South Pass: One More Reason to Love Argentina

23 06 2009

South America has a great system of buses that traverse the entire continent. And yet for travelers the system is still a bit complicated. There is a moment of panic when you arrive at the us station, laden with baggage, and then have to figure out which bus companies run to your desired destination and which offer the best times for the most value.

Enter South Pass. Think of South Pass as the Eurail pass of Latin America: a flexible bus pass allowing unlimited travel through seven different countries, with regular departures from 260 cities. The buses are the same comfortable buses, complete with reclining “bed” seats to make the journey easier, and there is no worry that you’re overspending on multiple bus trips.

With passes for anywhere from 10 days up to 25 and buses that run between Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguy, Uruguay, Bolivia and Peru, South Pass makes getting around easy, so you can focus on other, more important things. Like enjoying yourself.





Hola Mate

18 06 2009

One of my favorite things about Argentina was the mate ritual. In South America, yerba mate has been known as the “drink of the gods” for centuries. The bitter tea takes a little getting used to, but it is packed with vitamins and insanely healthy. It is also a tradition in itself.

Mate is the national drink of Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Southern Brazil. And drinking mate is not just healthy, it’s ritual. Mate gourds, usually metal or wood or a combination, are gorgeous, artful creations.  The gourd is shared between a group, filled with hot water each time and passed from person to person, each of whom drinks the entire gourdful of tea through the bombilla (straw filter) before pouring more water and passing the gourd. It’s a sharing of friendship and an honor to share another’s mate.

All this is a long way of explaining that mate is yet another thing I wish I could have brought back from Argentina in unlimited supply. But now I’ve discovered the next bet thing: Guayakí is a company that not only sells gourds and mate but that does so with a larger purpose in mind. The company partners with small farmers and indigenous communities, aiding in conservation and community development in the sub-tropic cultures of South America. Named for the Aché Guayakí people native to the mate forest, the company practices a business model called Market Driven Restoration, allowing consumer purchases of yerba mate in North America to support indigenous communities and sustainable agriculture and reforestation projects in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.

Namely, not only can I feel good about enjoying my mate again, I feel good about helping save the South American landscape I’ve come to love so much.





The Next Best Thing

5 02 2009

I keep harping on this Argentina thing, I know. But yesterday, as I braved 19 (feels like 2) degree weather, and bent forward to protect myself from crazy winds that slanted the heavily pouring snow, I couldn’t help but pretend it was last year and I was sweating away in sunny Buenos Aires. To make myself feel better, I read about the new up-and-coming Tango scene in Miami. Tango, it seems, is the new salsa in balmy Miami, where milongas are cropping up and folks are trading the swinging hips of salsa for the regimented, sensual steps of tango (lessons required: this is one dance where improvisation just doesn’t quite work).

While I do love salsa, I can understand why the folks in Miami have a new craze. Tango is intense, riveting, and out and out dificil, but oh so amazing to watch. Observe, for example, this intricate footwork from a milonga in BA.

However, Miami, though closer than BA, is currently  still tough to get to, so I figured I’d see if  there were places closer to home to heat up the cold winter nights with a little dancing. Sure enough, there are…

Those serious about learning the dance can check out Triangulo, where a month of classes is $70 ($55 for university and high school students). Those just looking for one hot night, check out Richard Lipkin’s Guide to Argentine Tango in New York, which has a calendar jam-packed with tango happenings all over the city and beyond, and more places for classes as well. Dance Tango lists milongas and classes as well as shows, for those who love the dance but may not be ready to strut their own stuff quite yet.





Alfajor Heaven

30 01 2009

In honor of my ongoing nostalgia for last year’s adventures, another flashback. This one I actually found in my drafts: it was started but (for reasons now unknown) never finished, back in Argentina, on (I am guessing) January 14, 2008. My guess is that it was never finished because I was spending a good part of my Luján internet time frantically trying to figure out a way to replace my camera, which had just been stolen in Buenos Aires. At any rate, it finally goes live a year later…

Today, this, the first day of my career as a travel guidebook writer, I am in Luján, quite possibly the closest one gets to a one horse town. It’s quiet and tiny and full of small town charm, including the most beautiful confiteria (sweet shop) I have ever seen.

