Hello, Hanoi

My memories of Hanoi will always be very wet. No, January is not rainy season in Vietnam, but for some reason the weather decided to rebel (let’s continue to deny climate change, shall we?). The result of this rebellious weather was that I probably have a very different perception of Hanoi than I would have had in the sun. In the rain, Old Hanoi reminded me of an intricate network of canals instead of roads. The trees hung low over the streets and the old houses seemed to cling to them like cliffs along a river. The cars and motorcycles moved incessantly through the streets with the fluidity of running water and the bikers with their brightly coloured ponchos all clumped together felt like waves. Maybe in dryer circumstances my brain would have made other connections. But it is as it was.

Izzi finds shelter

Izzi and I spent a lot of time dodging these motorcycle waves. We would often spend several minutes watching traffic pass only to look up and realize that there was a walk sign lit and we actually had the right of way. It seemed that red lights only apply to cars, and motorbikes would move along as they wished. Since there are way more motorcycles than cars, this didn’t make the traffic lights particularly helpful. Not that the cross walks were plentiful, even if they had helped. There were many moments when in order to get from point A to point B we simply had to cross without help from any signage. While crossing one particularly scary rotary I found myself clutching Izzi’s hand and whispering to myself “I am with the force, the force is with me, I am with the force”. However by the end of our trip, if not by the end of our stay in Hanoi, we understood the art of crossing the road. The key is to cross with confidence — slowly enough that the bikes see you approaching, but never stopping so that you don’t confuse anybody.

Izzi get stuck

Since Izzi and I both love to wander the streets when when we travel, a large portion of our time was spent cafes. This is not a problem in Vietnam, since the country is famous for its coffee, which I didn’t actually know until we started planning our trip. There are many types of coffee which are famously Vietnamese. Perhaps the most well known is the weasel coffee. This strange coffee is made by feeding coffee cherries to civets, or weasels, and the beans are fermented while traveling through the digestive track. Originally, this was done with wild civets. The animals would pick the quality coffee cherries from the ground and then the digested beans would be collected. Now, however, most of the weasel coffee in circulation is produced in farms. This method has raised many ethical concerns because the weasels are force fed the cherries and there have been many reports of them being kept in horrible conditions. For this reason, Izzi and I didn’t buy any while we were there. If you can be sure that the weasel coffee you’re buying is from wild civets then by all means, buy some. But this is a difficult thing to be sure of as a tourist. Otherwise, weasel coffee is an industry that I strongly discourage supporting.

After walking around for a few days in Hanoi, I ended up with a few favourite coffee spots (CaPhes, as they’re called there). The one that sticks out best in my memory is Wi Vity Young on Hang Dâu street. We had originally sat down there because it had seats outside on the sidewalk which were covered by a little overhang from the roof. Since the rain wasn’t too heavy at that moment, we took the opportunity to rest and people-watch for a while. It was the perfect place to do that. The cafe was right on a very busy corner where we could watch women bicycle by with their bamboo hats and huge baskets of fruit hanging from rods balanced across their shoulders. It was there that I tried Vietnamese iced yogurt coffee for the first time. At first the taste was very surprising. It was an odd combination of sweet and sour from the yogurt and also a bit bitter from the espresso. I wasn’t sure if I liked it at first, but it ended up being my absolute favourite by the end of the trip. As soon as I got back to Montreal I managed to recreate it which is great because it is the ultimate breakfast.

Right around the corner from Wi Vity Young was another cute little place which, unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of. Here I tried egg coffee — another typical one in Vietnam.  The drink seemed to consist of a frothed egg on top of an espresso shot with sugar. I don’t think I could recreate this one at home since I’m not sure exactly what they did to the egg, but I’m not sure I would want to anyway. It wasn’t bad, definitely worth a try considering how famous it is. But for me the egg was just too heavy, regardless of the frothiness, and it was difficult to get it all down.

Finally, there’s Cong CaPhe. This place is actually a chain, which we realized after traveling a bit more around the country. It doesn’t feel like it, though. When Izzi told me she was taking me to a communist themed cafe, I had sort of pictured communist-commercial. You know, a big place with posters of famous communist leaders on the walls and fake propaganda everywhere. However, this was certainly not the case. Instead each Cong was a tiny little cafe with simple green walls with almost no decoration. We sat on tiny wooden stools at tiny wooden tables. Stepping in there felt like stepping back in time, which was really cool. They also had an amazing coconut iced coffee which was another of my go-tos throughout the trip.

But in between all of our coffee stops, we did manage to see some sights. One of the most striking spots we visited which was a little off the beaten path, was the old train tracks. It took us a long time to find them. We stopped to check our map and turned around more times than I could count, but for a romantic like me it was worth it. The tracks were lined so closely with houses that I could stand with one foot on the rails and reach out to touch the façades with my finger tips. The houses were each uniquely pretty with plants and laundry breathing life into each of them. They seemed to curve and move along with the tracks like I imagine the houses do in Venice along the canals (more water imagery for you). I thought the tracks would be abandoned, but they weren’t. We didn’t see any while we were there, but trains still use the tracks and it was shocking to imagine the rumble they must make through the closely stuck houses.

That same day we visited Hoå Lo Prison, a somber must-see. The prison was originally built by the French to hold Vietnamese resisters to colonization. Puppets are now used to recreate the conditions of those inside, and it was really astounding to see. Prisoners would be chained by their feet and legs so that they had to go to the bathroom right where they were sitting. In the cells that held multiple people there was often not enough air and prisoners would take turns in spots where the air moved more freely so they could take full breaths. Since much of the resistance was made up of women, many babies ended up being born in Hoå Lo and were kept prisoners with their mothers. According to the information available inside, some of the prisoners over the years managed to escape. We saw the entrance to a tunnel they used and read about how they chiseled their way out, but I still don’t completely understand. How did they get out of their cells in the first place in order to get to the tunnel? How did the guards not find the tunnel entrance? It remains a mystery to me and I can’t believe how strong these prisoners must have been to manage to escape even after being abused and malnourished for so long. Years later, Håo Lo was used by the North Vietnamese to imprison American soldiers. It turns out that this is actually where John McCain was held. The videos we watched told us that the prison was nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton because of how well the prisoners there were treated. However, I’m not sure I really believe them. The videos were extremely propagandic. I mean, really, these were prisoners of war. There’s no way they were treated as well as they showed in the videos every single day. Although I certainly don’t trust the US government on what exactly was going on during the Vietnam War, I don’t trust the Vietnamese government either.

On the day we went to see the Temple of Literature, we decided to go by one of those push bikes with the carriages (I’m not exactly sure what they’re called). It was something we felt we had to do at least once while we were in Hanoi and it was fun, but I felt a little bit guilty for the whole ride. Our chauffeur was just one guy pushing both me and Izzi and  the cart. I know it’s his job and he would rather we gave him business than not, but it felt elitist and made me uncomfortable. At one point he slowed down so much that I was sure he had run out of steam, but it turns out we had just arrived at our destination. When I heard “Temple of Literature”, I had pictured a sort of library, but that it was not. It was a very classic looking temple with statues of old teachers with incense and offerings of fruit and money everywhere. I prayed for success in grad school, although I didn’t leave an offering so I hope that doesn’t come back to bite me. The coolest part was the names of all the graduates that were etched into stone turtles. They were so old that they were written in Chinese characters. I hadn’t realized that before French colonization these were the characters used in Vietnam. It was the French who westernized Vietnamese writing. I also learned that there are three sacred creatures in Vietnamese culture — the Unicorn, the Phoenix, and the Turtle. It makes sense that the names of all the doctors who graduated from this Temple of Literature would have their names immortalized on the backs of the turtles. Turtles live such long lives and with their medical degrees the graduates were to lengthen the lives of their fellow humans. This is pure speculation of course, don’t quote me on it, but it makes sense in my head.

Of course, we absolutely had to see the shrine of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s communist revolutionary leader and president. Walking towards it I could only think that the architecture was just as I had imagined communist built structures to be. It was simple and imposing, built with huge slabs of black stone and grey concrete. It was solid, strong, and intimidating, and reinforced most of the assumptions my only partly educated imagination had made about what something like this would look like. There were guards everywhere, pointing seriously in the direction we were expected to walk and shooing us away when we misstepped. Not one for uniformity and homogenization, Izzi seemed to get more rambunctious the more serious the guards were. As we got close to Ho Chi Minh’s body and the guards demanded silence she let out a laugh. I shiver at the thought of what would happen to her under such strict rule, but I was glad for her joyous company. My mood is very easily influenced by my surroundings. Although, they didn’t give us much time to really take in the experience. As soon as we got inside the stone cube that is his shrine, we were ordered to keep moving as we walked in a surprisingly fast-paced circle around his embalmed body. It wasn’t even really enough time to understand that I was in the presence of a dead body, let alone the significance of that particular body. It was a strange experience. I kept thinking about the massive structure we were inside with the undoubtably expensive upkeep that goes along with it. I might be mistaken, I haven’t yet read Marx, but isn’t communism about redistribution and equality? Yet there we were worshiping this one man as if he were a god. Our trip to the shrine wasn’t really the most fun we had in Hanoi, but it was really important to see. It’s important to remember that behind all the cute little coffee shops, beautiful ceramic, and delicious Pho there is a very complicated political history that played an enormous part in shaping Vietnam. Not everything is lovely.

The water-puppet show we saw at the Thang Long Puppet Theatre, however, was. Water puppetry is an old folk tradition which was started in ancient rice paddies during the rainy season when all the paddies were flooded. Of course the art form has developed immensely and the shows are much more intricate now, but they still tell the same classic stories of village life and feature key characters like the dragon, the unicorn, and the turtle. The puppets were amazing to see as they glided through the water telling their tales. The puppeteers were hidden behind a curtain and made the characters dance with long poles. There was also live music and actors who gave the characters voices. Although we couldn’t understand a word they were saying, they gave the story so much life and it was fun to watch. My favourite one was the dragon because as it came out into the stage it brought fire and smoke along with it. I absolutely loved the contrast between the smoke and the water. The effect was absolutely dreamlike.

