Jackie Steves guest-hosted her Dad's blog with 17 posts in 17 days in September 2010. Follow the adventures of Andy and Jackie Steves as they — the first Steves to venture into South America — reported on their experience.
At 7 in the morning, a full 24 hours after our initial departure from The States, my brother Andy and I finally reached our destination: Cusco in Peru, the capital of the magnificent ancient Incan Empire.
Our hostel had sent instructions that a cab ride from the airport should not exceed 10 sol (about 3 US dollars). Our guidebook also told us not to hop into just any cab on the street for risk of kidnapping, even if the cab looks official. A taxi official directed us to a cab driver with whom Andy was careful to pre-negotiate. He insisted on 25 sol. I said to the driver, a bit tongue-in-cheek, but also trying to guilt-trip him, "You know, our hostel warned us that you would try and trick us." Andy laughed and then mumbled to me in the back seat that it was probably worth the safe ride into the city. I guess we're grateful for any sense of security after hearing all kinds of stories from friends and relatives about the dangers of travel in South America.
Our drive into the center of the city introduced us to Peruvian architecture: squat buildings, walls of stacked blocks of stone, and glass shards on top of fences for a security system. Messages graffitied on the sides of houses ranged from political endorsements, to advertisements for telephone companies, to written cheers for their favorite football players.
Our hostel had an awesome interior courtyard with a ping-pong table and beanbag chairs for socializing. The place is decorated with quirky furniture and vibrant wall murals.
Once we set out, it took us less than a block before we scored a curious tourist's treat! On the Plaza San Francisco, we witnessed hundreds of small boys dressed up in military-esque uniforms, all lined up marching in goose-step behind a shabby out-of-tune band. They start training them at a young age for the couple of years of universal conscription. The boys' out-of-sync step made the scene far more adorable than discerning.
The Incans esteemed Cusco so highly that they believed it to be the navel of the world. At the center of this navel, they constructed sacred temples around what is today Plaza de Armas, the main city square.
The Catholic Spanish constructed a cathedral on Plaza de Armas. The artwork of this cathedral is different from European Cathedrals. Crucifixes depict Jesus wearing bright pink, blue, or green skirts, with beads and sequins made of precious metals. The altar decoration is somewhere between tacky tin and extravagant silver. The large Last Supper painting has a roast guinea pig on a platter in the middle of the table who — I have to agree with my guidebook — "steals the show." It's curious that in every crucifix Jesus is portrayed, not of Middle Eastern or even Incan race, but as Caucasian.
I used the chilly night temperatures here as an excuse to buy a hat and gloves, made by local nuns, as souvenirs. The proceeds go to five social projects, including abandoned children, sexually abused women, and girls' education. I would agree with Andy that the hat is dorky with its long tassel, but I still like it a lot!
We found a coca shop where we tried some coca chocolate and coca tea. I'm not a huge fan of the bitter lemony taste. Coca is the leaf used in cocaine and Coca-Cola. Drinking coca tea and chewing it can't get you high, but it can help prevent altitude sickness. We're feeling the 11,000-foot altitude here and hope this stuff will help Andy's dizziness and my headache. The Incans worshipped coca for its plethora of uses.
At the Inca Museum we learned that these ancient peoples (a completely isolated civilization when the Spaniards found them) were tremendously developed, basically only lacking the wheel and the arch.
An Irish pub was next on the agenda — training wheels on the going-out-in-South-America bicycle. We asked to share a table with a couple we discovered were Norwegian. At the table next to us sat four Irish girls. By coincidence, we were sandwiched between groups of our own heritage. We shared travel itineraries with these friendly Europeans over Cusqueña (the popular beer in Cusco). Already on the first night I was feeling good about our upcoming adventure.
This is the first time I can legitimately identify as a backpacker. When I was little I wore a backpack, but that doesn't count since I was with the family. During my past couple of independent Euro trips, I've actually used a rolling bag. While I don't enjoy a sore back, something about bearing the weight of my belongings on my shoulders gives me a sense of independence and strength, as if I could conquer the world (but not like what the Spaniards did to the Incas because that was not nice).
We stopped at a supermarket, one of my favorite windows into any given culture. Time and again, Andy and I have remarked on the freshness of food here. To watch the cutting of fresh whole fruit at a restaurant in Lima's airport nearly struck us as odd (shows how starved we are in the States for legitimately fresh fruit). This supermarket was another manifestation of fresh. Inside the entrance, you pass a fresh-squeezed orange juice stand, as well as a fresh farm milk stand.