Villa de Luján is a tiny wood building that looks more like it belongs in Switzerland than in “gaucholand.” We were first attracted to the cartoonish gnomes gracing the outside, but then I saw the menu: dulce de leche galore. My new friend Liz (Note: Liz is now a dear friend and the one with whom I am soon to embark on a very exciting, as yet undisclosed venture) and I  have become, over the past week,  self-declared dulce de leche experts, specializing in the alfajor, a heavenly cookie sandwich filled with the sweet of sweets.

Naturally, Liz and I figured we must give it a try, us being travel writers and this being a a very important spot in the tine town. Entering the tiny cabin was like entering grandmother’s house, complete with flowery tablecloths, and, even better, sweets. The staff consisted of a cheerful older woman and her mother, who both chatted amiably before sitting us at a doily covered table and serving us orange juice in sugar-rimmed glasses, followed by a slice of spongy lemon cake. But the highlight, of course, was the king of alfajorés—a triple-layer cookie filled with one layer vanilla crème and one dulce de leche and surrounded by rich chocolate. Don’t think, full as we were, we didn’t leave without a few for the road.

Villa de Lujan, B Mitre 179, Lujan, Argentina, (02323) 429949





Small, Small World – And a Conundrum

18 07 2008

For people who love to travel, the world seems like a very big place. Massive. As in, It’s-so-huge-that-I’ll-never-possibly-get-to-all-the-places-I-want-to-go GIGANTIC.

But then there are times when something will happen to make you realize how small the world really is. Like, for example, when you meet a girl in Buenos Aires (who happens to be from London), and she then becomes a great friend. It’s an even smaller world when that initial girl emails and says that her friend (who happens to be from Brazil) is going to be in New York.

And so one Sunday afternoon you find yourself in the Lower East Side (of New York) drinking beer (from Belgium) with Marina (from Brazil) who met Liz (from London) at Carnaval (in Brazil)—and you’re all linked through Argentina (from which no one involved happens to hail). Whew. Looks like travel makes it a small world after all. Sorry for annoying song reference. It was inevitable.

True story? Funny you should ask. Yes. It most certainly is a true story. I showed lovely Marina around New York on Sunday, and marveled at her marveling at New York (and the fact that she had yet to meet a New Yorker who was actually from New York). Then on Tuesday I went with Marina to see the New York Philharmonic play (for free) in Central Park. Through her met numerous other small world souls (from all over the world) through an organization called Couchsurfing, which requires a blog all its own but for today’s purposes helps travelers meet people and find free places to stay (making the world less expensive and thus smaller).

And now for the conundrum. The great thing about having someone in town who isn’t even from America is that you really get to see New York (and the US) through a different lens. And you find yourself explaining things that seem so commonplace, such as leaving your credit card at the bar to keep a tab open and what is a Zagat.

But then there was a question I couldn’t answer. “What types of food are very American?” Simple enough, right? Hot dog. Apple pie. Watermelon? (And then I get stuck in things like hamburgers that seem repetitive.) But it turns out there was more to the question: one goes to Italy and brings home Limoncello; you get champagne from France, alfajores from Argentina (you didn’t think I’d not mention those, did you?). But what should Marina take back to Brazil from America?

And hence the conundrum. I have no answer. She surely wouldn’t bring back hot dogs. Or apple pie or watermelon for that matter. Bourbon is American, but who wants to bring that back? If she were in San Francisco I would suggest Ghirardelli chocolate, but given we’re in New York that won’t do. And thus I’m stumped. So. Thoughts? If anyone can shed light on this little dilemma, please, please enlighten me. And Marina.





A Little Bite of Heaven

8 05 2008

As I write this, I have retreated momentarily to the bliss that is the Havanna alfajor.

To explain: a few days ago I got an email from my friend and former EuroCheapo cohort Alex Robertson Textor, with whom I had coffee plans a few days later. All the email said was “What type of alfajor do you prefer, meringue or chocolcate? I will explain later.” Perplexed, but assuming he was writing something about the alfajor and needed my expert opinion, I quickly replied that the chocolate is best by far, because the meringue gets a little crumbly and takes away from the cookie.