On our last day in Hanoi we visited the Ethnology Museum. It was well curated and we walked around for hours drawn in by each beautiful artifact. I love objects — I love the stories they tell about how life was lived through them. They show us ways that we are different from one another as well as similar. It was exciting learning about Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups since soon we would be heading for Sapa, a region that is home to many minority cultures. I tried to take in as much as the information as I could, but there was so much that there was no way I was going to retain it all, or even most of it. Later in Sapa, though, Izzi tapped me on my shoulder and pointed to an interesting basket a passing woman was carrying. She reminded me that we had seen that type of basket in the ethnology museum and I was happy that we got to see the object in action. You see, I have complicated feelings towards museums of this kind. It seems a shame to me to put these objects behind glass. They’re not fine art; they’re things that are meant to be touched, to be used, to be interacted with. It is impossible to understand them with only your eyes. To connect with them you have to physically connect with them. I was particularly frustrated while reading about one of the culture’s animist beliefs. They believe that everything, every object, has a soul. Everything has meaning and life inside of it, regardless of whether or not it is actually alive. Reading this and then looking at this same culture’s objects behind glass seemed totally wrong. From their perspective we had caged spirits, trapped them forever in a zoo of objects where they would never be handled the way they were meant to be again. That being said, I understand the importance of conservation. I didn’t boycott the museum; I wanted to learn about the objects like everyone else. These parts of culture and history are so important. We want to understand people and these things are a wonderful way to begin to do that. Like most things, it’s a topic I find immensely complicated.

But intertwined with all of this — the museums, the politics, the history — is food. You cannot talk about Hanoi without talking about food. One of my favourite spots was the Hanoi Social Club, which Izzi found. I had the best jasmine green tea I’ve ever had. The food was amazing too. It tasted like Vietnam, but with a twist. The cooks there used local flavours and ingredients but in a very contemporary way. They were clearly experimenting, creating, and having fun. Although we went for lunch both times we went there, they hold poetry readings and have live music at night which I’m sure must be a blast. It also turns out that it’s a place you can feel good about eating at. All the cooks who work there are a part of a program that teaches quality hospitality skills to impoverished youth. Each bite of their spectacular food convinced me that the program must be working and that they definitely have a solid food career ahead of them.

We ate a lot of classic Vietnamese food, too. The main event, of course, was Pho. Pho is the type of thing best eaten on the street. This may seem like risky business, but the key is to find a place with lots of locals eating. This not only ensures that the food is good, but that the ingredients are fresh since the turnover is faster. Also, if you can see the food (which you often can in a street food situation) check to see if the soups and broths are boiling. Boiling liquids kill off any bacteria. We ended up sitting down at a place called Pho Keu (we couldn’t help but be amused by the name) and it was great. We sat down on the classic tiny plastic stools under the familiar drizzle. Since this was my first street food experience in Vietnam I opted for beef Pho since I was unsure about the safety of eating chicken. Looking back now I laugh at my cautious, naive self considering how much street chicken I would end up eating by the end of our trip. The Pho we got was about $2, huge, and amazing. It was pure and simple, perfect for my first real Pho experience.

But the dish I find myself craving now that I’m back in Montreal is not Pho, but Bahn Mi. I don’t think I’ll ever eat a better Bahn Mi than the one I had at Moto Bar in the French Quarter. The pork was tender and the juices, combined with just the right amount of chili, seeped into the baguette and gave it flavour, too. The baguette itself was also amazing, crisp on the outside and unbelievably soft on the inside. As I sat there munching I was reminded of the French. It’s amazing how occupation manifests itself in such interesting places in a culture — like the perfect baguette in the middle of Asia.

Hanoi was, to put it lightly, a lot. It is an undeniably overwhelming city where at any moment you could get hit by a motorbike or, in our case, drowned by the incessant rain. But I truly loved it. All this craziness and chaos was just a manifestation of a place full of life.

Keep Austin Weird

I have been very lucky in my life. So many of the places I’ve traveled to I’ve gone with my family, and even as my sister and I grow older, my dad still offers us so many new experiences. Just last year he took us to the Dominican Republic and then this year, he took us to Texas. At first, I was surprised by that choice, but the more I thought about it the more I liked the idea. My family has travelled a lot outside of the USA, but not much inside. I’m familiar with California and the North East, but everything below and in between seemed more foreign than, well, the foreign. I looked at middle America as an estranged family member or distant cousin. But travel is about breaking down boundaries and getting rid of misconceptions, is it not? Well, in December, just one month after the 2016 presidential election, I was feeling very estranged from the States (I still am). A lot of that frustration and fear was channeled into anger and looking back on it now, some boundary breaking was just what I needed. So all of a sudden I found myself in Texas. Austin, especially, changed so much of what I’ll freely admit was judgemental thinking on my part.

Some things, though, were just how I imagined them. We arrived in Austin on Christmas night and as we drove in from the airport, starving, we were sure we wouldn’t be able to find anything to eat. As we searched for something, a Subway or whatever, we happened upon Haymaker. The very first thing I noticed as we walked in were the cowboy hats and boots. I guess I thought their popularity might have been exaggerated by the media, but no. They are very much real and, even more surprisingly to me, they really look good! (More on this topic later). Haymaker was great – certainly better than anything we had hoped to find open on Christmas. The first thing I noticed on the menu was poutine, which I thought was strange since I had just come a very long way from Montreal. But although I was tempted to test what a Texas poutine would taste like, I went for the burger and I would absolutely suggest doing the same. Their burgers were served on toast instead of buns, which apparently is the true Texas way.

The next day we truly started our Americana visit by learning about an American president and Austin local at the Lindon B Johnson Memorial Library. I’m not going to lie, I’m always very skeptical about this sort of thing. I truly believe that the worship of politicians and blind patriotism are extremely dangerous, but I quickly learned that that is not what the LBJ Library is all about. Besides LBJ being an interesting man and leader, he was president at an interesting time. The Sixties were a time of change. It was a decade where people started to think differently about race, about gender roles, about people’s rights to be themselves. I actually see a lot of what was going on reflected in today’s popular human rights movements.

LBJ Memorial Library

The visit began with a timeline of LBJ’s life. But what made it interesting was that along side what was happening in his life, there was a description of what was going on in the country at the time. It was great because we got to understand a little better where he was coming from as a person and how what was happening in the United States throughout his life had shaped him into the man and president he would become. I think it’s important to try to look at everyone this way, as impossible as that might seem. Understanding where a person comes from — the context in which they became who they are — does so much to help us understand why they do what they do and where they might be dangerously biased.

I knew extremely little about LBJ before visiting the library. I associated him with the Vietnam War, but I honestly doubt if I could have even told you with confidence whether he was a Republican or a Democrat. It turns out, though, that he did some really amazing things for the US. He created the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which finally made basic education accessible to all American children. He also signed the Civil Rights Act into law and worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr on civil rights issues. As I walked around the library reading about all these things that he had done, I couldn’t help but think that as far as American presidents go, he was kind of a progressive dream! Considering some of the presidents that came after him, it almost feels like he was well ahead of his time. He could have been the perfect president, but there is no such thing. There’s always something, and LBJ’s something was a very big one.

“Hey! Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

This was a popular chant during anti Vietnam War protests. It’s a chant that I could see myself partaking in if I had been alive at that time. There is no denying that the Vietnam War was a mistake. It wasn’t only a pointless endeavour based on the irrational fear of communism, it also caused such an immense amount of harm in Vietnam that the effects are still being felt today. It made me very confused. How could a president who had done so much good make such a horrible judgement? And then I played a game. The library is really interactive and has a lot of activities which is exactly the way I like to learn. During the game, I was given all the information LBJ would have been given by his advisors about Vietnam and then I was supposed to decide for myself whether or not we should go to war. At first I said that they shouldn’t in my “hindsight is 20/20” position of privilege. But if I only knew what these advisors were telling me, only received their biased, one-sided, incomplete recommendations, I probably would have been scared shitless of Vietnam. Scared enough to start a war? Maybe. I’m not saying that LBJ was blameless. He was a grown man and should have been able to see through this absurdity. But it’s so important to remember that the president trusts, has to trust, their advisors. Those advisors hold an immense amount of power and influence and so it is just as important to know about them and their pasts as it is to know about the president because they play just as important a role in making decisions.

After the LBJ Library we headed to South Congress Ave for lunch. We had planned on wandering beforehand and picking the best looking option, but once we figured out that South Congress Ave and Congress Street are not the same thing we were starving. So we pretty much picked the first place we saw and that was Güeros. The place was actually amazing — a super lucky pick. The food was rich, flavourful, and spicy and felt very authentic, at least compared to most Mexican food in the North East. Monica told us that in South America Güeros actually means “white people”. I found this very clever and could just imagine the owners saying to each other “Open a good Mexican restaurant and the white people will come”. And, well, there we were. The tacos were great, there was a full salsa bar, and the margaritas were the best I’ve had in a while. All in all a good lunch.

With full bellies we were much better prepared to enjoy the charm of South Congress. There were lots of shops to poke around in and each one was super cute. My favourite was a huge curio shop filled with things nobody needs but that I absolutely wanted.  I think what did it was the way the shop was organized. Each little section, or alcove, had a coloured theme. One part would be all cream and sea foam green while the next would be different shades of pink and yellow. The continuity made it seem like each individual object would be beautiful all on it’s own, although I suspect most of the things would look quite out of place in my actual apartment.

From there we went to Allen’s Boot Shop where I learned what a $6000 pair of boots looks like. Before leaving Montreal I had joked with my partner, John, about bringing back a pair of bright red cowboy boots. He was horrified by the idea and told me to promise not to get any, which I would not. But being there, staring at the rows and rows of boots, I realized that these were not a joking matter. One does not simply buy a pair of cowboy boots as a funny souvenir. These boots are serious business. I was tempted by the Cowboy hats since I have a weakness for hats in general, but the boots had made me realize that this was a style I did not understand and to which I had no right.

