More With the Shoes

12 03 2008

Not long ago, when I announced the change in title that my blog underwent (psst…speaking of changes, check out my newly updated About page. It now goes with the shoe theme too!), I mentioned that I had more shoe posts in the works. And then I never wrote them. I’m trying to spread out the shoe love, but I think it’s time for another.

To recap: when we last left off with the saga of Suzanne’s shoes, she had sent home a pair of unruly strappy sandals that refused to let her salsa dance, and then quarreled with a pair of brand new hiking boots that broke three days into wearing them (the mud is another story, but that she was actually proud of).

Ok, strange third person voiceover finished. So after the hiking boots fiasco I decided that the only shoes a traveling girl can depend on are her flip flops.

I arrived in San Salvador de Jujuy on a Thursday afternoon, excited to explore Argentina’s northwest and more excited to experience their Carnaval. I was informed that I would be hard-pressed to find a bed in any of the Carnaval towns I wanted to visit. On a last minute whim, the girl I was traveling with at the time, Da, and I packed small backpacks with a few days worth of clothes, left our big packs at the hostel in San Salvador and headed up to Uquia, with the brilliant idea of sleeping near Humahuaca, going to Carnaval the next day, and staying up with the festival all night before catching a morning bus back to San Salvador. The short of a much longer story (that I will one day figure out how to tell in a short blog post) is that we finally made it to Humahuaca on Friday night.

In Humahuaca, it was cold (this is where I bought the famous llama sweater, which despite my offers no one seems to want), and I had only my flip flops. There were sneakers in my pack, but that was back in San Salvador, so it seemed I was destined to have cold feet in Humahuaca. But, true California girl that I am, I was still devoted to my beloved flip flops, which had yet to fail me…

Until, that is, while strolling the fair on the edge of town, I walked right into a giant metal post that was sticking up from the ground. Plowed into is more like it. My toe, not protected by shoe was massively hurt for the space of about 10 seconds, but then pain gave over to the blissful re-realization that I was still at Carnaval, and I continued walking. A few moments later, however, my foot felt a little wet and sticky and to my horror I looked down to discover that my no longer hurting toe was gushing blood. I had busted the skin on the end of it.

Da and I raced through the fair asking where there was a pharmacy, but given that it was now late and festival time I decided it wouldn’t be open and settled for dousing my toe in hand sanitizer, wrapping it in toilet paper, and buying a pair of socks (oh the things you’re willing to do when you travel). Then we went to enjoy some Carnaval grub. But when my toe started throbbing halfway through dinner I decided perhaps a pharmacy wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all. To my relief, they were still open (probably for idiots just like me who only bring flip flops to a crowded festival on dirt roads) and I purchased some sort of ointment that I hoped was anti-bacterial.

I spent the next two nights wearing socks with my flip flops and limping slightly, but ultimately I didn’t wind up losing my toe, so all was good. My relationship with my flip flops, however, has not been the same since. I blame myself really.

Lesson learned: Think before you pack. Period.





Ode to the Alfajor

11 03 2008

With Easter two weeks away and me still not eating sweets (ok, a few bites of cake to celebrate my friend Lauren’s birthday, but really we should have celebrated it in December so I’ll say I ate the cake then?), I find myself dreaming of alfajores…

I’m not actually going to write an ode as I’ve never been much of a poet. But if anyone out there has a deep inclination to pen some long-winded verse about what may be the most delicious cookie of all time, I would gladly read it, and post it to my blog, and proclaim it to all I meet. Ok, perhaps not that last, but I do feel very passionately about the alfajor, so anything is possible.

What exactly is an alfajor? Well, it is the reason, for one, that I had to give up sweets for Lent in the first place (Lent conveniently starting for me exactly one week after Ash Wednesday, otherwise known as the day I left Argentina, land of the alfajor). More importantly, however, it is a cookie, made up of layered cookies with a dulce de leche filling. For more on dulce de leche or where to buy it, see my earlier post on it.