Turns out, though, that Alex didn’t need my alfajor expertise, and actually doesn’t even agree with it (turns out he is a meringue fan). He was asking because his sister just returned from a trip to Buenos Aires. Bearing gifts. Alex showed up for coffee today and pulled two alfajores from his (new awesome recycled products) bag for me. Chocolate coated.

I simply couldn’t believe my luck (or Alex’s generosity, parting with two of them!), and didn’t wait more than 10 seconds before diving into the first. I gave the second a little time (an hour or so) but I couldn’t let it sit there on the table without wanting to eat it, so here I am, taking another bite of chocolate covered bliss. And I know it doesn’t seem possible, but it’s better than I remembered. The cookie has the perfect balance of a little bit of crunch and a little bit of flake, but it surely doesn’t overpower the star of the show: creamy, sweet dulce de leche. Ah happiness.

So a huge THANK YOU to Alex. And, since I surely haven’t blogged about the alfajor enough, a bit about Havanna, which might just as easily be called, simply, Heaven.

Havanna stores are all over Argentina. In Buenos Aires they are almost as ubiquitous as Starbucks is in New York. Almost. But they should be. While their main product is the amazing alfajor (covered with meringue, chocolate, or white chocolate), they also sell jars of dulce de leche, candies, and other scrumptious tidbits. Of note is the Havannet: a cone-shaped, chocolate-covered beauty that consists of a small cookie and massive amounts of dulce de leche. In both the Havannet cookie and the alfajor the cookie itself is just slightly infused with lemon, just enough of it.

Then there is the coffee, which comes in tiny cups and and, of course, a cookie. Havanna has the value meal to beat out anything McDonald’s might try. For just a few dollars you get a small coffee, a cookie, and sometimes even a tiny cup of juice, all on a pretty little tray. And did I mention that the coffee drinks are almost as deliciously rich as the cookies themselves? Cappuccino, mocha, white chocolate…

Maybe if I think about it long enough Havanna will come to me. (Oh wait. It already has.)





Flashbacks (or Something More)

15 04 2008

I think Argentina’s stalking me. Or haunting me. Or calling to me in some strange mental telepathy sort of way. Or perhaps I’m channeling Argentina and making it all up. Whatever the case, it’s been cropping up a lot.

It’s going to seem hokey, but while there I felt I had some sort of spirit/force/what-have-you watching out for me. I’m pretty sure it was Gaga, my maternal grandmother who passed away before I was born but who, I’ve always been told, had a strong adventurous spirit and was in all an amazing woman. I grew up jealous that my siblings have Gaga stories and I never got to know her. In my recent adventures, it only seemed right to speak to a strong female force in my life—who, incidentally, came to San Francisco from Hong Kong (by herself) at age 22, knowing no one (and my mom was worried about my move to NYC).

In my recent adventures, I got to know Gaga. Just when I was feeling exhausted or sick or lonely, I’d get pulled into a parade at Carnaval or stumble upon a beautiful Ash Wednesday ceremony. And it always seemed that I’d recently asked her for help. Call it what you will, I think my grandmother was looking out for me.

Then I came home, and during the job-hunting struggles of late I’ve had the distinct feeling that Gaga is giving me the silent treatment. Last week was especially rough (a separate post all to itself), and I went into the weekend feeling particularly frustrated and all around glum.

Then on Saturday I sat in Washington Square Park to enjoy beautiful weather and a band playing the greatest hits of Marvin Gaye. The man on the bench next to me was wearing a bracelet, a wooden saint bracelet that just about every male in Argentina sports. I happen to have one of these bracelets. It was given to me by Dario, who I met on a bus to Buenos Aires at the end of my trip. This experience warrants a separate post in itself, but for today’s purposes, it’s only necessary to say that in a particularly weak moment I called on Gaga and then met Dario (which happens, in addition to everything else, to be my nephew’s name). He gave me not only interesting conversation and perspective but a bracelet by which to remember him.

I wore the bracelet the rest of my trip and periodically put it on now that I’m home. It’s not fashionable, but it makes me happy. I wasn’t wearing it Saturday (I put it on when I got home), but the sight of another wearing it here in New York gave me that same sense of happiness, and a sense of peace that this is indeed a small world and a good one. I didn’t talk to said male because he seemed to have lost that Argentine friendliness, but I vowed to email Dario and tell him about it. (I have yet to do this, but I will. And then I’ll blog about it.)