We took a five-passenger car to Ollantaytambo, sharing it with a nice young Argentinean couple. The two-hour ride only cost $3 per person! Can you imagine being able to pay a few dollars for a two-hour taxi ride in the States?
We drove through rolling Peruvian hills resembling Colorado countryside — dry but also green in parts. We passed construction, where men worked with pickaxes and shovels, just like roadwork we saw in the city. Peru's roads — from its most modern city to its rural back lanes — are handmade.
Our small tires bouncing on a bumpity cobblestone road announced our arrival in Ollantaytambo, a town in the sacred valley below Machu Picchu that boasts ancient Incan ruins as well.
The "hearty Peruvian fare" of chicken, rice, and quinoa soup I ordered for dinner was good, but bland.
We befriended a couple of Minnesotans (who are here volunteering to help local flood victims) and a few local goofballs with whom we went to Gansos (Spanish for geese), one of the only bars in this small town. This bar did not disappoint — drinks cheap as dirt and an upstairs decorated with hammocks, swings, tree houses, funky Bob Marley wall decor, candlelight, and a fire pole to slide drunkenly downstairs at the end of the night (good idea?). Downstairs five drummers provided the beat for our night out.
Wilfredo, a guide we found through the Seattle travel company, Wildland Adventure (with whom our family did a Costa Rica tour two years ago) picked us up early from our hostel in Ollantaytambo. He took us to one of the World Wonders, Machu Picchu, via train to Aguas Calientes, and then by bus up precarious switchbacks to the "lost city."
We shared a train car with 32 women who appeared to be worshipping crystals. Their leader came around saying in a hokey Zen voice, "We will now seek to reach a higher level of consciousness by focusing the positive energy on our bellies." I struggled to stifle a laugh. Andy was pretty uncomfortable when the women began taking turns giving each other sensuous head massages. I nearly cringed at the clash of their tones — half spoken in hokey Zen tones, the other half spoken in raucous Southern twang.
We were careful to reassure our guide that not all Americans were this bizarre in spiritual practice, nor this obnoxiously loud. He said with a smile that he knew that, but that these kinds of spiritual groups do have substantial presence in the tourist industry here.
I was sad to hear that the Peruvians were swindled out of a huge portion of the money coming in from the booming Machu Picchu tourist industry because PeruRail (the train everyone must ride to get there) is actually owned half by Britain and half by Chile.
Such money swindling away from the Peruvians is a tragic theme running throughout their history. There was all the exploitation by the Spanish, especially in the taking of gold, silver, and other precious exports. Recently there have been strikes against the selling of Peru's oil to other countries, where it can be priced higher such that Peruvians cannot afford even their own oil. Protesters are urging the government to nationalize the oil industry so that private companies would have to stop this practice.
I have never had a better guide than Wilfredo (and I've taken a lot of tours in my 20 years of travel to Europe and elsewhere.) Not until this trip have ancient ruins intrigued me because for me that history seems so distant. Wilfredo succeeded at bridging that gap of time so that I could actually appreciate the building techniques, spirituality, and lifestyles of these ancient peoples.
The site upon which Machu Picchu was built was chosen very specially and intentionally. It lies between four soaring mountains, each perfectly positioned in the four directions — north, east, south, and west. As a people whose God is the sun, one can imagine they were very in tune with the sun's path from East to West. They built four small temples at the summits of each of these surrounding mountains. They also worshipped water, and it helped that the site's location made it possible for them to capture water flow from glaciers above them and direct it through their clever viaduct system.
Wilfredo pointed out evidence of the difference between various groups' handwork. Some walls were made of rectangular stones while others were composed of stones to fit together more like puzzle pieces. The stonework varied from uneven (the houses of the commoners) to absolutely perfect (the temples).
Wilfredo also showed us stone representations of the three worlds: the upper, the middle, and the underworlds. The underworld has to do with the wisdom from which we are born. The middle world is our existence on Earth. And the upper world is when one dies and goes to live with the Gods.
The condor bird is worshipped as well for being the carrier of souls to the upper world when humans die. My favorite single feature of Machu Picchu was this large natural bedrock formation shaped as soaring wings. The Incans built off of this by carving a bedrock beneath it into the bird's head.
