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.

Flying High

6 05 2009

Last weekend I got to go home to California, and it was perhaps the best travel experience ever. I flew, for the very first time Virgin America (I guess you could say I was a Virgin virgin—pardon me, I had to go there), and it was a flight experience like no other.

For one, the flight attendants were actually nice. I know they are generally supposed to be nice. It is, after all, their job to be nice, but in my most recent travels I’ve encountered some of the rudest people, and they’ve all been those strolling up and down the aisle and bumping folks with their carts.

Which brings me to another plus about Virgin: no carts. No, this does not mean you don’t get to eat or drink anything while flying. It simply means you get to eat or drink when you’re ready, namely that you can sleep if you like without worrying that you’ll miss the drinks, or you can drink when thirsty without having to wait for drink service. Everything is automated, and you order on the screen in front of you which, incidentally, is also the source of endless entertainment, from movies and television to a vast music selection.

Movies, alas, have to be purchased, as do some premium television, but music is free, and instead of being relegated to whatever’s playing on the radio, you can create your own play list (I must admit that I played a few Rhianna songs on repeat throughout much of the flight). There are also some great comedy shows created especially for Virgin, which compile hilarious snippets of various comedians talking around a given theme (travel, relationships, politics…), though these were inexplicably free going one way and not going the other. Go figure.

The seats themselves were rather on the plush side, for airline seats. Though they didn’t seem to recline very far, they were leather and comfortable with seemingly more legroom than your average plane. And even the mandatory safety video before takeoff was a little easier to bear, since it came with a few jokes and amusing cartoon illustrations. The bottom line: Virgin America really goes the extra mile (again, please pardon pathetic pun). All things considered, if I could have it my way, it would certainly be my airline of choice for all flights moving forward.

Queens Towers (by special request)

18 10 2008

I was recently chided for having written about two of my nieces and not their sister, my darling Olivia.

And so, without further ado, a post especially for Olivia, in two parts.

I may be belaboring the point but I love being an aunt for the simple joys of passing on knowledge, joy, enthusiasm, and for cultivating those female bonds which I think are so special. At home in California this summer I had several opportunities for just these things, some already noted and others soon to be forthcoming. The added bonus of all this, I found, is that I get to learn in the process as well. And thus, part 1…

We have a tradition when my brother Gregg brings his girls from Colorado to California for visits. We head to Oakland’s Jack London Square and take the East Bay Ferry into the city. From there the routine is pretty generic and pretty touristy, usually consisting, in random variations, of lunch at Johnny Rockets, playing and shopping on Pier 39, and a long time marveling at the famous sea lions who lounge there. Then we make the long walk along the Embarcadero to the Ferry Building, where the rest of us wander the markets waiting for my brother to spend an inordinate amount of time purchasing wine before we catch the ferry back to Oakland. It’s always a great day and the kids look forward to it every visit.

This summer, however, we switched it up, especially for Miss Olivia. Last year, on the walk to the Ferry Building, I pointed out Coit Tower to the darling and she has been obsessed ever since, determined that we must visit the “Queen Tower” and also the “other Queen Tower,” which happens to be San Francisco’s other most distinctive building, the Transamerica. So this year, we diverted from the usual plan and took Olivia to the Queen Tower, no small feat given that I have not lived in the city for more than two years now and have become a little rusty on my geography, not to mention there’s that massive hill to climb (we cabbed it).

Once up there, however, it was well worth the trek. For my mother, who had visited often with her own mother (my Gaga), it brought happy memories of growing up in San Francisco. For Olivia, who for a year had been talking about the Queen Tower, it was a thrill, nearly equaled but not overshadowed by the joy of seeing “Alcatrax.”

The Princess in front of the Queen Tower

The Princess in front of the Queen Tower

And for me, who managed to grow up in the Bay Area, live in San Francisco for two years, and only see one of its most iconic landmarks for the first time on a visit from New York, it was a reminder of what we take for granted when we have easy access to some of life’s most amazing places, and a reminder that you don’t have to travel to travel. Often the best things to see are in our own backyards. Or at the very least just a ferry ride away.

Coit Tower, which can be seen from most places in downtown San Francisco, looms over the city from its perch on Telegraph Hill in North Beach. It was erected in 1933, and was commissioned to honor San Francisco’s firefighters by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy eccentric San Franciscan who often rode along with the firemen, despite this being considered unladylike behavior. For more information, click here.