For dinner (what is life if not the journey from one meal to the next?) we went to the Roaring Fork. At the start of the meal there was a bit of tension because it was immediately obvious that it was not really the ambience we were looking for. The restaurant was quite nice but very big and the AC was up high. It lacked the cosiness and homeyness that my family likes in a restaurant and, besides the antler chandeliers, it was difficult to tell that we were in a different place at all. That is, until the food got there. It was good southern food. I was so engrossed in my own meal that I quite forget what the rest of the family ordered, but I simply could not get over my chicken. “Chicken?” you say, “It’s just chicken”. But it wasn’t, though. It came with a corn bread stuffing — the best idea in the entire world. It was sweet, as corn bread generally is, and paired so nicely with the peppery chicken. This was just the second time that I really got to see why people are so passionate about southern food. (The first time was on a trip to the Outer Banks with a friend who introduced me to North Carolina BBQ). So any doubts about the restaurant disappeared after each of us took our first bites of food, and afterwards we were happy and ready for a nighttime stroll.

The Congress building was beautiful at night. It was lit up dramatically to highlight the best of the architecture. I find that so many capital buildings in the United States look pretty much the same, but I definitely do not mean this as an insult. I find the style very beautiful. It seems sophisticated in a tasteful way, grand in a modest way. The differences are in the details. This one, for example, was made of a light brown stone (granite?) that seems quite common here. The building was massive and we had a lot of fun working our way around it as we walked off our dinner.

But of course, my favourite after-dinner activity is a drink, and there is no better place to do that in Austin than 6th Street. Besides the good bars, I absolutely loved the feel of being on 6th Street. The vibe was laid back and everyone seemed happy, but I don’t think it was just due to the alcohol. I think part of it was the open doors. It’s a special thing to be in a place where all the doors can be wide open in late December. It meant that we were invited inside by the live music playing in almost every spot. We ended up at Friends bar for a free show and some good G&Ts. The band was great — some really good Southern Rock — and I’m very annoyed with myself that I forgot to write down their name. I do wish we had had the chance to see some Blues while we were there, though. Apparently Austin is famous for its Blues and its a shame that I didn’t get to experience it. Next time, I guess.

Day two began at UT Austin, which has a beautiful campus. I realized as I was walking around that if I had visited there while I was looking at schools, I would have fallen instantly in love. It’s an easy place to picture yourself in. The layout is well designed and I loved all the little alcoves and courtyards where students can sit in the grass and study. It’s an interesting combination of cozy and outdoors which I don’t often see. While there, we visited a free gallery which was holding an exhibit of Elliot Erwin. Being the photographer of the group, Sofie was able to appreciate it best — especially since Erwin mostly took portraits, which is her forte as well. Well all enjoyed it, though. I’m always amazed at how well good photographs can capture a person, how they seem to tell their subject’s whole story with one shot.

My pick for the day was the Baylor Street Art Wall, also known as Hope Outdoor Gallery. Since I’m used to Montreal street art, I had imagined it would be a collection of murals. Instead, anyone was invited to spray paint. That meant that the aesthetic was much less refined, but it was cool and different. It was inclusive — even non artists could participate and feel like they were really a part of something in Austin. Since we didn’t realize this was what it was all about we didn’t bring any paint, and if you go you definitely should. Still, I had a lot of fun walking around looking at things people had painted and written and climbing around on the walls. It didn’t compare to Valparaíso, but nothing ever really could.

At the Baylor Street Art Wall

For lunch we went to The Picnic food truck park which was, quite simply, awesome. There are many food truck parks in Austin and and I can’t say how this one compares to the others, but we had an amazing time. It was so fun be outside in the sunshine watching people, really feeling like we were in the middle of everything. All of us decided to eat from The Mighty Cone truck where everything was served in … a cone. Even the picnic tables in front of the truck had little holes so that you could put your cone down. I had the shrimp and avocado cone covered in sour kraut, which it turns out I love. To be honest, the paper cones weren’t really necessary — the food would have been exactly the same served on a plate, but I approached it from an “art for arts sake perspective” and concluded that it was fun.

Photo cred Sofie Melian-Morse

After lunch Sof brought us to East Austin Succulents. This was honestly probably the best thing we did the whole trip, or at least in the top three. The whole greenhouse was filled with succulents and cacti and in the dry Austin sun everything felt exactly right. It was impossible not to fall in love with every single one. My dad said that we could each pick one to take home, which quickly evolved into me deciding to pick two cheap ones which then further evolved into Sofie deciding to pick two not so cheap ones. C’est la vie, Papa. We spent hours in there just walking around and enjoying the particular beauty of each succulent that caught our eye. The air just feels good in a greenhouse. It seems healthy and green and you can feel the energy of all those plants growing. Especially since I had just come from the middle of a Canadian winter, it was energizing to be around the plants.

That night we had steak for dinner since we absolutely couldn’t leave Austin without eating one. I had seen good things about the Hoffbrau Steak House so that’s where we went. We all started off with the “love it or leave it” salad which is really just lettuce, onions, tomato, and olives served with a garlic dressing but for some reason it absolutely hit the spot. I couldn’t believe how good it was. I guess I fall into the “love it” category. And then, of course, the steak. I don’t know anything about steak but I do know that I ordered a ribeye. It was spectacular. We all got large ones and while everyone else was regretting the decision I was secretly very glad I had gone big. It was the best steak I’d had since I was in Argentina. I had forgotten what good, quality steak actually means. It was also really cool that we were eating in a place that had been around since the 1930s. There were other customers sitting by us who seemed like they had been eating there every day for thirty years. It made me feel like we were experiencing real Austin. I know, I know, I found the restaurant on Trip Advisor, but even so the restaurant really felt authentic and I could almost imagine what Austin might have been like in the 30s while I was eating there.

I fell in love with Austin. I loved the art, the music, the food, and the cowboy boots. We were there for such a short time and I left feeling like there were so many corners of the city that I still needed to uncover. But that’s a good thing! I want to leave a city wishing I had more time there. It’s the same deliciously unsatisfying feeling as finishing a good book you wished would never end. I never thought I would feel so at home, so comfortable, in a Texas city. Austin changed my perspective and opened my mind up to a part of the world that I was, honestly, very closed minded about. At all the souvenir shops I saw stickers and t-shirts that read “keep Austin weird”. Let’s hope they do because it is a strange and special place and I want it just like that when I inevitably find my way back.

Loose Ends

I can’t believe this is my last Buenos Aires post. I do plan on continuing with this blog; I’ve really enjoyed sharing my experiences and don’t want to stop. So, this isn’t goodbye, however I will miss writing about this beautiful city, country, and continent (not that it will be my last time here).

It’s been a little over a week since I got back from Chile – a very strange, melancholy week. I’ve pretty much spent this time eating my feelings with the excuse that it’s the last time I’ll be able to eat at these amazing places. Izzi and I started out by trying something new and visiting Don Julio. Don Julio is considered the best steak house in Buenos Aires, which is saying a lot. It’s an absolute MUST when visiting, and since neither of us had been yet and our time was running out (sob), it seemed like a good idea. It turned out to be a very good idea. Many people talk about Don Julio as a quite expensive restaurant but, while I wouldn’t go there every week, I didn’t think it was expensive at all for the experience we had. First of all, they treated us like royalty, which is an enormous plus for my shameless ego. The wait staff was funny and sociable while still letting us enjoy our meal in peace. When it came time to pick which cut of meat we wanted and it became clear to them that neither of us had the slightest idea what we were talking about, they actually brought us back to see all the different cuts raw and explain the difference to us. Izzi and I both ended up getting flank steaks which was an amazing decision, though I’m sure all the cuts would have been amazing. I’ve noticed that in Buenos Aires they really tend to overcook their meat, which is surprising to me since the meat is such high quality. Usually when I’m in a restaurant I have to emphasize three times to the waitress/waiter that I want it rare…bloody…still mooing please. Here, when I asked for rare it came rare – a juicy, tender rare that made me think I was eating an animal I had never eaten before. I couldn’t believe what I was tasting. At the end of the meal we were able to write on the label of our wine bottle and add it to the hundreds lining the walls of Don Julio – a little mark left by us at a Buenos Aires institution.

Izzi left Buenos Aires before me, just a couple days ago, and while her last day was very sad, it was also exceptionally lovely. We started by meeting up with Louis and Pierre, who had recently gotten back to Buenos Aires, for lunch and spent a long time chatting with them and hearing about the rest of their adventures in Bolivia before it was time to say goodbye. Although goodbyes are always rough, I was glad we got one last chance to see each other. Travel friendships are always so intense and wonderful, and the fact that you have to say goodbye so suddenly has always been rough for me. So, one extra meal all together seemed like such a gift. After we ate, though, the boys had to leave so we said goodbye for real and headed to Galería Patio del Liceo to make ourselves feel better. We had discovered this place through an Underart Tour, which brings you around the city to see underground art galleries and artist collectives. This had been our absolute favourite from the tour. Tucked away off Calle Santa Fe, this creative centre is filled with galleries and studios from all different types of designers and artists.

This gorgeous indoor/outdoor space couldn't be inhabited by anyone other than designers
Gorgeous indoor/outdoor space 

 

I gifted myself a napkin holder shaped like a sailboat (the napkins are the sail!) and we spent a lot of time gushing over all the beautiful prints, photos, and paintings in each shop.

Afterwards we decided to walk back to Palermo. It was a bit far but it was a beautiful day. As we were walking the sun was shining perfectly through the leaves and I remembered my first week here. I had been walking by myself, not having made any friends yet, and I had been smiling widely from ear to ear because I couldn’t believe how beautiful the trees were in this city. It had been a while since I had really noticed them, so Izzi and I walked in silence for a bit, just taking in the magic that they were brining to the streets. As we were walking, a bright blue bookstore caught our eye and we just had to go in.

La libreria Librosref
La libreria Librosref

The place had such a warm glow radiating out of it. As it turns out, that didn’t just have to do with the flawless lighting and interior design, but also the staff. The man who greeted us seemed absolutely delighted that we had entered his store. He asked us all about ourselves, and told us all about his store. He was truly passionate about the books that he had in stock. When I told him I study anthropology he was excited to show me his ethnography collection. He even gave Izzi a free book because it was her last day in the city. I am truly going to miss how open and cariñoso people here are. Librosref was amazing, but I’m not going to say that the way he treated us was rare. I find that people here really care about the other human beings they happen upon. When we left the shop it was time for Izzi and me to say goodbye. I knew it was going to be sad, but as she walked away I was truly heart broken. We had gotten to know each other so well so quickly, and I felt I had really found a friend that understood me. We had discovered so much that we had in common, it seemed unfair that we didn’t have more time to discover more.