In Northern Argentina, the cookies are often of a harder or flakier nature and usually topped with powdered sugar. In Buenos Aires and surrounding areas it is more often a biscuit, sometimes surrounded by a meringue coating, though I prefer those that are dipped in white or dark chocolate. Then of course there is the triple layer alfajores, with dulce de leche as one layer and vanilla or chocolate cream as the other. Needless to say, I tended to eat at least one alfajor a day (hence my subsequent Lenten sacrifice). The real miracle is that even after stuffing myself with alfajores for a month, I’m still dreaming of them. But it’s not so miraculous when you consider that eating one is an experience that might be tantamount to heaven.

And in writing this post I discovered I’m not the only one addicted to the alfajor. A list of some of the alfajor love I found simply by googling the word:

  • An Alfajor blog post on mattbites, by a fellow travel writer and gifted photographer. Matt shares my obsession with alfajores, and he even gives a recipe and some gorgeous photos of the cookies.
  • An entire conversation on yahoo answers centered around one of life’s biggest questions: “What is your favorite alfajor?”
  • And just this morning I found an actual Ode to an Alfajor (though she used the name without writing an ode either; at least great minds think alike).

All this alfajor love aside, though, the supply of alfajores in Argentina is endless, so choosing the right one requires much experimentation or a little bit of knowledge. Luckily, I am now a self-proclaimed alfajor expert, willing pass my knowledge along with a few tips for alfajor tasting:

  1. You can rarely go wrong with the homemade alfajores of a sweet shop or market. They are fresh and almost always have a little too much (which is precisely the right amount) dulce de leche.
  2. When the alfajor emergency arises, head to the nearest kiosko (which is bound to be less than a block away) where the shelves overflow with various prepackaged alfajores. Beware, however, not all brands make a good one. I recommend Milka or Aguila.
  3. Then of course there is Havanna, which is an experience that will one of these days warrant a post all its own. For now, suffice to say that the beloved coffee shops are all over Buenos Aires and in many other cities, and their alfajores may just change your life.
  4. Finally, if your mouth is watering but you’re not going to Argentina any time soon, there is always the option of ordering online (something I’m contemplating once Lent is over).




Llama Sweater

26 02 2008

Anyone want this sweater?
Complete with nieve in the hair: A regular Snow White.

Oh the llama sweater, a staple in the tourist arsenal. In Peru they are sold everywhere and everyone seems to have one. Made (ostensibly) of llama wool, they are soft and oh-so-warm and tourists love to buy them.

On our second day in Cusco I myself almost did just that. It wasn’t the manly type with pictures of llamas on it, but a fitted cream number with a simple geometric design around the collar. It had fringe on the bottom, however, and toggles on the hood. I was in one of those tourism frenzies, where, overcome buy the excitement of all things new, the tourist buys or seriously considers buying things she would never even pick up otherwise. Luckily, some new friends who joined at the market played the “will you really wear it?” card and I was spared an unneeded sweater.

Then came Northwest Argentina, where llama sweaters again abounded. And, in a moment of need rather than want, I had to buy one. I had left my belongings in a hostel in San Salvador de Jujuy, had traveled to Humahuaca for Carnaval with nothing but two changes of clothes (both dresses), some pajamas, and my fleece. Too bad I hadn’t done my research and realized that Humahuaca is cold in the evenings, even in summer. Very cold.

So there I was in my thin pants and not quite warm enough fleece, with flip flops on my feet. The wind was picking up and it was promising to be a long night. What was a girl to do except to splurge on a $10 llama sweater, an oh-so-attractive thick and too big sweater, complete with llamas prancing across my chest. Wasn’t I the fairest of them all? But I was warm.

So now I’m back in New York with my llama sweater, which, in the land of Fifth Ave. and Soho boutiques might just be cause for beheading if I were to wear it outside (or at least cause for pointing and staring). So, if anyone out there would like a llama sweater, women’s medium, I have one here and it’s up for grabs.

Lesson learned: Check the weather ahead of time. And pack accordingly.