The ruins of Machu Picchu, this incredible man-made construction, evoke in me ambivalent feelings. I am half overwhelmingly impressed with the awesomeness of their creation. Yet, I am half overwhelmingly depressed at all the back-breaking work these small ancient people endured. They must have had faith as strong as a diamond to be compelled to devote such a colossal effort to erecting these perfectly neat stone temples on the peak of this towering mountain. While they had impressive stone masonry techniques, it was still incredibly intensive to cut stones with the straight-line accuracy they did and haul mounds of bedrock. I have scarcely seen a modern-day Peruvian as tall as my own five feet and seven inches. And according to evolution the temple-builders were probably even smaller! All I can say is Machu Picchu is a mind-blowing accomplishment.
Wilfredo provided the most perfect cherry on top as the finale to our Machu Picchu tour. "I would like to play you a tune." He pulled out a recorder made of amber wood and from it he produced the most beautiful melody I have ever heard come from a wind instrument. Perhaps it was my majestic surroundings that made it all the sweeter. Wilfredo's traditional tune was like a condor via which I was transcended to a higher serendipity — it was that utterly beautiful.
After reluctantly bidding adios to Wilfredo, we ate our sack lunches in the ultimate picnic setting, on a grassy plain just above and overlooking the ruins. Nearby llamas, kept as natural lawnmowers, trimmed the grass.
Aguas Calientes, the town just below Machu Picchu, where we're staying, doesn't have much to offer, while having too much to offer for tourists. Restaurant after restaurant boasting Mexican food and "four-for-one" Happy Hours. Stall after stall of the same selection of souvenirs: comical Incan figurines, tacky silver jewelry, knitted hats and gloves, and bright traditional cloth shoulder bags and tablecloths.
Our alarm went off at 3:20 the next morning. Despite having just a few hours of sleep, I was wide-awake, the kind of wide-awake you are when a big day awaits you. We hurriedly packed our bags and left them behind the hostel's front desk.
As we ran downhill to the bus stop, we heard music still bumping at the club — that's how early, or late, it was. At 3:40 in the morning there was already a line for the buses that were not set to depart until 5 am. We arrived in the knick of time because in the next several minutes the line sprouted a few blocks longer. We were all desperate to be among the 400 admitted to hike up Machu Picchu's sister mountain, Wayna Picchu.
The same precarious switchbacks our bus had navigated the day before couldn't irk us the second time because all we could see out the window was the night's pitch black.
As our bus (we managed to get on the first one!) rolled to a stop at Machu Picchu's entrance, a line had already formed of those more ambitious than ourselves who had climbed the stairs up from Aguas Calientes. We won a stamp on our ticket that would admit us into Wayna Picchu at 7 am. That gave us some time to do the mini one-hour hike to the Incan bridge.
Andy remarked a few times how majestic Machu Picchu was at this hour. We were literally up in the clouds, as we could see some clouds below us. The surreal mistiness led me to exclaim, "Oh my gosh, it's like we're in heaven!" When Andy said he caught my exclamation on video (on his camera), I laughed, realizing how much I was under the spell of my surroundings.
We entered Wayna Picchu and slithered past a few groups of people. The sun was rising from behind the eastward mountain, casting glimmering illumination on patches of mountains. The clouds floated across the panorama, and we vacillated between making progress to reach the top and needing to stop to take it all in. The glory of it all shed me and Andy of our young-20s cool so that we became babbling brooks of awe and amazement.
The trail turned into StairMaster on steroids. We fell into a rhythm of scaling the never-ending staircase while panting from altitude and exertion. At times the path turned into a climb requiring two hands.
We finally reached the very summit, and a panoramic view made every step worthwhile. When Andy and I sat at a distance from each other, it occurred to us that the awesomeness triggered a need for personal meditation. (Are you sick of me going on about this mountainous beauty? I'm sorry, but you should know it is not exaggeration because all of this comes from a girl who is not a fan of the outdoors and is often at fault for taking natural beauty for granted.)
We didn't want to descend the way we had come and have to navigate around the ascending hikers, so we chose the long route back, via the Gran Caverna (Great Cave).
At one point we descended a huge wall of stone by stepping down a series of little notches while being suspended above thin air by holding on to a cable for dear life. We also had to climb down a 30-foot slippery wooden ladder. To cope, I shut off my rational thinking process in order to get through it. Afterward I praised God that Andy and I survived. It would have been easy to slip off, for a foot to blunder, or for the ladder to break. It was probably the scariest thing I've ever done. Doing that without a carabiner in the States would probably be illegal.
The Great Cave wasn't much, but I suppose Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu are hard acts to follow. I have never climbed so many stairs in my life — up, up, up, down, down, down, up, up... Both our knees began to shake with fatigue.