Since then, Argentina’s been all over. This morning in DailyCandy there was a deal for a Pachamama massage at the Iguazu Day Spa, and while I didn’t make it to Iguazu I am definitely simpatica with Mother Earth (as the Pachamama is also known). I won’t be getting the Pachamama massage any time soon, but it seemed a weird coincidence since I keep hearing about things from Argentina.

Perhaps more bizarre was my experience yesterday. After an afternoon of struggling through the headache that is taxes (yes I’m one of those brilliant people who waited until the last possible minute) I heard a street band on my way to work. This is not uncommon (see above), and yet yesterday’s band was different: something about the horns and the rhythms was distinctive. Though I was surrounded by tall buildings and fast-walking people, for a second I turned the corner expecting a group of brightly colored diablos dancing around on a dusty street.

Perhaps it was my tax haze, but it seemed so real I was almost there, and I really did expect a parade. Is it all coincidence? Wishful thinking? Or am I simply going insane? Or could it be Gaga telling me to hang in there and remember my adventures (and her)? The jury is still out on all that. In the meantime, however, I will continue to wear Dario’s bracelet and to remember my parade.

And for fun, this video I took in Tilcara which captures my diablo abduction. You’ll see the girl next to me be pulled into the parade, then I laugh before my diablo grabs me and chaos ensues as I get pulled into the parade. It’s like the Blair Witch Project (except much less scary… and real).





How I Almost Became My Mother

28 03 2008

My mother is a worrier. She worries about everything, especially everything having to do with her children. And with five children she’s basically spent most of the last 42 years worrying. Being the youngest, and probably the most adventurous, I seem to give my mother the most to worry about these days. She nearly drove herself to insanity with worry when I chose to drive across the country with friends at age 20, and when I moved to New York by myself she almost took my siblings with her.

Funny side note: On a rainy day when we were in Venice together I left breakfast to use the restroom and decided to retrieve my rain jacket from its holding place with the rest of my backpacking gear under the bus. When I stayed on the bus while it drove around to pick up the rest of our tour group, my mother (of course) noted my absence and jumped to the logical conclusion that her healthy 22-year-old daughter had fallen in the bathroom and couldn’t get up to call anyone.

Needless to say, Mom’s worrying has given her children a lot to laugh at over the years. And by the time I was heading Argentina on my own I was used to it. I, it seems, am not a worrier. Not usually at least…

I am typically of the “no plan is a good plan” travel mentality, and have accordingly experienced much hilarity from simply going with the flow. But every once in a while the planner in me comes out, and it did just that in Northwest Argentina. In San Salvador de Jujuy I met another girl, Da, and we decided to head up to Humahuaca for Carnaval together. Given the festival weekend, there was a lot of talk about the inevitable scarcity of beds there. This hasn’t stopped me in the past, but for some reason it made me nervous. Da, however, was ready to go.

I determined that I couldn’t miss out on experiencing Carnaval and next thing I knew I was on a bus to Uquía, which we thought would be a better bet since it is outside town. We arrived around 7 p.m. and knocked on the door of their ONE hostel. The man didn’t even open the door all the way before telling us they were too full. Much to my chagrin I soon found myself following Da around while she asked people if we might sleep on their couches. Then we clambered across the river, where we’d heard a woman had cabins. After wandering a while in no man’s land we came upon two houses, and a man outside the first pointed us even further up the road to the woman.

When we reached her house a young girl came out and asked us to wait, which seemed a good sign. But the proprietor’s face said all. We tried to make ourselves as pathetic as possible, and pointed at the vast empty room behind her, begging for even a tiny space on the floor there just so long as it was sheltered, but to no avail. The thought of two young women without a place to sleep didn’t bother this woman one bit. Clearly she is not my mother, who not only worries about her own children but everyone else’s too. I, on the other hand, found myself becoming increasingly more like my mother as the situation became more dire. I started hearing her worry voice in my head, and kicking myself for not following my initial instincts. My “fearless female traveler” self was waning, and fast.