Sweet of…Sweets

25 02 2008

Dulce de leche. The literal translation is “sweet of milk.” It is exactly that in Guys and Dolls, when gambler Sky (Marlon Brando) convinces the cold “missionary doll” to join him for dinner in Havana, Cuba and tricks her into a drinking a cocktail  (or several) by that name by saying it’s a milkshake with a little rum. (Okay, so I have a small addiction to old musicals.) It is also, I learned today, a somewhat bizarre Florida-based men’s clothing line.

But, more importantly, in Argentina, it is a caramel concoction so delicious it has its own legend. Today dulce de leche is an Argentine staple, used in everything from pastries to ice cream (and we’re not talking the Häagen-Dazs version folks). It is even a breakfast food, to be spread on bread as the Italians do with Nutella.

What makes this caramel so special? The answer is unclear, save that there is something about the golden, sweet stuff that makes it nothing short of addictive. Something about its chemical balance is such that it required this particular writer to eat her weight in it while traveling, enough to make her give up sweets for Lent (Lent conveniently starting exactly one week after Ash Wednesday, when she was safe at home, out of DDL territory). It is, in short, a little bit of heaven on earth.

Lessons learned:
1) While traveling in Argentina, scope out the corner pastry shop and visit it (and any others you happen to see) often. This is especially key when entering a new unexplored province where the regional DDL treats will be change.

2) If having DDL withdrawals at home (and if it isn’t Lent, or you haven’t given up sweets), try making it yourself.

3) If you can’t cook, or you’re too lazy to cook, put down the Häagen-Dazs and stock up on the real thing online.





They Ring Bells In Argentina Too

7 02 2008

As a little girl, I would go home from Church and ring the bell on my mother’s lamp because the priest said to. For those uninitiated with the Catholic Mass, when consecrating the bread and wine, the priest, in Christ’s words, says to eat the bread and drink the wine that are Christ’s body and blood. After the priest, as Christ says, “Do this in memory of me,” an altar boy rings a bell, a tradition dating back to when the congregation couldn’t see what the priest was doing. As the good little girl that I was, I made sure every Sunday to ring my bell, since I thought the priest had asked me to.

As a grown, Carnaval-celebrating woman, I arrived in Salta yesterday afternoon, exhausted, fighting a terrible cold, tired of nieve being sprayed in my ears, and happy to be away from Carnaval. I had completely lost track of my days and and it never ocurred to me that the day after Carnaval ends is Ash Wednesday, and that in so fervently Catholica a country as Argetnina, there would be masses.

Nevertheless, there is a very pretty (pink) church in the main plaza of the city, and after a trip to the museum I decided to pop in. When I neared the doors the sound emanating gave me goosebumps. A crystal clear woman’s voice was singing a lovely Spanish tune that resounded against the ornate walls of the church.

I entered solemnly, excited that I had stumbled upon an actual ceremony, and it was only when I saw the hundreds (literally) of people that filled the giant cathedral that it ocurred to me it was Ash Wednesday. I was exhausted and carrying a heavy grocery bag filled with water, toilet paper for my runny nose (and hotel that doesn’t supply it), and snacks for my next day’s tour, but I felt I had to stay.

It took about twenty minutes for them to get ahses to everyone. In that time the choir sang about 15 songs. I recognized the tunes to five of those, and found myself trying to recall what the words would have been in English. This is harder than it seems. For some reason, with the Spanish over it, even the words to the Our Father failed me; all the responses that have been second nature since childhood faltered as I tried to make out the Spanish.

But one thing crystal clear: I heard bells. It was a touching and humbling experience to thing that in another language, on the other side of the equator, they do the exact same things. And though I haven’t been the most devoted Catholic in recent years, it was incredible to experience Ash Wednesday with hundreds of strangers, speaking in a foreign tongue, in a stunning and massive cathedral.





Meanwhile in Tilcara…

4 02 2008

There’s a party going on.

Yesterday on my way back to my hotel to relax before heading down to the Carnaval festivities, I stopped to watch a parade pass. Along about 30 diablos (men and boys in vibrant, jesterish costumes that are meant to represent the devil) picking off female bystanders of their own size as they went.