Let’s Get Away from It All

27 05 2008

The thing about New Yorkers is that they rarely, if ever, leave New York. And Manhattanites? Good luck even getting most to leave their little island. For many, it’s a big deal even going to Brooklyn. When I first moved here, I had major island mentality. Manhattan has a way of becoming the world at large, and leaving seems as though it might cause a bit of a shock to the system. Or at the very least, it seems difficult.

And yet. Recently I’ve found that, though I love New York City, getting away from the crowds and the traffic is sometimes incredibly appealing. (Not to mention that when I moved I did so with the intention of exploring the East Coast at large.) And, more importantly, getting away is often as simple as the purchase of a train or bus ticket.

And so, a list of the not-so-far, getaways I’ve taken in the past few weeks, and how easy it was to reach them:

  • Newport, RI. Because as one of the oldest (and wealthiest) towns in the country, it is picturesque scenery and rich history all rolled into one: a pretty part town, craggy cliffs, and mansions that drip with class. Who wants to be a millionaire? The Peter Pan bus runs to Providence, or it may be worthwhile to rent a car. is a helpful site for transportation and activities.
  • Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Yes, it’s still New York, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. There’s nothing like a little flower power to stimulate the senses and the imagination: it’s the fastest changing fashion in New York. Because cherry blossoms were so last season. A quick subway ride away. It’s close to the Q train.
  • Boston, MA. I actually went to Middleboro, a peaceful town not far from historic Plymouth but it’s easy to get to Boston, even just for the day, that I’m planning to go again soon. Plus, I have to see Plymouth Rock, which happened to be (in great anachronism) closed for renovation. The Fung Wah Bus runs from New York’s Chinatown to Boston’s Chinatown in just three hours and costs just $15 each way.
  • Cold Spring, NY. This pretty town on the Hudson is great for antiquing or exploring the great outdoors. Take a hike. Or a kayak or a bike ride. The Metro North train takes a little over an hour from Grand Central.
  • The Hamptons. Even if you’re not one of the lucky few with a “Hamptons connection” it’s not hard to get Out East for the day. If driving’s an option, it takes just two hours when there’s no traffic (we left early Sunday morning and came back late that night). The quiet alone is worth it. Then there’s the hot sand between your toes, the extravagant mansions peeking out from behind hedge fences, and the a night sky that beats even Grand Central’s rendering. Driving is great if possible, but the Hampton Jitney runs most of the day.

Sky High Cheapos

7 04 2008

Last week I stopped in to visit my old office on Broadway. Though they weren’t listening to the Spice Girls, I was happy to find the energy very high, and even happier to know the reason.

At long last EuroCheapo has their budget flights section up and running, and might I add that it looks fantastic? I shall. It looks fantastic! Not only does it have great general guides with tips on finding and booking budget flights, environmental concerns, and other helpful information, but there are guides to the budget airlines themselves, and the airports they service. Information fiends, go hog wild!

But the best part is that CheapoSearch flights lets you search for and book cheap flights in Europe, right there on the the site. The second best part is that I was in the office for a good amount of the time that this thing was in the works. It was a a labor of love to say the least, and the gang at EuroCheapo should be very proud of how it turned out.

I’m going to go with the pathetic pun and say their egos should be soaring right about now.

Olfactory Overload

29 01 2008

Some things that smell worse than the lady on the plane from Buenos Aires to Lima…

1) Me, on days 2-5 (ok, day 1 too) of the Salkantay trek. There is just something about mud and sweat (and possibly horse excrement) caked on your body that smells just lovely. Did I mention there were no showers?

2) The “ladies” on the plane from Cusco back to Lima. Yes, we did spend day 5 (after showers at the hostel, please be impressed) hiking at Machu Picchu, and arrived back in Cusco at 10 p.m. to throw on clean clothes and hasty makeup jobs (no showers here folks) and meet the rest of the backpacking gang for a night on the town. And yes, the next morning saw us rolling out of bed after two hours of sleep to make our way to the airport. Please don’t ask if I was able to locate my toothbrush before the cab picked us up.

3) The lady on the plane from Lima back to Buenos Aires. This time, not me. The woman next to me looked like she might be addicted to any number of drugs, had the nervous habit of picking at her very dirty nails, and radiated an un-defineable stench that seemed to be a mixture of dirtiness and gasoline. (Payback?)

4) My fleece, which I had to put on this morning for the bus ride to my hostel. Somehow the mud/sweat mixture, combined with having been thrust in a bag with the cigarette-smoke-ridden jeans from the night out in Cusco meant I felt a little ill on the bus.

Laundry time?

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.