Izzi and me featured in the worst selfie ever taken with our matching hats.
Izzi and me in “the worst selfie ever taken” featuring our matching hats.

I’ve also spent this week scouring the city for souvenirs and gifts to bring back with me. The best place to do that, of course, is Mercado San Telmo. Since I’m running a little low on friends still in the city I went alone. I was actually quite glad I did because it meant I could spend as much time as I wanted just wandering the streets doing what I do best – people watching. I watched old men drinking coffee in comfortable silence, I watched young Argentinian couples be very publicly in love, I watched amazing tango street shows, and of course, lots of dogs and babies. The little snapshot memories I tucked away for myself that day are worth a whole lot more than the nicknacks I picked up, though those are fun too.

However, the best souvenir I’ll be taking home with me from Buenos Aires is my new tattoo. I decided to get it done at Iris Tattoo because many of the artists there specialize in watercolour tattoos, which is the style I wanted. I made the appointment before leaving for my trip with Izzi and had decided on getting a crescent moon. While in Chile and Bolivia I fell in love with the idea even more as I watched the moon rise into the most beautiful night skies I’ve ever seen, linger into the sunrise, and smile at me from that upside-down type of angle it has down here. So, when I got back to Buenos Aires I was so in love that I knew I had made a very good decision as to what I wanted. It turned out perfectly, exactly as I had pictured it in my head, and I am thrilled that I will always have this reminder of the amazing things I have seen here.

My beautiful crescent moon
My beautiful crescent moon

Of course, I couldn’t leave Buenos Aires without giving myself one last art day. Unbelievably, I had yet to visit the MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires) and I just had to before I left. I am so glad I did. They have amazing pieces by Diego Rivera, Frida, and even Nora Borges, Jorge Louis’ little sister. It was also so much fun to see many of the pieces we had discussed in my Contemporary Argentinian Art class.

Alejandro Puentes
Alejandro Puentes

I was astounded when I saw a Berni piece in person. He’s an artist famous for the way he painted eyes, and they were just so much more powerful in person on that enormous canvas. Although he’s not quite as well known, I was excited to see an Alejandro Puentes, mostly because he’s inspired some of the ideas I have down in my sketchpad. It was really exciting to be able to recognize so many pieces and artist from memory and to really understand the value of what I was looking at and how much these physical objects in front of me had influenced Argentinian history.

My favourite, though, was an artist I had never heard of, since she is not Argentinian. Theresa Burga is a contemporary Peruvian artist who has two pieces in the MALBA I absolutely adored. The first one was called “Estructuras de Aire”(Structures of Aire). This was exactly the type of piece that I’m most into. I walked into a pitch black room… and I mean PITCH black. I couldn’t see a thing and spent the entire time walking around with my hands out in front of me so I wouldn’t run into any walls. At one point my eyes started playing tricks on me and I thought I would be walking towards a wall when in fact I wasn’t even close. The things I saw in the total dark could have been the piece itself, but there was another dimension. Out of nowhere bursts of air would shoot out of the ground or the walls or the ceiling at me. This was amazing because since I was so deprived of visual stimuli I felt the coolness of the air much more than I otherwise would have and it felt absolutely beautiful. I could have stayed in there forever except some genius came in with their cell phone flashlight on so I decided to leave.

Her second piece was called “obra que desaparece cuando el espectador trata de acercarse” (piece that disappears as the spectator tries to get closer) which is exactly what it sounds like.

Piece by Theresa Burga
Piece by Theresa Burga

I had to wait for the people who were in the room to leave before I was allowed to go in. When I did, I was confronted by a brilliant piece made of neon lights. I loved being in there by myself with the lights; it was quite surreal. As I walked towards it, censors in the walls made each ring of colour disappear one at a time until by the time I reached the line in front of the piece, there was no piece left. I had a lot of fun walking backwards watching the piece light up then forwards again watching it disappear. Honestly, though, just standing there looking at the glowing colours was beautiful as well.

And now, well, now it’s my last day. My bags are all packed and I’m sitting in a very empty room typing out my goodbye message. It’s actually quite a sad image. Tonight, though, I get the perfect Argentinian goodbye. River is playing so the friends still around are coming over to watch the fútbol game, and then we’re making a big Asado. I couldn’t ask for a better last Argentinian supper.

What will I miss the most about being here? I’ll miss the way the sunlight shines off of the church in Plaza Maya very early in the morning. I’ll miss being in a place where everyone is always willing to talk, to share their story and to hear yours. I’ll miss the lively Palermo bars and watching the sun come up as I walk home from them. I’ll miss this house, especially the cat. This time has gone by so fast. At least I know that I’ve filled it with amazing adventures, seen things I never imagined could be so wonderful, and met people who have changed the way I see the world, definitely for the better.

Ciao Buenos Aires, querido.

The Other Kind of Salt and Sand

I’m simply not going to be able to talk about everything I did in Atacama and Bolivia over the past week. I did and saw so much that giving you every detail would take forever. Also, while each and every sunset and lagoon I saw was breathtaking, writing about the beauty of each one might get a bit repetitive. So, I’m giving you the highlights of a trip too wonderful to even begin to describe properly. It was a stark contrast to the charming, artsy streets and restaurants of Santiago and Valparaiso. The Atacama Desert is the driest place in the entire world and we were surrounded by very extreme landscapes.

Similar to Salta, the only way to really visit the area surrounding our base, San Pedro de Atacama, is by tour. Izzi and I found a company with a good price on a four-day tour package, so they day after we arrived we went out to see Valle de la Muerte and Valle de la Luna. Valle de la Muerte, or Valley of Death, was given hat name because traders from various indigenous villages used to have to cross it on their way to other towns and often didn’t make it.

Who knew such beautiful landscapes could have no life at all?
Who knew such beautiful landscapes could have no life at all? That’s Licancabur in the background! 

There is absolutely no life in that part of the desert – no plants, no animals, just sand and rocks. From one point, called Roca del Cayote, we could look down on the oasis where there waslife and had an amazing view of the surrounding volcanos. It was the first time I really looked at Licancabur, a volcano I would see and recognize every day I was in Atacama and grow quite attached to. At the end of the day we went to Valle de la Luna. It got its name because people say it looks like the moon, but to me it looks much more like how I would picture Mars. When we got there we went on a little hike through the red and chocolate coloured dunes up to the crest of one of the peaks. From there we stared at the marvellous mountains above and below us and waited for the sun to set. Since the sun fell past view so quickly, the sky wasn’t the best part. What was amazing was turning around and seeing the light of the sunset reflect off of the mountains behind us. They turned such a brilliant pink before slipping into shadow.

Sunset reflected off the mountains in Valle de la Luna
Sunset reflected off the mountains in Valle de la Luna

The next day was the first of many very early mornings. At 4:45 we were up and ready to be taken to see the geysers at Parque Geyser del Tatio. The sun was just rising when we got there and the moon was still out. It was an absolutely perfect crescent that looked like the Cheshire Cat’s smile and was  even more special because I was looking at it through the steam of dozens of geysers. Tatio is the third largest geyser park in the world, behind Yosemite and another one in Russia, and all around me enormous towers of steam were shooting up into the sky.

Sunrise and geysers at El Tatio
Sunrise and geysers at El Tatio

I loved it when spurts of water would shoot out along with the steam. The drops evaporated in the freezing air and looked like the marks lift over in the sky by fireworks. Of course, we weren’t able to get too close since the water inside was so hot. One of the geysers was called “El Asisino” because it had killed three people. The geniuses had decided it would be a good idea to jump from one end to the other, but with all the steam they were unable to measure the distance and fell in, boiling to death. There was one that was safe to walk through, which was a lot of fun. Jumping through the steam I felt like a bird in the clouds. I was also very interested in the deposits of colour that surrounded some of the geysers. The guide told me they were bacteria colonies. To me the oranges and pinks looked like the sunrise. it was as if the bacteria had watched the sunrise there every morning and decided that was what they wanted to be.

That day I also saw the first of the many vicuña I would see on this trip. Vicuña are animals in the same family as llamas and alpacas but they’re much smaller, have longer necks, and run much faster.

One of the many vicuña I saw on my trip
One of the many vicuña I saw on my trip.

They’re also wild, while llamas and alpacas are farmed. Unfortunately, while they’re protected, vicuña are poached for their very soft hair. Unlike alpaca fur you have to skin vicuñas for their hair and a scarf made from it can sell for up to $8000 in Europe. They were adorable, and seeing them made me feel a little guilty about trying llama meat later in the day. It was good though; it’s flavour is hard to describe. It was a bit like beef but a little gamier and something about the taste was just… different. It simply tasted like llama.

The day after we climbed up and up and up in the mountains to get to Aguas Calientes. We were so high up that Agua Calientes was frozen (oh, the irony) and there was snow on the ground. Being in the snow in the desert was fascinating to me. I loved the way the powdery snow looked on the sand – like being on a New England beach in the middle of winter.

The colourful Piedras Rojas
The colourful Piedras Rojas
Snow on desert sand
Snow on desert sand

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the way down we stopped at a place called Piedras Rojas and I realized what a difference altitude makes in terms of landscape. Down there the red clay ground and the little yellow plants the vicuña feed on were so colourful compared to the iciness of Aguas Calientes.

After that day, Izzi’s friends Louis and Pierre joined us. Although I had never met Pierre, and Louis only briefly, it was so much fun to add new people to our adventures. Our first tour all together was to Laguna Cejar. It was a beautiful, warm day and we were told the lagoon was swimmable, so we brought our bathing suites. It wasn’t nearly as warm when we got up to where the lagoon was, but it was too beautiful a place not to go in. It was surrounded by gorgeous mountains, including Lucancabur, and layers of salt encircled the water. The lagoon itself was quite cool. On the inside there was a ledge that made a sort of shallow end, then it dropped down into a deep, dark hole.