The girl next to me went, and next thing I knew my hand too was seized by a diablo, and I entered the fray as well. My diablo gave brief instructions where necessary, in the high pitched voice that goes with the costume. The parade alternated from dancing (he used his tail to whirl me through the streets), to sprinting through the street, and then ducking under the bridges made by other devils and their partners.

We proceeded this way throughout the entire town, and let me just say that what seemed like a small town in the morning didn’t not seem so small after my half hour jog through it. By the end I was sweaty, laughing hysterically, and covered in talco (talcom powder) and nieve (spray snow), which are thrown and squirted by the watching crowd.

But no time to catch your breath. My diablo had scarcely left when the the crowd of bystanders surged into the street, attacking with talco and thrusting jugs (otherwise known as the cut halves of two liter bottles) of homemade sangria my hands.

The rest of the evening was spent dancing in the streets with the rest of the crew, while buses patiently waited for the crowds to clear, which never happens. Until the next parade…





The Lady on the Plane Has Bad, Bad Breath

18 01 2008

I’m quickly discovering that the problem with travel as work is time. I have so many great stories but no time to write them.

Tonight, as I roll into hour four of the Lima airport and brace myself for the next five (yes, that’s a total of nine hours—which otherwise would be spent happily asleep in a warm bed—but who’s counting?), what’s fresh on my mind is the plane ride from Buenos Aires to Lima.

When I sat down, in my middle seat, my olfactory senses went into overdrive. What was that putrid smell? Then the lady in the aisle seat coughed and it became overpowering.

When the movie came on and she asked me what channel, me holding my breath must have looked like, “I don’t understand you” because she responded to my “no sè” with “do you understand Spanish?” I held my breath, nodded weakly, and used my fingers to make the universal sign for “a little”: I know I want to practice my Spanish, but I have to have my limits…

I pretended to be engrossed in the film, a Bruce Willis action movie with the worst car chase in history. Finally the movie ended (Bruce—in case you couldn’t guess—survived an entire overpass falling on him, among other things). It was a this point that I realized I had gotten used to the breath. Or was it possible it got better after she ate?

So when she spoke to me again I was fine with it. She wanted to know when we would land. When I couldn’t tell her, she decided to ask where I was from and we got into my travel story, then her visit to her daughter, and soon we had discovered that we’d both studied literature.

The next thing I knew I was writing her author recommendations in my notebook. Then my new friend Consuela was writing her email address (making sure I understood that there was a punta before the “com”), in case I ever made it to Columbia and wanted to visit her.

And all this time I never even noticed the breath.

Lesson learned: Never judge by first scent. You never know when you may need to practice your Spanish, or make a friend.

And now I go back to guidebook writing. Stay tuned for amazing alfaores, the best cheese platter ever (can anyone guess a theme in my trip?), the poet/tour guide of Lujàn, and the bizarre holy shrine in Tandil.





Adios Zapatos

13 01 2008

One thing to note about the salsa scene in Buenos Aires: It’s not just about wanting to dance but about being able to. We arrived at the salsa club Azúcar an hour after it opened: 1:00 a.m. There were already several people on the dance floor, dancing with impeccable technique and astounding flare. It seems a new trend in salsa is the use of hidden hand lights which go off at key moments of the dance.

To the side of the dance floor, about 12 females sat alone at about 12 random tables waiting to be asked to dance. More ladies loomed mear the dance floor with the same hope. Capirinhas in hand, we joined this latter group and quickly discerned the conundrum: The men would not ask ladies to dance unless they had seen them dancing already (aka if they had seen skill). They took one look at us gringas and kept on going.

But finally some men took pity on us. As I whirled and spun on the floor I realized it was harder than I remembered—and that I wanted to lead. I quickly got over that, however, and was soon dancing with Manuel, a very good (and very patient) dancer, but next came my second problem: my feet.