We made it back to Machu Picchu with wobbly exhausted legs, soaked through with sweat, but very satisfied with ourselves. Initially, waking up at 3 am for a four-hour hike was not appealing to me. I was just going along with Andy. But with hindsight I'm totally glad I did it.
We made it back down to Aguas Calientes to watch the World Cup final over lunch at a restaurant. Every building in town was blaring the game. Andy and I don't get into spectating soccer much, but the excitement of the international crowd around us was contagious.
We took the train, then bus back to Cusco. We suffered through cold showers — the hostel had run out of hot water to rinse off our Wayna Picchu hike sweat. Then we put on our beer jackets with a couple of Cusqueñas (Peruvian beer) to warm up. We met a trio of hilarious Brazilians who whet our excitement for visiting Rio de Janeiro.
In a hostel like ours it's a matter of minutes before you've made 10 friends. That's how friendly everyone is. Introductions usually go something like this:
"Where are you from?"
"Have you been here long?"
"Where else have you been / are you going?"
Then you usually proceed to share travel itineraries, with envy on both sides. Most everyone I've encountered has either just been to Machu Picchu or is about to go. For lots of backpackers, Bolivia is on the itinerary. Our three-week trip is definitely on the short side. Other people are going all out with South America during a period of two months to a year. It's also not uncommon to meet people who are doing a world-wide tour (usually from England, Australia, or New Zealand), and South America is only one continent among many they will visit. Andy and I agree that it's definitely a different demographic here than what you encounter in European hostels.
I would love to do a sociological study of the social dynamics of hostels. It reminds me of the first week of freshman year of college. You are rewarded for being warm and outgoing. Arrogance or snobbishness is punished because you simply won't make friends. The social dynamics are so great that many are satisfied by staying in at the hostel bar and hanging out with other travelers (although only really great, fun hostels pull this off).
Tonight, with our exhaustion at having woken up 20 hours ago, staying in at the hostel bar was just what the doctor ordered. I made friends with the bartender, who was an absolute clown. And he made me his Pisco sour (the characteristic Peruvian cocktail) of which he was very proud.
Andy was either tired or has grown too old/mature/boring to dance with me. So while he sat and observed, I took on the dance floor. Oh, how I love the dancing style of Europeans and South Americans — bopping around, totally dorky by American standards — but I can definitely dig it. So I bop around too. I alternated between French friends and Brazilian friends. Andy faded off to bed. Pretty soon I grew dizzy from dance partners twirling me around (they have a thing for twirling it seems) so I wished everyone good night as well.
The next morning we visited Koricancha, an ancient Incan temple that the Spanish built upon to convert into a convent, Convento de Santo Domingo. We viewed some Catholic paintings a few centuries old. Since these Spanish Catholic-inspired paintings were done by Incan artists, Incan spiritual symbols were incorporated to create a unique Peruvian flavor.
This museum didn't do much for us, but that is probably a testament to the value of a guide — which we lacked. It's like the Spaniards and the passing of time stole the spirit of the Incans by taking all their treasures and destroying some of their productions. A guide is invaluable to serve as a figurative and verbal restoration of that splendor.
We ambled through various neighborhoods and perused the San Pedro market. The conditions of the market seemed far from sanitary. The meat row stank of bloody beef. Mangy dogs patrolled the aisles. A whole grocery-store-variety of commodities was crammed into single stalls. Milk from large canisters was ladled into take-away bottles. Old women stooped sleeping, images of decay. Toddlers with dirty faces and clothes waddled about freely; some even crawled on the grimy ground. Desperate for business, vendors hassled us, urging us to consider buying their wares. In the midst of it, a Catholic shrine, sticking out like a white sheep, framed in that silver tin metal, encasing an image of the Virgin mother and the childish hearts and flowers characteristic of the sacred imagery here.
Three rows of fruit juice vendors pleaded for our attention. I decided I'd like to try one for the cultural experience. I perused the rows, seeking the one that looked the cleanest. I chose a smiling woman who had just finished serving a local. I requested pineapple and mango. She peeled and cut the fresh fruit and pushed it through her blender. Then she dumped a can of milk in — yuck. She handed me the finished orange product and I tried it. Pretty good. But as I took a few more thick, creamy sips, I couldn't get the disgusting thought of canned milk out of my head. I felt terrible, but I handed her back the glass, with most of it remaining, and paid. I pretended I really enjoyed it and made the patting-the-full-stomach sign.
