on a ranch.  The ranch owner, a wealthy widow named Estrella Diaz Miraflores, fell in love with Gil (or had an affair with him, depending on the account).  Her brothers and the chief police (also in love with Miraflores) accused Gil of robbery and tried to kill him.  So Gil enlisted in the army to escape his would-be murderers.  He fought in the wars with Paraguay, then returned home where he was welcomed as a hero.

He was then forced to return to the military and fight in the Argentine Civil War.  Gil eventually deserted, and became a sort of Robin Hood outlaw.  His reputation was that he protected and helped the needy and poor, and soon various miraculous healing powers were attributed to him (as well as an immunity to bullets).

The local police finally caught Antonio and tortured him.  He told the police that they would kill him, but after his death they'd receive a letter of pardon.  And that the police sergeant's son was deathly ill.  But that if he prayed to Antonio, his son wouldn't die.

Of course, legend has it that all this happened exactly as Antonio Gil predicted.  He was killed.  The police sergeant received the letter of pardon.  His child was ill and dying.  He prayed to the Gauchito, and his son was cured.  So the sergeant ensured that Antonio Gil had a decent burial, rather than that of a criminal, and built a shrine in the form of a red cross for Gauchito Antonio Gil.

So now, he's seen as a folk hero and local saint, and there are numerous red shrines and red flags all over Argentina and especially in Patagonia.  People still pray to Gil for healing, for miracles, and there are yearly pilgrimages.  

However, the Catholic church does not see him as a saint, nor have they formally canonized Gil.  He's kind of a renegade counter-culture saint, which may be part of his appeal.  

There are worse ways to be remembered, right?

Patagonia has been interesting.  We're sort of sorry to be heading back to the big city.  

But autumn is in the air, the weather is getting windy, chilly, and we've had several thunderstorms.  

We may need to migrate north with the penguins.


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Peninsula Valdés and Onward!

15 March 2016

We're currently back on the road, heading north to Buenos Aires.  But I need to back up and cover the rest of our time in the Puerto Madryn region.

I've been wondering why this part of South America is called Patagonia, so I finally did some research.  (No one we asked seemed to know.  Or maybe they didn't understand our bad Spanish questions.  More probably we didn't understand their answers.)

Fernando de Magellanes first saw very large human footprints on the beach when he arrived in this part of South America, and called the people "Patagones" from the Portuguese "Pata Grau" meaning "big feet."  (They were actually the Tehuelche nation.)  Legend says that they were very tall, or at least compared to 16th century Spanish and Portuguese explorers.  That seems to be the official explanation, I found this in several different locations.
So.  After heading south to Punta Tombo for our friendly penguins, we thought we'd take a day to drive north to Peninsula Valdés.  This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, mostly for the terrain of the landscape as well as the animals to be found here.  Peninsula Valdés is a privately-owned haven for wildlife, with the only continent-based colony of elephant seals in the entire world.  Plus more penguins, colonies of seals and sea lions, and who knows what else we might find.

Saturday we headed up Ruta 3 and turned in for the isthmus.  There's an entry fee, and we headed for the interpretation center.  The staff member we spoke with said that most of the penguins have migrated to warmer climates already, but there would be a few finishing their molting before swimming onward.  (The Punta Tombo penguins will also migrate a bit northward when their molt is finished, so we were lucky that so many were still there!)

Also, we were told that the adult elephant seals have mostly migrated for the winter as well, but that the babies would still be on the beaches, under the supervision of a few remaining adults.  As our friendly ranger said, "But they're really big babies!"

So we drove across the isthmus, and the terrain became drier and drier.  This region of Patagonia is already quite arid, but the isthmus and peninsula was almost desert-like.  

We headed to Punta Piramides, named for pyramid-shaped rocks on the point.  This is the only town on the entire peninsula.  Lunch, gasoline, and water for the afternoon.  Plus our first views of the deep turquoise water, where the desert meets the gulf, and later the ocean.  Absolutely gorgeous, with the bleached soil contrasting so nicely with that bright azure water!

Then we drove.  And we drove.  The roads on the peninsula are gravel.  And dusty.  Cars can be seen several kilometers away simply by the dust cloud they kick up.  

There were herds of guanacos wandering through the bush, daintily eating the dusty plants, or prancing across the gravel roads, or just standing and watching the random cars drive by.  Turns out they are social animals, living in groups of one male and up to ten or twelve females, and their young.  Or sometimes groups of young males, waiting to reach their prime.  Oh, and if I didn't mention it last time, guanacos are the largest of the camelids, the males standing about 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall.

We also saw a few choique (CHOY-kay) - in English, Lesser Rhea, a large flightless bird that looks similar to an emu or ostrich.  We had seen these as we drove south, and wondered if someone was farming ostrich - but no, it turns out they're choiques (or rheas) and are native to this part of South America.  These animals can run 50 km an hour (about 30 miles per hour)!!!  We only saw them walking around, but I wouldn't want to encounter one in person - pretty intimidating!