It seems that those heels I so hurriedly purchased the night before my trip in case of just this scenario were not such a good idea after all. The backs kept sliding down my heel, which was not only uncomfortable but meant that my foot kept twisting and turning sideways, making it extremely painful and difficult to dance.

So I did what any real salsa dancer would do: I carried on. This meant stumbling far too often and exclaiming to Manuel, “Son mis zapatos” until, exasperated, I finally took the shoes off. Then I was holding my own on the floor (at least in my humble opinion, that is) and had a ball twirling and dancing the night away.

And now? Well, now I’m stuck with a pair of uncomfortable shoes that I most likely won’t wear again on this trip and that most certainly take up too much space in an already stuffed backpack. Stupid shoes.

Lesson learned: Don’t salsa in uncomfortable heels. Don’t pack them either. And while we’re at it, don’t even buy them the night before your trip in the first place. Perhaps next time I’ll go dancing in my hiking boots…





What Is Travel Writing?

10 01 2008

Thursday, 10 January, 2008.

Day four of an interesting but rather grueling traveling writing course. The day we spend entirely “in the field,” researching and writing a full “city guide” for one neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

I spent the morning becoming an expert on Retiro but could not find the Plaza de Embajaro Israel, all that remains after the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy. My intense thesis work not having satiated this obsession I seem to have developed with loss and memory, I was determined to see this monument to the lost and learn how Argentines remember their turbulent history.

I was looking at my map when I encountered Julio, a thin man in his sixties with thick coke bottle glasses. He bounded up and asked what I was looking for. Confident that I had already figured it out, but eager to practice my Spanish, I told him. Then he told me how to get there. I understood about half.

Julio walked four blocks with me, and we spoke (in Spanish) the whole way. Then he pointed out the Plaza and I realized (though I didn’t tell him) that I had been on this block earlier the same morning and had merely forgotten to look. Thank God for forgetfulness. After pointing out the Plaza Julio proceeded to tell me its history. And very patiently repeated it until I understood. I’d read the history in my guidebook, but it was much more poignant hearing it from Julio. This is the real key to memory I had been seeking.

Then we parted, Julio wishing me buena suerte (good luck) on the rest of my travels. I understood that part perfectly, and I walked on feeling a bit happier, and a bit giddy that my job (at least for this week) means not just seeing amazing places, but really seeing them, through the eyes of those who live there.





I’ll be the girl with the giant backpack…

5 01 2008

Ok, I’ve done it. I managed to wade my way through the swamp of clothes that has been my living room for the past week. And I managed to fit all (or most) of it. The Squirrel, as my beloved pack was christened (though I can’t really recall why) on her virgin trip through Europe long ago, is standing tall in my living room. And by tall I don’t mean just proud: the girl is huge. But I am happy to say that I can still lug her around with the best of them. That skill came back like riding a bike. The week of preparation, however, was not so easy…

What to bring for six weeks? In Europe (for four months) I had exactly 2 pairs of jeans, 1 pair of thermals, 3 shirts and a jacket. I’m not exaggerating. But now that I’m older (and slightly prissier) that just won’t do. Not to mention hiking gear. So my week of packing in brief went something like this:

  • Five (yes five) trips to Eastern Mountain Sports to pick up gear. Partly because I kept forgetting things, partly because I wanted to make use of coupons, and partly because I just really got to love the gang there. Hey, if I can’t find a job when I get back, perhaps I’ll go work there.
  • As many trips to the drugstore to stock a pharmacy that I will now carry on my back for the next six weeks. Always best to be prepared for anything…
  • Two trips to the Outdoor World with my oh-so-patient brother because the first pair of hiking boots didn’t work out.
  • Then comes the everyday clothes. A last minute trip to Nine West to buy shoes (on sale of course) I could take for going out and not care much if their heels broke off after being stuffed in the squirrel.

But I survived, though I’m exhausted reliving it all. And now, it’s time to go. I’ll be in Buenos Aires at noon tomorrow, the girl with the towering backpack that looks nothing whatsoever like a squirrel.