As we moseyed back to our hostel, we passed stand upon stand of the same souvenirs. The only souvenir I would like to take home is one of the local toddlers. How do Peruvians make such adorable babies? Even Andy noticed their absurd cuteness.
The fact that the world of those backpacking through Peru is small was reinforced when we ran into the American couple we met in Ollantaytambo at the restaurant where we ate dinner. This was not the first time we re-encountered people we met days before. We ran into the same Irish girls we met our first night in Cusco three days later at the restaurant where we watched the World Cup in Aguas Calientes. On our first day at Machu Picchu we met a couple of American guys whom we ran into twice in Aguas the next day and a third time the following day in Cusco! A small world, at least for travelers in Peru.
Upon arrival in Buenos Aires, we learned it was a historically cold day. Great, just what I did NOT pack for.
As in Machu Picchu, we met up with a local guide arranged through Wildland Adventure. This time it was the "Four Balconies Tour," a metaphor for "balcony" views into four major neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.
The tour began in the heart of the city, Plaza de Mayo. Bank employees marching in a protest and setting off deafening firecrackers gave us a characteristic impression of this square where most historic events happen. Around it is situated the executive government building, the city government building, the national bank, as well as the national cathedral.
We visited La Boca, a historical port neighborhood of bright candy-color houses. It used to be tenements housing families crammed into single rooms and cooking on their balconies. Now it's commercial and touristically tacky, with dressed-up tango couples asking to take a picture with you.
We perused the famous cemetery in Recoleta, a cemetery unlike any other I've seen before. The deceased are not buried beneath the ground, but housed in stone and marble mausoleums, big enough to walk inside. The mausoleums are decorated with classical statues, labeled with family names from a gamut of countries representing the diverse immigration to this city. Those buried here are wealthy, important, famous, or all of the above. The corpse of Argentina's most loved and most hated first lady, Evita Perón, calls this cemetery home.
What struck me as most impressive about this city were the green spaces and the skyscrapers. The city's lungs are a plethora of sizeable parks with grand old trees. The city's complex skyline is punctuated by a pleasing variety of architectural feats, from classical echoing London or Paris, to gleaming modern cubic towers.
For dinner we got in the Argentinean carnivorous spirit and joined in the barbecue our hostel served. Sausage, ribs, steak galore. And beer. After that heart attack of a meal I thought it would be appropriate for me to go start a brawl or something.
We met a USC alum, Nicole, at our hostel and signed up to go on a pub crawl together. Dozens of 20-somethings came from all kinds of backgrounds — German, Brazilian, Australian, Chilean, French, etc. — but all shared one common goal: Get drunk and flirt up a silly storm with each other.
At one point we boarded a bus to transfer between bars that were beyond walking distance. Various groups of nationalities broke out in bold, proud, national song. It seems the Brazilians and Argentineans have a passionate national rivalry.
Determined not to be fazed by a hangover the next morning, we hopped the metro out to Recoleta. Clearly we weren't thinking intelligently when we chose to settle on Hard Rock Cafe for lunch. My family used to avoid these silly tourist destinations like the plague when we were younger, so this was probably the first time I have ever been to one. Perhaps there was a miscommunication during the translation of the menu because I could have sworn the veggie burger I ordered was made out of bird feed, not veggies. Their service was terrible too. It was so odd to observe people taking pictures of Beatles paraphernalia on the wall. Why would you do that in Buenos Aires, or any other city for that matter? So that's why our parents never let us go to Hard Rock when we were traveling in Europe years back. You may just have an innocent craving for a good-old familiar hamburger, but I wouldn't recommend it!
We visited a contemporary art museum. If you put modern art from, for instance, MOMA in NYC, next to modern art from Buenos Aires, I wouldn't be able to tell much difference. I guess it's cool that art movements have become so global they are like a rising tide that lifts almost all boats along.
We also visited Buenos Aires Design Center, which disappointed Andy for being more interior design rather than the kind he studied at uni (that's what I'm calling college from now on because I get a kick out of the Brits I've met at hostels who say it).
It was time we finally tasted Freddo, a celebrated Argentinean ice cream chain here, about which we've heard so much. It was like creamy gelato, or rather a hybrid between Italian gelato and American ice cream. Yum! And they serve it in the most perfect little round balls.
Nicole, four British girls, Andy, and I were picked up and transported to a small dance studio for a short lesson. In a dance style with strict gender roles, it was necessary that our teacher instruct both genders once at a time.