We followed the map, and drove across the peninsula to the penguin area, and then to two of the elephant seal areas.  (On the black and white map, I've marked the route we took - the turquoise line shows the paved road, and the red line is the gravel.  Where we drove about half speed, because our light little car was fishtailing its way down the road.)

We saw three penguins, one lonely guy standing in his/her burrow looking out to sea, and one couple at the water's edge.  The rest of the colony moved on, and these three were just waiting for those feathers to finish coming in.  Little Magellanic penguins, ready to move to warmer water.

The elephant seals were near the Caleta Valdés - "caleta" translates as "creek" but it looked more like a giant sandbar creating a lagoon.  The elephant seal babies (HUGE babies!) are those big lumpy blobs in pale colors, looking more like exposed and worn limestone boulders than live animals.  But yes, those aren't rocks, those are elephant seals sleeping in the sun!  The sun was hot, the wind was cold, and all seals need to warm up in the sun because they lose a great deal of body heat when swimming in the cold water.

Across the lagoon, on the sand bar, there were both seals (the brown animals) and more elephant seals.  They seemed to live peacefully together, or at least tolerated each other enough to nap nearby.

Because Valdés is a wildlife refuge, the viewing of animals is limited to people standing on the cliffs or bluffs overlooking the beaches.  We're not allowed down to the beaches.  Which is probably a good thing because elephant seals are gigantic - an adult male can reach 4000 kg, or 8800 lbs.  They sit up to 6 ft tall (1.8 m), and the entire body of an adult male can be about 12 feet (4 m).  Huge ani- mals, and not exact- ly friend- ly.

So we were okay staying on the cliffs.

We didn't have enough time to circle the peninsula, so we simply drove across, went a bit down the far side, then headed back.  We returned to the interpretation center on the paved road, because they stay open late.  And because the ranger said they sometimes see a few of the nocturnal animals late in the afternoon.  There are pumas in the area, which I'd love to see but never have.  Our ranger said she's seen a Geoffroys cat, which looks like a large spotted house cat but is related to the margays and ocelots.  (The photos made it look really adorable, if you can call a wild feline adorable.)

But we didn't get to see any of the cats, large or small, so we headed back to Puerto Madryn.

We left on Sunday, heading north again.  Had lunch at the same place in Sierra Grande, and our waitress recognized us.  (It's a trucker spot, so they don't get too many travellers from North America.)  

Heading north, we aimed for San Antonio, where the coastline and Ruta 3 change from north bound to east bound.  But just south of San Antonio was a sign for a beach town that's on our map, Las Grutas.  We talked and agreed why not, we like the beach.

Las Grutas turned out to be a great little beach town.  We found what might have been the nicest hotel in town (we're often lucky that way), and they had a cancellation.  We walked around, exploring both the town, the beach, and our hotel and casino.  

Las Grutas means "The Grottoes" in Spanish, most likely referring to the huge rocky ledges that occupy this southern end of the beach.  The ledges are home to barnacles and mussels clinging to the rock, and are entirely submerged at high tide.  We walked on the beach at low tide - there was a 9 meter (27-28 feet) difference between high and low tide while we were there, according to the sign updated daily by the national naval station located here.  (For non-beach people, that's a really big tidal difference!)

The water in this gulf was the same beautiful turquoise or cerulean we'd seen further south, but equally cold.  No swimming for us.  However, walking along the shore, or climbing on the rocks and looking in the tidal pools, was great fun.

In back of this wide beach were the cliffs or bluffs that are common here.  To me, it appeared as if the rock shelves on the beach prevented severe erosion of one part of the cliffs, but the waves on the more exposed beach area must have reached the cliffs at super high tides or during storms, and caused major erosion.  Probably ongoing, and not the place to buy beachfront property.

We enjoyed Las Grutas so much, we stayed two days.  Because that's what road trips are all about - see the locale, spend time in places you like, travel around without a plan, and enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

But we need to get back to Buenos Aires by next Tuesday, to return the car.  So we only had two days in Las Grutas, and then headed north again.

Tonight we're back in Viedma, by the Rio Negro, enjoying our view of the river and warmer nights than in southern Patagonia.

We're now just under 1000 km (660 or so miles) from BA.  An easy week's drive back.

Oh, before I sign off, the news this morning featured a story about a puma in the town of Pilar, in the Buenos Aires province, and part of the Buenos Aires urban area.  The puma attacked two dogs (but I think the dogs survived), and then the puma disappeared.  At least that's what I gathered from the news report, mostly reading the headlines.  Imagine a puma running through Denver or Seattle or San Francisco!  (Okay, we've had a few in Seattle.  Yes, they cause the same panic.)

Anyway, I'm hoping I see a puma along the way.  Not dead, not in a cage, not attacking anything.  Just, oh, running along the road.

That's my hope anyway.

Here's our route back thus far.