Floating in Laguna Cejar
Floating in Laguna Cejar
Smiling through my shivers
Smiling through my shivers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That water was damn cold and Pierre refused to go in. As soon as Izzi, Louie, and I jumped it knocked the wind right out of me. Izzi and Louie scrambled out immediately, but I stayed. I believe I have Canada to thank for that. A couple of years ago it would have just been too much for me. Eventually my body went numb and I was able to enjoy myself. It’s an extremely salty lagoon, similar to the Red Sea, and no matter what I did I floated, which was a lot of fun.

That night we experienced what was probably the highlight of Atacama for me – the star tour. We met up with a group at 11 pm and were taken out of town and away from any light pollution. As soon as I stepped out of the bus I was hit by the most astounding night sky I had ever seen. I knew they were going to be amazing, Atacama is home to the ALMA observatory and is famous for its night sky, but nothing could have prepared me for this. Stars covered the sky and we could see the entire milky way stretch all the way from the eastern horizon to the western horizon. When the tour started I just stood there craning my neck upwards as the astronomer pointed out stars, planets, and constellations. I got to see Virgo which, regardless of the astronomer’s distain for astrology, felt quite special to me. He also pointed out Saturn, which was cool at the moment but would mean so much more to me later in the night. While I was watching I saw so many shooting stars I lost count. I would have made wishes, but at that moment I felt so extremely lucky to be seeing what I was seeing that making any wish at all just seemed greedy. I never wanted to look anywhere but up again, but when the astronomer was done talking we moved on to look at the stars through these amazing telescopes. They were pointed at various points in the sky, and through one I saw a constellation that looked like a butterfly. I never thought I would describe stars as cute, but that’s exactly what it was as it appeared to sparkle and flutter through the sky. I was also lucky enough to look through the biggest telescope available for public viewing in South America. Through it I saw a star cluster that blew my mind. In the centre of it there were so many stars that it just looked like one enormous ball of white. Then, as the cluster got more sparse around the edge the stars seemed to spiral out of it in a dance. As amazing as that was, though, my favourite one was Saturn. The picture was incredible. The planet was so white and clear and seeing its rings, seeing that it’s really all up there unique and beautiful, made the planets so real to me. I will never forget how beautiful Saturn was – how beautiful Saturn is. Of course spending so much time looking at space made me feel small, but it didn’t at all make me feel insignificant. In a way it made me feel so special to be able to see the stars in this way. On this tour I felt like I was really a part of it all, and I suppose I am.

Soon it was time to leave Atacama and head to Bolivia. At the Bolivian border we were picked up by our guide and the Land Rover that would pretty much be our home as we traversed the Fauna Andina Eduardo Avoroa National Park. Our group consisted of our guide, a Bolivian named Vladamire, me, Izzi, Pierre, Louie and a Canadian named Kex.

Our awesome group and our home - the Land Rover.
Our awesome group and our home – the Land Rover.

As soon as we hit the road I was amazed how well Vladamire know where he was going. There were no signs, pretty much no roads, and the only landmarks the continuous, pretty much undistinguishable, mountains. Our first day was full of lagoons. First we stopped at the frozen Laguna Blanca, then Laguna Verde. This one was supposed to be bright green because of the minerals in the water, but since there was ice it was hard to see. My favourite, though, Laguna Colorada, wasn’t frozen and so we were able to see it in all its glory. The microorganisms in the water make it pink, and I felt like I was on another planet.

The other-worldly Laguna Colorada.
The other-worldly Laguna Colorada.

I loved watching the flamingos in the water because they matched so well with their pink surroundings and I could just tell they belonged there. There weren’t many this time, but Vladi (Vladamire) told us that in September there can be up to 15,000 at a time! He also told us that they lay their eggs in the middle of the lagoon to keep them safe from predators and that at night they sleep in groups, rotating who is at the edge and who is at the middle to keep warm, just like penguins.

That day we also saw El Desierto de Dali, named that because it’s reminiscent of his surrealism. I was really struck by the complete stillness of the place. Of course rocks are always still, but the ones here were especially.

The incredible stillness of Desierto de Dali
The incredible stillness of Desierto de Dali

It was as if they were waiting for something, or trapped completely out of time. There were patches of snow where the rocks cast shadows which looked like the little spirit of each rock was clinging to it. We saw a lot of rocks on this trip, all of them quite cool in their own way.

The majestic Arbol de Piedra
The majestic Arbol de Piedra

The next day we saw El Arbol de Piedra, a huge chunk of rock that over thousands of years has been warn away by the wind. Izzi taught me that this process is called attrition. The more you know. According to Vladi, the stone at the bottom of this particular rock was weaker than at the top, so it had worn away faster making the shape of a tree. The other rocks around it were quite fun to climb around on, and we all felt a little like kids in a playground.

On top of the world!
On top of the world!

After the Arbol de Piedra we went to Laguna Negra. After seeing Laguna Colorada I thought no lagoon would ever be able to impress me again, but I was wrong. Laguna Negra was tucked perfectly into a cliff face so part of it was covered, giving it a secret, hidden kind of feel. I don’t think we would have even been able to see it if we had been looking from the other end. We first looked over at it from the top of a hill covered in those vicuña plants and right away I noticed how full of life it felt. From where we were standing I could see a type of black bird swimming around which Vladi told me were called fulicas officially or, more commonly, socas. I made my way down the hill to the edge of the lagoon to get a better look. They looked like ducks while they were swimming around in the water, but as soon as they stood up I was pleasantly surprised by their legs. They were long and bright red with enormous three-toed feet that gripped the icy parts over the water. The socas also had really interesting faces. You couldn’t really see their faces, actually. Everything was jet black so you couldn’t even see their eyes, then this big, orange and yellow beak stuck out of the darkness in a way that was quite impressive. In a (failed) attempt to get a good picture, I got quite close to the birds and they seemed completely uninterested in me at all. Their confidence made the whole lagoon feel safe, like nothing bad could happen there, either to them or me. Vladi set a picnic out for us in the rocks above the lagoon looking out over the water which was lovely, despite the wind. It was nice spending quite a bit of time in one spot instead of getting right back into the car.

And then, all of a sudden, we came to the last day of our journey and the Salar de Uyuni. At five am the next morning we headed out to be able to see the sunrise at Incahausi, the magical cactus island. Incahausi means “house of the Inca” in Mapuche and was named that because the Inca used to visit the island for ceremonial sacrifices. As I climbed the island it became obvious to me why the Inca chose that spot. As the sun rose it gleamed off of every cactus giving them a very spiritual aura.

Probably an 800 year old Cactus
Probably an 800 year old Cactus
The glow of the sunrise on the cacti of Incahausi
The glow of the sunrise on the cacti of Incahausi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eventually I found a spot that satisfied me so I sat and watched as the sky turned a brilliant pink. I was even able to watch the exact moment the sun peeked above the horizon. It will be nice once I get back to Montreal and am in the middle of midterms and work and cleaning the bathroom to remember that in Bolivia on Incahausi cactus island, every single day starts like that. What was amazing was that once it was up I actually got a good look at where I was. I got up and left my spot to check the cacti out properly. Vladi had told us that some of them were over 800 years old, meaning that they were there long before the Inca were. They were so huge and seemed so wise as I walked among them. Even just standing in that one spot for 800 years they had seen so much. How many of us small humans had they watched marvel over the beauty of their home, from the Inca to me?

I could have walked around looking at each and every cactus forever, but I was also excited to drive out into the nothingness. The Uyuni Salt Flat is 12,000 square kilometres, but not really having any conception of what that really means I was astounded as we just kept driving and driving farther into the middle. At one point that seemed arbitrary to me, though I’m sure Vladi had his reasons, we stopped to get out of the car and take pictures. The photo possibilities in a place so strikingly flat are endless. Many people bring props to take funny photos, but that wasn’t really my group’s style and we only took a couple gimmicky ones, which were fun.

Fun with space and cameras.
Fun with space and cameras.

Really, though, I just wanted to enjoy the silence and the space around me. As a person who really enjoys my alone time, at one point I walked away from the group to take it all in. I lay down flat on the flat (ha) and just stared at what lay before me . From that angle it felt like I was on a tilt – as if I could see and feel the curve of the Earth. The honey-comb shape of the salt was even more clear from down there and it stretched on forever. Then, at the end of infinity, the mountains and the sky tilted with me. I’ve never been to a place where the ground seems to stretch farther than the wide open sky before.

This is what an infinity of salt looks like
This is what an infinity of salt looks like.

Uyuni is definitely a place I would go back to. Next time I would go in the summer time so I could see the 15,000 flamingos at Laguna Colorada. Also, in the summer time there is water on the salt flat. Since it is so still and flat and the ground under it is so white, it creates a perfect reflection of the sky. I would absolutely love to see the sky stretch forever above, below, and around me on all sides. However, I’m glad I went in the winter this time. When there’s water on the flat it’s too dangerous to drive out into it because it’s impossible to know where you are. You can look at it from near the edges, but I really liked driving out to the very centre. Also, not being able to drive out too far would mean that you wouldn’t be able to see Incahausi, which was probably my favourite part. I like when a place gives you reasons to go back.

Now I’ve returned to Buenos Aires, back to my house in Palermo and the business of this huge city, which is a bit of a shock after being in the desert for so long. It definitely felt good to take a hot shower and to sleep in a warm bed, though. I have exactly one week before I fly back home to Montreal. In that week I plan on soaking up every last drop this city can ofter me.

Just Chilein’

The semester is over (can you believe it?), which means now it’s time to do some exploring. Not that I haven’t done my fair share of exploring already, but now that I have more time I’m able to wander outside of Argentina. Originally I had planned on going to Peru and hike the glorious Machu Picchu, but life is complicated and plans change. I was disappointed not to go, but I’m hoping I can during my February break next year, which means it’ll be warmer and more enjoyable there. Silver linings. So, with Peru out of the picture I latched on to my friend Izzi’s trip to Chile and it is awesome. This is a country I had not planned on visiting, not just this trip but really ever. It just hadn’t really occurred to me, maybe because Argentinians and Chileans don’t have the most loving of relationships, and the Argentinians I know always spoke of Chile as if it was a totally insignificant place in the world. I didn’t know anything about it at all, but now here I am and I absolutely love it.