The girl takes one step toward the guy, the guy one step back. Both take one to the side. The guy two steps forward, the girl two steps back. Another one to the side. Then the guy leads the girl from side to side as she pivots sensuously on her feet. Then the final pose, with the guy's leg slid out and the female's lifted up and curved around the male's extended leg. We learned this in three sections, practicing after each new addition.
The woman never asks, but is only asked by the males. The instructor shouts "switch partners" frequently so that you're never with the same partner for long. I wished I had a swanky tango dress and glittering stilettos to complete the transformation into a tango dancer.
The lesson only lasted an hour and then we were all shown into the dining room and served dinner. I swear, people from other countries fall more deeply in love with one another then Americans do. As I look around at couples here on a date, it is a sight I'm unaccustomed to because few Americans look into their lover's eyes so intently and speak with such loving animation with one another.
For dessert we were served ice cream, as well as a spellbinding tango performance. It consisted mainly of three dancing couples and a couple of male alto singers. It told the history of tango, which dates back to the late 19th century, through dance. So incredibly sexy! Andy remarked afterward that he was impressed at how all the eyes of the females in the room were absolutely glued to the dancers for the entire show. They moved their legs as fast as a tap dancer, but their movements were instead graceful cursive twirls. The dancers displayed a level of harmony as perfect as a world-renowned choir. I could watch this dance for hours and barely blink an eye, that's how hooked I was. People say tango is mesmerizing. Now I know what they mean.
Tango seemed a bit sexist in that the man always leads and the woman always follows. On the other hand, however, it is a style of dance that truly showcases the woman. All eyes are on her — her glamorous dress, her glimmering visage, her sultry legs, and her elegant movements. The men all look alike in pinstripe suits, merely acting as pointers to the women, who look powerful in their silver heels and steely assurance.
Afterward, we hopped a cab with Nicole to Palermo, the young hot nightlife district. But it was only midnight, far too early to hit up the club. So we snuggled into a fireplace-warmed pub, the most elegant of pubs I've ever been to. Few were the couples. Instead, small groups of friends conversed around small round tables — all so well-dressed! No one seemed to care they were packed in like sardines.
We made friends with a couple who shared our table. "We're just friends," she claimed. "He does my hair." Two minutes later we were left to our own conversation as they French kissed for an extended period of time. "What?" I thought, "They do this in such a graceful bar??" But somehow it seemed to fit. It was totally different from the trashy DFTs ("dance floor makeouts") you witness in college — just two lovers indulging in each others' lips.
Before we knew it, it was time to go to the club, the reason why we trekked to this neighborhood. Club 69! Thursday night was drag show night. We paid what felt like an arm and a leg for the cover and coat check compared to the pennies we were paying for other things (in this very affordable city). I watched with amusement as Andy's eyes grew big at the sight of transvestites strutting their stuff across the stage. We danced, watched, drank, took pics with the drag queens, danced, watched, drank, got tired, and cabbed it home.
We woke early, hoping to score tickets for the 9:30 boat with Nicole to Colonia, a three-hour boat ride away over the border in neighboring Uruguay. Our luck pulled through and got us on without reservations.
Colonia was extraordinarily romantic, with colonial architecture, grand old trees, sailboat/lighthouse ambience, classic old cars, and rickety cobblestone roads.
When we read about the option of renting golf carts to tour the town we just couldn't resist. The contrast between the quiet old-time quaint alleys and our obnoxious, modern, stupid-looking golf carts couldn't have been more jarring. We felt guilty for our nuisance of a presence, but it was so fun zipping through town in our absurd little ride.
We selected a restaurant for lunch based on popularity. Our restaurant was nearly ocean-view and nearly full. The sea breeze made us freezing so we jockeyed for a table in the sun. Andy was severely bothered by three mangy dogs, who patrolled at knee-level. It made the long hour we waited for our food seem like eternity. We had difficulty deciphering the menu, so what we ordered turned out to be pure protein. We ordered some additional sides but gave up when it seemed to be taking another whole hour. At this rate, we would have to get back on the boat before we even got to see Colonia! Our lunch cost $25 each — by far our priciest meal so far.
We climbed back into our golf cart and drove around the city center. I wondered if they had laws here requiring citizens to maintain the rustic colonial charm because its ambience was truly a blast from the past: rusty old classic cars parked along the sidewalks, cracks on the buildings like wrinkles of old age, elderly trees hunched over, and barely much modern traffic at all.