I kept repeating to myself my former travel adventures: arriving in Bacharach, Germany and hiking half an hour uphill in my heavy pack to the castle hostel that had told me over the phone he had no rooms and then convincing him to lay out mattresses in his conference room (and we got a discount), driving around Bordeaux, France unable to find accommodations and ultimately sleeping in our rental cars (only to find out the next morning that our “safe” hospital parking lot” was right under the helicopter landing pad)… But my previous adventures did nothing to ease the gnawing feeling in my gut that something was going terribly wrong.

All this worry snowballed into yet another strain of worry: worry about my worry. Unlike my mother, I’m not usually a worrier. Or at least not in the same way. I often make myself crazy with thought, but that (I always tell myself) is not the same as worry. And especially in travel adventures I’m not the one to worry, so what was wrong? Am I getting old? Am I turning into my mother? Am I losing my sense of adventure?

Luckily, I never found out, because my planless plan (however worrisome) turned out to be one of the most rewarding adventures of my trip. Da and I went back to the “cabins” on the lady’s property to ask the man who had last directed us to her house if we might stay with him. He gestured to the five children playing in his yard and suggested the cabin next door. Again we were pathetic and pleaded with the man who answered the door for a sliver of his floor. He hesitated but was definitely considering.

Finally he left to ask his wife, and after ten agonizing minutes returned and invited us inside. The cabin (which they were renting from the lady who is definitely not like my mom) afforded barely enough space for the family of four, but Patricio and his family welcomed us in, offering us mate and chatting with us about our respective countries (Da is from China). When the time came they drove us into Humahuaca for the evening’s Carnaval celebrations. The whole way their eight-year-old twins, Octavio and Julia chattered away about their vacation and asked us question after question about America and China.

Upon arrival in Humahuaca we split up (it was at this time that I split my toe), and as we left them for a delicious meal and revelry I laughed at myself for ever having worried. In the course of our wanderings that night Da and I found a woman with two beds for let in her house, and promptly paid her for them, not out of want to escape our family but in hope of making their last night of vacation a little easier.

When we found the family again Octavio instantly took my hand and began chattering away about his night, firing questions about mine in rapid Spanish. (I was smitten.) After Da and I had retrieved our things there were hugs all around and Eugenia, the mother, made us each promise to call her when we were back in Buenos Aires. She would cook for us. And so I reluctantly left my new family with the realization that the very adventure that made me “become my mother” for those few short moments actually allowed me to find her (in Argentina).

And even better than that? We discovered that my new littler brother and I had the same sweater:

“Siblings” in their Sweaters





Short List: Forgotten Fourth Passion

26 03 2008

How on earth could I—with the completion of MA in literature and the madness of December’s paper writing (which, frazzled though I was, I must admit I oddly enjoyed) in my so recent past—forget a fourth, and oh-so-important passion in my About page?

I can’t really figure it out actually, but I neglected to note a lifetime obsession with books, which ranks (gasp!) even above my love of shoes. The bookshelves in my tiny apartment as well past the point of being overstuffed with books and that’s to say nothing of all those that were left behind at my parents’ house. And yet I still enjoy trips to the bookstore whenever possible. Bookstores are actually, in my opinion, a key aspect of travel. Many cities have famous or historic bookstores that are just as important as churches and more conventional landmarks.

So because I haven’t done a list in a while, a short one featuring my top three bookstores in great destinations. (And no, Barnes and Noble has not made the cut.)

  1. City Lights Booksellers in San Francisco is a North Beach mainstay and the icon of an era. Founded by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953, the bookstore and publishing house earned notoriety in 1956 when Ferlinghetti was caught up in (and won!) an obscenity trial for printing Allen Ginsberg‘s Howl & Other Poems. Since then City Lights has been a San Francisco institution. It stands proudly on the corner of Columbus and Broadway as a memory of the tumultuous and controversial Beat writers and all the great literature that has followed.
  2. New York’s Strand is a booklover’s heaven. It takes up most of a the block of Broadway and 12th St. in the East Village (with another location downtown) and boasts 18 miles of books. As if this weren’t enough, the books are cheap. The Strand has a huge selection of used books, but even most of the new ones are discounted. I know I’m a nerd, but I could spend hours there.
  3. El Ateneo (the Santa Fe location) in Buenos Aires has retained the architecture it had in its former incarnation as the Grand Splendid Theater. Its four stories of books, music, and movies are as exciting and lovely as the ornate theater in which they reside. There is something remarkable about having a coffee where the stage once was (and Carlos Gardel once performed), but I may just prefer cozying up with Neruda in a box seat.