Izzi and I flew into Santiago on the 5th and after getting just a little turned around we arrived at the Dominica Hostal. It was way nicer than the hostels I’ve been staying in traveling alone (although I really liked most of those). It had perfectly clean bathrooms, surprisingly comfortable beds, and an amazing staff. One of the staff, Pablo, sat down with us for an hour to help us organize our trip to Atacama and give us suggestions on the tour companies with the best prices and all that. Once we were settled in to our bunks, we spent some time exploring the Bella Vista neighbourhood, where the hostel was, and stopped at a Peruvian restaurant where we shared an amazing Ceviche. At this point we weren’t completely sure what Chilean food entailed, so we were very happy with some Peruvian. Plus, like sushi, I don’t think I’ll ever turn down a good Ceviche. After eating we realized we were very close to the Pablo Neruda house, which was one of our main goals for Santiago. His house was filled with items he had collected over his extensive travels and every corner was fascinating. Photos weren’t allowed inside the house, which was a shame, because it was a very unique kind of beautiful. The house itself was a work of art. It was filled with secret tucked away rooms and spiral staircases. It moved seamlessly from inside space to outside space and integrated plants and trees in a way that made me drool. He built the house for his lover, Mathilde and named it after her. He named it La Chascona, after her curly hair. It was their secret love nest in the years before he left his wife for her and then they lived there together as well as in his houses in Isla Negra and Valparaiso. During the tour I learned that Mathilde was quite a cool figure. She, like Pablo, was a strong political activist and after he died she was committed to protecting his political poems, even though that was a dangerous thing to do during the dictatorship. Will all their friends gathered, she also turned Pablo’s funeral into the first ever protest against that same dictatorship. It was nice learning so much about her because now when I read her name in Neruda’s love poems I have a bit of an image of who she was in my head.

The next day we wandered outside Bella Vista and explored some other parts of Santiago. We had been told we should try a completo and a cab driver pointed out a place where we could find one. This place turned out to be a fast food restaurant called Doggies, the kind of place I usually avoid at all costs. But, hey, this was cultural. A completo turns out to be a hot dog with avocado and, depending on what kind you order, can also have onions, a spicy sauce, tomato, or really whatever else. The avocado is key, though. I liked it, mostly because of the avocado, but I don’t think I’ll ever seek one out specifically again.

Completely by accident we happened upon the Cerro Lucia, a hill in the middle of the city, and decided to climb it. The way up is lovely with wonderful gardens and towers all over.

View of Santiago from above. Hard to see through the clouds, but the Andes are just behind it.
View of Santiago from above. Hard to see through the clouds, but the Andes are just behind it. Photo credit: Izzi Macdonnell

I loved the way the plants all clung to the cliffs and the water dripped down through them. There was also a really nice view from the top and we could even see the Andes through the clouds. It was nice to get a more general view of the city to orient ourselves. After that we headed to El Palacio de la Moneda, a government building that is a must see on the tourist’s list of things to do in Santiago. We weren’t allowed to go in (which I thought was odd) but the basement had a very cool cultural centre. It was interesting because it exhibited classic folk art from all around the world but it was all made by contemporary artists and artisans.

That night we met up with my friend, Pipe. He had met Joanna while she was traveling and then had visited her in Buenos Aires which is when we met. Now that I was in Santiago, it was fun to see him in his own city. We asked him to bring us somewhere to try choripillo without really having any idea what it was, so he told us of a place pretty close to the hostel. When our order came I couldn’t help but think that it reminded me an awful lot of poutine. Of course there were differences – it wasn’t saucy and instead had strips of beef on it and it had crema agrodulce instead of cheese curds. It was good, but not nearly as good as the beer I had. It was just a plain old Corona, but done in the typical Chilean style – michelada. They put a spicy tabasco sauce along with something else in the beer and mix it up to make it spicy. Then they put salt along the rim so it’s like a spicy beer martini. I know, I know, that sounds disgusting but I thought the way the refreshing Corona snuck past the spicy and salty was delicious.

On Tuesday we had booked a tour with Tips-for-tours, a free tour company where you just tip the guide with whatever you can afford. It’s nice because the guides tend to be really passionate about their city. In this tour, we started off in el Mercado Central and I was completely blown away by the seafood. As we walked by I saw the most enormous squid I had ever seen. I don’t even understand how you can catch something like that. Even with all the eyeballs and teeth protruding from the fish, all I could think about was coming back and getting some to cook up for dinner. Then we made our way to the veggie part of the market. We walked through much too quickly for my taste since I usually like to absorb the colours and smells of every fruit and vegetable, but I scouted stands I wanted to revisit and buy from later. When we left the market, we stopped at a little stand and our guide introduced us to Sopapilla. This is pretty much fried dough, except they add a type of squash to the dough and you eat it with hot sauce or ketchup and mustard, so it’s not at all sweet. I was hungry after walking through the market and staring at so much food, and this was spectacular. I would have eaten a million if they weren’t well… fried dough. To end our tour our guide brought us to el Cemeterio de Santiago. I was interested to compare this one to el Cemeterio de la Recoleta in Buenos Aires, and it turned out to be very different but also very impressive. The guide told us that there are 2.5 million people buried in the cemetery which is a lot, especially if you compare that to the 6 million people that live in Santiago. The cemetery was separated between the classes. In the sections of the working class, families were buried together with three people fitting in each box. When one body decomposed fully they would gather the bones and put them at the end of the coffin to make room for the next body. This was a stark contrast to the upper class tombs that looked like everything from Greek temples, to pyramids, and even one which was a replica of the Alhambra, in Spain. I noticed that some tombs were covered in an extreme amount of flowers and plaques. The guide told us that these were the tombs of popular saints. Unlike religious saints, these were people who had been innocent or adored by their communities and then had died a tragic death. We passed one that was the tomb of Santa Carmencita. The guide told us that her family had moved to Santiago from the country when she was 14, but when they arrived she had been raped and murdered. Then, she moved us farther away from the tomb, out of respect, and told us the real story. Carmencita had been a prostitute, but very much adored by her community. When she was 30 she had gotten syphilis and died but her friends loved her so much that they created the myth of Carmencita so that she would be remembered in a good light. Now, when people have love problems, they make an offering of flowers or a plaque to her tomb so she will help them. This story delighted me, despite its sadness. That’s exactly why I love cemeteries. They remind you that history isn’t made up of dates and places, but of people.

When the tour was over Izzi and I went back to the market. It was lunch time so we stopped at a seafood restaurant our guide had pointed out to us. I had a soup filled to the brim with all sorts of seafood.

Seafood soup with muscles, squid, fish, shrimp, scallops, and more.
Seafood soup with muscles, squid, fish, shrimp, scallops, and more.

There was a muscle the size of my hand and every spoonful was overflowing with shrimp, clams, squid, scallops, and white fish. When we had finished, we pretty much rolled ourselves through the market on our full bellies and bought our ingredients for dinner. We decided on papalisa, this beautiful pink and yellow speckled potato-like root from Peru, salmon, onion, and zucchini. That night we cooked it all up with our new friend Morgan, from Maine, who had bought the wine. The fish was so fresh that Izzi only had to sear the outside for a few seconds and it was perfect. It was a great end to our time in wonderful Santiago.

Izzi and Morgan creating our feast.

Our next stop was Valparaiso, a coastal town about a two hour bus ride from Santiago. It was much bigger than I had expected. In my head I had been picturing a little fishing village but this was a real city, smaller than Santiago, but still with a lot going on. It’s filled with nooks and crannies and tiny little side streets and winding stairs that climb (and allow the citizens to climb) the forty plus hills of the city. I can see why Neruda liked the place. Walking through Valparaiso was like playing a game of hide-and-seek with the city. Neruda designed his houses just in that way, and his Valpo (Valparaiso) house was our first destination. We took the long way to get there, stopping every other block to marvel at the beauty. The hills were all covered with brightly coloured houses that looked as if they were reflecting the sunset. The fact that they were built on hills made the sight even prettier because it allowed us to see almost every house individually, above or below it’s neighbours. Many of the walls also had beautiful murals painted on them. I found it difficult to decide whether I wanted to concentrate on the details in the paintings or the wide, stretching landscape of the hills and the ocean. The city felt, right from the start, full of curiosities and the seagulls circling and calling made it hopelessly romantic.

 

Hidden corners of Valparaiso
Hidden corners of Valparaiso
The beautiful Valparaiso and the Pacific Ocean.
The beautiful Valparaiso and the Pacific Ocean.

 

 

We were very excited to get to Neruda’s Sebastiana, named after the man who had originally owned it. After my tour of the Santiago house, I felt like I knew him a little bit. I’ve also been reading his poetry throughout this trip and am falling in love with his words. I feel like the houses help me understand his poetry a little bit more, if only because I get to see his inspiration for myself. La Sebastiana was certainly beautiful, but after seeing the two I think I prefer La Chascona in Santiago. Neruda loved the sea, and this house had a lot of nautical decoration. I understand why it makes sense of his house in Valparaiso, but it wasn’t quite as colourful and playful as the Santiago house. But the views it had and the side of him that it showed me were amazing, and I would give anything to have a study like that to write in. Walking through I found myself feeling a little sad, though. He designed and decorated his houses to be lived in, played in, and loved in, and now they’re empty. Sure, tourists pass through, but no one is there to read in the chairs or drink from the brightly coloured glasses, or enjoy his intricate bar. Of course it’s amazing that all these things have been preserved, they might otherwise have been completely lost, but I think he would be sad to see his houses so empty. It’s conflicting, though, because I’m certainly glad I had the chance to see them.

The next day was tour day and we started in the morning with the Valpo Graffiti Tour. I learned so much right off the bat. The guide started off by explaining the different styles of written graffiti and showed us some examples. In American style every letter is designed individually and they often have features like googly eyes, Mickey Mouse hands, or arrows.

An example of American graffiti style
An example of American graffiti style

Bomb, on the other hand, integrates the letters much more in a very bubbly style. After giving us a little bit of an explanation, the guide took us to see some of the best murals in Valpo, which is a lot considering Valparaiso is one of the best cities for graffiti in the world, and the second best in South American, behind Sao Paulo. Some really amazing artists come out of there. We saw one piece by Inti, a really famous street artist who just painted the largest mural in the world in Paris a few months ago, and who just happens to be from Valparaiso.