As we merged onto the main street, a scruffy medium-sized dog began chasing after the front of our golf cart. We tried to lose him to no avail, and pretty soon his persistence made us concerned. He barked and stared at us with wild eyes. We all started freaking out over this dog that may be mad with rabies and might bite us! None of us had bothered with the rabies vaccine. For the next 20 minutes we tried every strategy we could think of: sharp turns, slower, faster, joining other traffic, turning onto quieter side streets. We finally got a bit of a lead on him, hastily parked the cart, and ran into a bookstore. The men inside were alarmed at our running in all of the sudden. We explained to them in a Spanish/Italian/French/English hybrid about our chasing dog. We pointed at the dog, who waited just for us outside the door. They laughed and said it happens to lots of tourists and never the locals. The dogs somehow know how to distinguish the two. They said we shouldn't worry about it and to pay him no mind. It seemed like these dogs were like the town's practical joke on visitors. Still pretty riled up I wasn't having the easiest time at seeing the amusement in keeping these scary, bothersome dogs around.
The dog was now napping just outside. We hatched a plan to walk calmly and quietly out. Thank goodness we escaped the dog while he slumbered.
We visited a nondescript church. We were not very inspired to seek out either of the small historical museums here, so we just ventured around on foot in the cold until we couldn't feel our fingers and toes. We warmed up over a couple of Irish coffees at a bar.
We thought it silly that this small town with generously wide streets had designated several of them as one way streets. Andy accidentally went down one of them the wrong way and then we heard a little woowoo horn — we were being pulled over. When I saw it was two full-grown men in no uniform except bright orange vests, sharing a single motorcycle, it was hard to take them seriously. We bit our tongues to keep from laughing while playing the dumb tourist card and then profusely apologizing. They could have demanded any fine they wanted from us naive tourists and pocketed it. Instead, they showed mercy and we got off with a warning.
Apparently it was our lucky day, for we escaped from Uruguay back to Buenos Aires without contracting hypothermia (despite the biting cold and lack of warm clothing) or rabies via dog bites, and scot-free from paying for Andy's driving infraction.
After a hearty lunch of pesto tagliatelle and French fries (both could actually be considered Argentinean foods because of its history of fluxes of immigrants from both places), we visited MALBA, the Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires. Waiting in the long line to get in was worth it to see the museum's small but delightful exhibit. A substantial number of photographs by Mapplethorpe, one of my favorites, struck my fancy.
We explored Calle Florida, which felt like the Champs-Elysées of Buenos Aires, packed with pedestrians and high-class shops. We entered Galerías Pacífico, a fancy mall to get to Centro Cultural Borges for three floors of photography exhibits.
On our long walk back across downtown we were surprised NOT to witness a crash, as rush hour traffic here is crazy! They have especially wide avenidas, and during certain times of day, gridlock is so bad that only a couple of cars can squeeze through at each green light.
We went to a classy steakhouse (not all-you-can-eat) to commemorate our final night in Buenos Aires with Nicole. We ordered just two steaks between the three of us, which turned out to be huge slabs of perfectly seared beef on wooden boards framed by 10 "sides" — ramekins of, for instance, sundried tomato or mustard sauce.
As a flexitarian for environmental reasons, my guilt over contributing to deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions by creating more demand for cow products was overshadowed by how much I enjoyed this blissful Argentinean beef. Steak, wine, and warm chocolate cake made this one big aphrodisiac/endorphin-producing meal, and it showed on our faces.
The cold rain here and Nicole's hype about Rio made us so excited for our next destination, a sunny city of beautiful people who really know how to embrace the sweet life.
The next day at mid-afternoon, we touched down in Rio de Janeiro. Our previously arranged ride having fallen through, we were on our own to find our way to our hostel.
So many people — uncles, family friends, other backpackers — had warned us about this city's dangers. In just the past two weeks, I had encountered three or four backpackers whose stay in Rio had been tainted by getting mugged. We heard stories of little gang kids attacking people with knives. We had also watched the film City of God with our mother just before our trip, which served to really freak her out. We tried to reassure her that we would be safe, but would we? There is no denying that that film was based on a true story. So there was the bad and the ugly, but there was also the good and the beautiful. I had heard people sing this city's praises more than any other city. I read "Rio" by Ruy Castro, one of Rio's most famous author's; the book was an illustration of his enormous love for his city.
Seeing that ATMs come with six guards armed with large guns, we could tell this city required a strong police presence.