And last, since I’ve already established that my talents (and passion) don’t lie in counting, I’m throwing in a bonus, since I just happened upon it again the other day: McNally Robinson Booksellers in Nolita, a cheery independent bookstore that is as much about edifying as entertaining. It’s a friendly community space that alternates its front displays based on community and progressive statements, not bestsellers. I had the pleasure of wandering through again and didn’t want to leave, especially when I found a small table with a set of beautiful books I have never seen before. It seems Penguin has a series called Great Ideas, with reprints of books that have “changed the world,” from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, all in pocket-size with simple but lovely covers.

All this book thought gave me a great idea of my own. I hereby start a new Around the World in Gold Stilettos category: book reviews. For EuroCheapo’s blog I regularly posted reviews on books relating to Europe, books that gave a sense of culture or history, so I’m reinstating that on my own blog (starting tomorrow). 





Capital (with a capital C)

20 03 2008

New cultural capital.

A NY Times travel article called Argentine Nights caught my eye (not surprisingly) on Sunday and then I received a NY Times event email the following day, announcing a Zizek Urban Beats Club show that evening at SOB’s in the Lower East Side. Unfortunately after Ginobli’s eventful St. Patrick’s Day I didn’t make it to the show, but this sudden influx of Buenos Aires renewed my obsession with the city, an obsession that began when, a little over a year ago, I edited and rewrote (the original was too painful for words) the BsAs destination guide for Classic Travel’s newly launching website. Just writing about the sprawling cosmopolitan city had me fascinated and determined that the free ticket I earned with Classic Travel must be used to go there.

And the trip there met all expectations and more. And it occurred to me that I have never once written a blog entirely about the city in which I spent the most time. Perhaps because it would require so much more than just one post. That being the case, I will limit my thoughts for the day to a response to the Times article, which, by comparing BA to Prague in the 1990s, essentially positions it as the modern day version of Bohemian Paris. At once sophisticated and gritty Buenos Aires to the creative set today is what Paris was to Stein, Picasso, and the rest. Creative types from all around the world are taking advantage of the cheap prices in BA and setting up shop (often literally: the Times article talks of new galleries, leather shops, and hotels).

The Times article goes on to talk about a buzzing art scene, inspired filmmakers, and budding writers, all of whom have found a place in the sprawling metropolis. Buenos Aires, it seems, is not just the capital of Argentina any more; some may say it’s the creative capital of the world, at least today. And being there I saw this in action. In my travel writing class alone, six (out of 12) of us were Americans who had relocated to BsAs for some period of time, to learn Spanish, to teach English, but mainly, to write. Because there is something about the pulsing with life city that just inspires.

And I was not immune. In fact, it had me wishing I had thought of that, because, to me, BA is the (much cheaper) New York of the southern hemisphere. It’s just as vibrant, just as cosmopolitan, and just as full of interesting people, most of whom have taken some sort of risk and followed some sort of dream to get there. All the things I love about NYC in fewer letters (and for fewer dollars).

So for those creative types out there that need a new bohemian surge (whether contemplating a move to “the new Paris” or not), a few popular BA resources for expats:

  • What’s Up Buenos Aires: a site that describes itself as “connecting the emerging arts and culture scene in Buenos Aires to the rest of the world” and a source for BA events, culture, and incredible photography.
  • BA Insider: a hip, glossy, and highly portable (read: the size of a thin book and easy to throw in a purse or even pocket) bi-monthly English-language mag with informational and witty insights for the expat (or foreign traveler) in the new cultural capital.
  • The Argentimes: Need I point out the obvious? I will anyway: all my talk of BA being the NYC of South America and then their English paper goes and has the same (well, close enough) name. Way to be a prophet—or something like that—me (and modest too).

There is so much more to say about vibrant, amazing Buenos Aires, but I stop at saying it still has a hold on me.