This mural by Inti can actually only be seen from above, right where we were standing. If you try to find it on street level you'll be walking around in circles forever.
This mural by Inti can actually only be seen from above, right where we were standing. If you try to find it on street level you’ll be walking around in circles forever.

It was also cool because our guide knew a lot of these artists personally and she was able to tell us fun little anecdotes to go along with the murals. One crew/artist, El Odio, also owns the only paint shop in Valpo that sells a certain kind of paint. So, no one dares tag over his pieces because then he won’t sell them any paint.

Hostel Po from the outside. There were many other gorgeous murals by amazing crews inside, too.
Hostel Po from the outside. 

What was amazing was that on the tour we learned to identify the crews by the symbols they use to identify themselves. And once we got back to the hostel, Hostal Po, I realized that many of the murals inside were actually done by the artists we had seen.

Our second tour in the afternoon was another Tips-for-Tours. Our group was very small so it was fun being able to really talk and joke with the tour guide instead of it being more formal like a class field trip. He was really nice and showed us some of the best views in the city. As we looked out at the beautiful pacific coast, he told us that the city was thinking about expanding the port farther along the beach. This would completely ruin the ocean view of the whole city, especially the more touristy areas, which would really detract from the experience. He then mentioned that there’s a possible alternative to expanding it in the other direction and then making a sea-side park instead. I don’t know all the details of the debate, but this one seems like a no brainer to me. We also saw some more typical tourist sites such as the Navy building and the Justice building. The navy building used to be the site of the municipal government, but it was so beautiful that the federal navy decided that it should be theirs… typical. The Justice building also has a fun story. In front of it is a statue that is supposed to be of Lady Justice, but if you look closely you realize that she’s holding the scale under her arm, so it’s not at all balanced, and that her eyes are wide open, meaning justice is not blind. Apparently the statue isn’t really of Lady Justice but of the Greek Goddess of Justice and that it had been delivered to Valparaiso mysteriously.

The not-so-fair Lady Justice
The not-so-fair Lady Justice
The beautiful Naval building with a perfect view of the port
The beautiful Naval building 

No one knew where it came from or what to do with it, so someone decided to put it in front of the Justice building. It makes sense at first, until you really think about what the statue is implying. Personally, I think it’s a much more realistic portrayal or the justice system. We ended the tour at the port which was good to see because it is such an important part of Valparaiso’s history and economy. However, I much preferred being up in the hills surrounded by the street art and all the colours.

The port of Valparaiso
The port of Valparaiso

Valparaiso was amazing and I was a little sad to say goodbye. I could see myself staying in a place like that for a long time. Now, though, here I am in northern Chile, writing this to you all from the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the entire world. More on that to come!

A Visit From Jessica

Having someone come visit while you’re traveling is an interesting experience because you get to see the city from fresh eyes again. At least for me, I try to look at things the way they might be seeing them. It’s a little bit stressful sometimes because I end up wondering whether or not they are enjoying what I’m showing them as much as I do. But one of the wonderful things about Jess coming to visit and one of the reasons I had missed her so much, is that usually she finds beauty in the same type of things I do – which is pretty much everything.

The day after she arrived was a Friday, so my roommate, Joanna, and I were excited to give her a taste of that famous Buenos Aires nightlife. We went to my favourite place in the neighbourhood, Temple Bar, which I love for the beautiful fairy lights on all the trees and the fact that in half the bar it’s a little unclear whether you’re inside or outside. It’s also one of the few places I’ve found that brew their own beer, and that’s something I simply cannot resist. Jess loved the place too, and we sat drinking and talking with Joanna for a while. It felt so good to be chilling with someone who already knows me as well as Jess does. It was like sleeping in your own bed for the first time in a long time or smelling something that all of a sudden reminds you of a memory you had tucked into the way back of your brain. Around 3 am they told us it was last call. This seemed strange to me because I remembered being in there until 5 or later on many occasions and it was a Friday! But it wasn’t a big deal; we figured we would try Victoria Brown, another good place close by. When we got there, though, it was closed, at which point I knew something weird was up. This was Buenos Aires on a Friday night! Weren’t most people finishing their pre-drinks and leaving their houses right about now? We started talking to some other lost souls on the street and they informed us that it probably had to do with the fútbol game. That night Buenos Aires’ two rival times, Boca and River, had a huge game which the entire city was watching. But, half way through one of the Boca fans through tear gas at the River players and the game had been canceled. Thanks to this genius, the entire city had fallen into a collective depression therefore closed down. This was equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious, and we figured something must be open in Plaza Serrano. Jess’ shoes were hurting her, however, so we decided to stop home so she could change them before heading back out. While there we somehow settled in outside with a bottle of something (probably Fernet) and ended up chatting right there until the sun began to rise. It wasn’t the night we had expected, but it was perfect.

I was really excited to show Jess some of my favourite places in Buenos Aires. It was fun to see the sights all over again. One of the first things we decided on was La Boca, and on a particularly beautiful day I brought her and her friend Matha (who just happened to be passing through Buenos Aires on an unrelated trip) to see the colours.

You can always count on La Boca for good street art.
You can always count on La Boca for good street art.

Since I had already been, it was a little hard for me to get passed the streets full of tourist shops and the constant invitations to sit down and eat at the “best restaurant in La Boca). In order to introduce some authenticity and context to the outing, I bored them with everything I knew about Los Artistas de la Boca, a group of artists I had learned about in my Contemporary Argentinian Art class. They seemed to enjoy it anyway. The colours arefantastic, especially the first time you see them, and we sat in the sun and enjoyed a couple of beers, however overpriced.

I was much more excited to show her el Cemeterio de la Recoleta, which I know she would love as much as I do and I was right. She echoed so many of my own thoughts about the place – the history, the beauty that comes from sadness, and the wonderful mystery of the stairs that spiral down deep into the tombs. She didn’t really care about Evita’s tomb, but I made her look at it anyway. At one point, as we were wandering through the maze, we found a ladder leaning on the side of one of the tombs. I never would have climbed it if she wasn’t around, but being with her makes me a bit more daring. I went first and she followed me up and when we reached the top we were both speechless. The view of the cemetery and the city beyond was amazing and literally added another layer to the beauty for me.

Looking out over the city of the dead.
Looking out over the city of the dead.
A great group of street musicians in San Telmo
A great group of street musicians in San Telmo

 

Since we had limited weekends, we had to choose between going to la Feria de la Recoleta and el Mercado de San Telmo for our market shopping day. In the end, I decided on San Telmo so Jess could see a new neighbourhood and also because I just like it a little better. I would definitely call it a successful shopping. She bought a cool set of magnets with beautiful photos of Buenos Aires, and I bought a new wallet that actually fits into my purse, which is nice. We also saw a great band play on the street. They had a trombone and a saxophone and everything.I always think it’s cool when big bands like that play in the street; the energy is so amazing and it turns walking into dancing.

 

Unfortunately we were in a bit of a hurry because I had bought tickets to see Swan Lake at El Teatro Colón. Jess loved the theatre and was blown away by its beauty even though our seats weren’t quite as good as mine were the last time I went. I was happy to be seeing a ballet. When I went the first time there wasn’t any visual aspect to the concert, and seeing the dancers move inside such a beautiful frame was amazing. I had never seen a proper ballet before, except for The Nutcracker when I was little, I think. I’m going to have to see more. I’m obviously a words person, so the ability to tell a story with no words at all is unbelievable to me. It was all very well done, but Jess and I agreed that the parts that are in the lake were nicer than when they are in the palace.

Jess being there was also a great excuse for me to do things I hadn’t gotten the chance to do yet. For an art lover, I had fallen quite behind in my Buenos Aires museums, so one day we decided to head to the MAMBA (Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires). I have always loved contemporary and modern art, but I often found myself knowing I liked what I was looking at but having absolutely no clue why. Now that I’ve taken my contemporary Argentinian art class, I actually know how to look at the pieces and how to talk about them. The MAMBA has a big collection of work by Marina de Caro which I really liked.

A lovely, nightmarish Marina de Caro
One reason I hate the 'look but don't touch' rule

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She uses a huge range of textures in her art, many of her pieces being knit, and they’re all bright colours. The combination creates a sort of infantile look, but the pieces are still somehow quite off-putting. They seem like creatures or objects out of a child’s nightmare. One of the pieces on display was a video of a human-like creature carrying its own head around on a string like a balloon. It genuinely disturbed Jess. I really liked all her stuff, but not as much as both Jess and I loved León Ferrari. Recently, after seeing his work at MAMBA, I learned that he is one of the most controversial artists in Argentinian history. He created a sculpture of Jesus nailed to an US bomber plane to comment on the hypocrisy of the violence of many religious countries, and in very Catholic Buenos Aires he was heavily protested. That turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to his career since the protesting groups basically went around advertising his shows. I can see how some of his work shown at the MAMBA could be quite shocking for certain people, but his pieces were very diverse.

Jess plays in Ferrari's 'Colgante'
Jess plays in Ferrari’s ‘Colgante’
'Urbano' by Leon Ferrari
‘Hombre’ by Leon Ferrari

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some of his sculptures, to me, looked like pencil line drawings had been lifted off the page and made into 3D. They were so delicate but so strong at the same time and they seemed like perfect little symbols of human creation. We also loved ‘Colgante’, an interactive piece you can go inside. Little metal rods hang down from the ceiling, and as you go inside they make a wonderfully loud sound that reminded me of a rainstick. If you pay attention you realize that they’re vibrating on your skin. The child in me couldn’t get enough of that one.

We had absolutely perfect weather while Jess was here, so we tried to do as many outside activities as we could. We visited the Japanese botanical garden because my guide-book had said it was the biggest one outside of Japan. When we arrived we realize that must be a lie because we could have sworn Montreal’s was bigger. It was still a beautiful stroll however, and we found a spot to sit and run our hands under a tiny little waterfall and let the sun spill down on us.

Water under the bridge
Water under the bridge
Jess enjoys some sunshine
Jess enjoys some sunshine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also spent en evening in the nature reserve, which I highly regret not having spent more time in during my stay here. As soon as we entered the reserve we could actually feel the air change. Even still being in the city, the space gave us real room to breathe and kept much of the smog and bus exhaust at bay. It would have wonderful if we had had some bikes because the reserve was big and we would have been able to see more of it, but we made it to the edge of the water. Before I go I want to make sure I go for a nice long bike ride in there. We walked back as the sun went down, and laughed nervously as we passed signs warning us of crocodiles. Are there really crocodiles in Buenos Aires?

The sun sets behind Buenos Aires from the nature reserve
The sun sets behind Puerto Madero from the nature reserve

Originally, we had planned on taking a trip to Mendoza, but that turned out to be impossible. We still wanted to get out of the city a bit though, so we took the train to Tigre which is just outside Buenos Aires with my roommate Joanna and friend Fran. The train itself was an experience. Since it was a beautiful Sunday it seemed like half of Buenos Aires had had the same idea as us. The pushing and shoving to get onto the train was worse than getting onto the Subte (subway) at 8:00 am. We did manage to get two seats, though, so we sat on each other’s laps and tried our best not to sweat too much all over each other. It was all worth it, however, because walking out of the train station and seeing all the water was spectacular. Tigre is sometimes called the Venice of Argentina because of the huge network of canals that winds its way through it. I had had the genius idea of packing a picnic, so we spread out a blanket and ate a long lunch right on the water. Afterwards, we had scheduled a boat ride to take us through the canals. There were big boats that fit over fifty people available, but Joanna had found someone to take us in his own little motorboat just the four of us.

We didn't go into the Museo Tigre, but it certainly was a great view from the water
We didn’t go into the Museo Tigre, but it certainly was a great view from the water
Joanna enjoys the sun
Joanna enjoys the sun

It was a million times better because we were in the open air, able to feel the wind in our hair and drag our fingers in the water. On the canal I felt like I was in an entirely different part of the world, though I can’t really put my finger on which. The houses along the water were so quaint and colourful, and it felt like life had slowed down and that the years had layered on top of each other to create a quite timeless space. I leaned back and spread my legs out in the sun and was tempted to close my eyes but everything around me was too beautiful. When the boat stopped I was horribly disappointed, but it turned out that we were just taking a break the four of us could go explore along the smaller waterways on foot. We wandered around crossing bridges just for fun and breathing in the damp smell of healthy leaves until we found a lovely place to stop for a beer.

Strolls along the waterways
Strolls along the waterways
On the water
On the water

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It wasn’t even really a restaurant, just a house with a man who fed people out of his kitchen. The yard where we sat was enclosed by hedges and bushes covered in beautiful flowers and we felt so safe, happy, and secluded. Everything about it was a breath of fresh air. After a couple of hours we went back to the boat and as we sped back to the centre of town the sun began to go down.

Back in Buenos Aires, Jess did a lot of exploring on her own while I was in class (yes, sometimes I go to class). It was a very small thing, but one of the memories of her visit that will stick most in my mind is the day she brought me to Parque 9 de Julio to show me the tree. She had found the most enormous tree I had ever seen. The branches were so wide that some of them even had dents that could cradle you. We climbed and swung like kids or monkeys, but also just sat and enjoyed being up there with each other.

Jess naps in the branches
 
All smiles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having Jess here has really made me miss Montreal. I am still loving my time here so much and I have made some amazing friends, but home is where your people are. I felt more at home here while she was around and now that she’s gone I really miss her. It’s nice, though, because now I know that when it’s time to go back, I’ll be ready.

Reaching New Hights

On Friday, May 1st, I arrived early in the morning in Salta to celebrate another long weekend with some travel. Workers’ Day had given me that Friday off, which was great, but I had forgotten that not only would universities be closed that day, but everything else in the country as well. So, Salta was an absolute ghost town when I arrived. It was a bit unsettling, but I felt better as soon as I got to the hostel because breakfast was still being served and where there is coffee, there is hope. The hostel I had chosen, 7 Duendes, is certainly not going to win any awards for beauty or comfort, but the staff was extremely helpful and gave me and the other lost tourists at the table a pretty good list of things to do around the city even with everything closed. I had sat down next to a Spanish girl named Esther, and as we listened she seemed to become more and more determined not to let the lack of open shops ruin her trip. I loved her enthusiasm so, along with an Australian named Kate, I decided to follow her around for the day. We started in the central plaza, Plaza 9 de Julio, which had much more life than I had expected. I suppose that is because that’s where all the tourist shops and restaurants are and tourists don’t take Workers’ Day off their travels. Like every Spanish-style plaza I’ve been to here, the city’s main cathedral was at the head. La Catedral de Salta, though quite traditional on the inside, was pink outside which I found very charming.

Catedral de Salta
Catedral de Salta
The 1021 steps begin
The 1021 steps begin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From there, we decided to take on the 1021 Steps because, especially that day, any free outdoor activity was more than welcome. It felt good to get the exercise even if it made me miss hiking in Patagonia, and I was definitely out of breath by the time we reached the top. It was worth it though, because when we had made it we were rewarded with a beautiful view of the city. Salta is bigger than I had expected and it made me realize how little you can ever really see of a city with just a couple of days. Without the panoramic view I would have gone away telling people that Salta is a very small city, when in reality it would have just been my limited experience. After enjoying the view for a while and making the long walk back down the steps, we were absolutely starving. So, we went in search of some empanadas. Before getting there I hadn’t realized that empanadas are from Salta. Apparently, you’re not going to find better ones anywhere else in Argentina. Back in Plaza 9 de Julio, a restaurant was selling them at 300 pesos a dozen which was down right insulting.We decided it would be best to get away from the Plaza, so we wandered the streets for a bit until we came across a place with live local music with no other tourists inside and empanadas at 100 pesos a dozen. All the other people inside knew just when to clap and sing along to the songs and I smiled the whole time about how authentic of an experience we were getting. Of course, the empanadas were absolutely amazing.

Empanadas with Tamale sauce
Empanadas with Tamale sauce

As much fun as we had visiting Salta, the real beauty of the area lies outside the city and the best way to see the landscape is to take a bus tour. There were lots of options, but Esther, Kate, and I decided to take the trip to Cafayate and we definitely chose well. If Patagonia is blue, Salta is red. As we drove along the windy roads we were surrounded by clay coloured mountains and formations. The good part about taking a bus tour was that the guide knew just where to stop for the best views. I’m not used to being herded on to and off of a bus every twenty minutes, but I swallowed my pride and really enjoyed it. He showed us formations that looked exactly like a frog, an iguana, and even the Titanic sinking. That a lot of fun, but even better than the gorgeous views was experiencing the rocks up close.

Red rocks of Salta
Red rocks of Salta

The little kid inside of me came out and I climbed all over the rocks. They climbed so high all around me that looking up at where the tops met the sky made me feel dizzy and at one point I just stopped and sat and let them spin around me. My favourite stop was El Ampiteatro or The Amphitheatre. According to our guide, the acoustics have the same quality as El Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, which I talked about in one of my first posts. There were two guys, one playing a pan flute and one playing a guitar and singing as we wandered around. The sound was amazing and the music added such a nice layer to the experience. After that, Cafayate itself was a little anti-climactic. It just could not compare to the landscape that surrounded it. I did, however, get to try wine flavoured ice cream. You would think it would be amazing… my two favourite things are ice cream and wine… but although it was good at first it was quite strong and I struggled to finish the whole cone. My last day in Salta I decided to visit the archeological museum, which I had heard great things about. I was not disappointed; it was very well curated and very informative. I had no idea how powerful the Inca had been in Argentina. I had always pictured them in Peru, of course, but their empire stretched extremely far. The highlight of the museum was the mummy that was found on the mountain Llullaillaco. It was the body of a girl who had been sacrificed to the gods over 500 years ago. It was crazy how well the cold had preserved her. Her skin was so perfect that I felt like I was looking at a doll.

That night, mummies still on the brain, I took a three hour bus from Salta to Jujy. I am very lucky because a friend of my dad’s has family there so I was able to stay with them. It felt amazing to be a part of a family for a few days eating home cooked Locro made by Abuela and with lots of little kids to play with. It also meant that instead of taking bus tours, I had personal tours around the area. My second day there, Roberto and his girlfriend, Susanna, took me up north because, like Salta, the beauty of Jujuy lies in the nature. One could say that it was a similar mountainous landscape, but instead of the red, the mountains here were all sorts of colours. The different types of minerals in the rocks made them shades of blue, green, red, yellow, and grey. One spot, called the Painter’s Pallet, had all the colours pushed up against the side of the mountain that seemed just like different shades had been pushed around by a brush. On our way through the mountains we stopped in Tilcara to see the Pucara ruins which had been there since even before the Inca arrived in northern Argentina. I really liked the site because the archaeologists had rebuilt houses in slightly different spots than the originals and we were able to see where the original stones were placed. I’ve always liked places like this because I love imagining how life might have been so long ago.

The inside of a Pucara home
The inside of a Pucara home
The Pucara must have been a bit smaller than I am...
The Pucara must have been a bit smaller than I am…

Our final destination that day was the Salt Flats. We followed a long, twisty road up the mountains which would eventually have taken us to Chile if we had let it. I couldn’t believe how high we were going and I believe that I reached the highest point I’ve ever been above sea level (soon to change when I go to Peru). As we drove I looked up in awe at the mountains and then all of a sudden I was looking down at them. We arrived at the flats at sunset, and I got to watch a brilliant pink sky over a huge expanse of white.  I couldn’t help but pick some up and taste it and discover for myself that it was, in fact, salt.

Jujuy's Salt Flats
Jujuy’s Salt Flats
Yes, that's salt
Yes, that’s salt

We stayed until it got dark and a spectacular full moon took the place of the sunset. As we drove the mountains cast shadows against each other in the moonlight leaving spaces of intense darkness in the silver. Since the mountains got taller as we worked our way down, the moon played a game of hide and seek with us. It would duck behind a peak and then all of a sudden we would turn a corner and it would jump out at us in all its brilliance. The mountains in the full moon gave everything a very spiritual feeling and it was definitely an amazing way to end my trip up north. I felt like had gotten to know another side of the people of Argentina, much more connected to the indigenous roots of the country and I felt much closer to Pacha Mama.