During our bus ride to Copacabana, the area where our hostel was, we saw countless favelas (Rio's slums), the most tenuous-looking constructions made of cheap materials stacked high on top of each other, a faded rainbow of colors, laundry hanging everywhere, and dirt roads despite an urban setting. Andy caught a glimpse of blood streaming out from beneath a tarp covering a dead body. We couldn't tell if it was from a car crash or perhaps gunshot? That freaked us out, and as soon as it was finally our stop we hastily hopped into a taxi. After the first two cab drivers we tried didn't know where the address of our hostel was, we grew even more anxious. We felt like at any moment, a gang of children would attack us with knives and mug us. With hindsight, it's amusing at how paranoid we were that first night.
While walking back from dinner later that night, I saw a large woman shirtless, breastfeeding her baby on the sidewalk. We also saw a few other homeless people, but the area didn't feel too dangerous altogether.
We were five and six of six packed into a five-person car when we got picked up from our hostel the next morning. One was the driver, a middle-aged man with kind eyes. Two was a soft-spoken Asian-American from San Diego. Three and four were lively, talkative, 19-year-old British girls. Soon they revealed themselves to be the crazy hooligans they were. One of them mentioned getting a split lip when she instigated a fight with a cab driver she disagreed with. She proceeded to break off his windshield to whack him with it, and while her friends wrestled with him, she went to grab the key from the ignition. The driver surrendered the argument. One of their other stories showed another reason they weren't to be messed with: When a few guys pissed them and their friends off, they got them kicked out of the hostel. Then they called around to other hostels so the guys were barred from most places in the city and had to sleep on the street.
Without asking the driver, one of them turned on the radio to blasting volume. At a rest stop they immediately started chain-smoking and drinking beers. It was only noon. One of them wore high heels, Daisy Duke jean shorts, an absurd wide-brimmed sun hat, and a tank top hanging so low her nipple peeked out on occasion. They had Andy and I nonstop laughing as they talked about their travels and their schemes on how to swindle money from their parents to extend their trips. They provided entertainment the rest of the car ride, singing and dancing along to popular music. I almost envied them with the insane stories they told so casually like it was nothing. While they both looked like they could use a good shampoo, teeth cleaning, and facial, they certainly had style with panache.
We transferred to a boat to be ferried over to Ilha Grande, pure underdeveloped paradise. Yellow-sand beaches, rustic Pirates-of-the-Caribbean ambience, people lazing away in hammocks, a harbor speckled with small weathered sailboats, absolutely no cars, and nothing more than a dirt trail stringing the town together. It didn't bother us that our six-bed dorm room was dingy and crammed because maximum time would be spent in the sun.
Andy and I followed the dirt path and the sandy shore into town. Restaurant owners were wheeling their food supplies back with them from the small grocery. It was the kind of small town where nightlife was going out on a stroll and bumping into all your friends. We had our own happy hour with French fries and caipirinhas, the typical cocktail of Brazil, consisting of a rum-like liquor, sugar, and lots of lime.
Andy remarked, "This is where I would honeymoon." I seconded that. It surprised us that big developers had not yet commercialized and overdeveloped this haven. We were grateful its more natural, virgin magic was protected and intact.
Our dinner was all-you-can-eat Brazilian barbeque back at the hostel's restaurant. The hostel's youthful employees sang behind the bar while they cut bread, sliced tomatoes, and grilled chicken.
The hotel's surroundings again had that rusty, jungley Pirates-of-the-Caribbean feel. So did one of the male employees, who looked like he could be straight out of the movie with a big, crooked smile, nearly black skin, long messy dreads, and a rum-drunk laugh.
We all sat at long wooden tables with chill Jack Johnson playing over the speakers. I met a sweet Swedish girl who met her Aussie boyfriend on the road a month ago and had been traveling with him ever since. We met a British Tweedledee, Ian, and his Italian Tweedledumb, Paolo, whose grins and jokes kept us laughing all through dinner.
Not long after the people had cleaned their plates of food, we all started making our way to the dance floor. Jack Johnson was replaced by the rave techno music they love so much down here. Some local Brazilians drifted in. Dance dynamics turned crazy so that even the shier backpackers broke out of their shells. Dance-offs and this one Brazilian goofball swinging from the ceiling beams all made for a wild, fun dance party.
After a short night's sleep we went at it again — this time it was an all-day boat party. We and all our new friends were babbling brooks of joy at being on a boat, sipping caipirinhas, and being driven around to Ilha Grande's most gorgeous lagoons. We felt like we belonged in a movie or a music video.
When we got to the first lagoon Andy was the first to jump in. Within a matter of minutes everyone (about 30 20-something-year-olds) followed suit except me and Italian Tweedledumb, Paolo. He confessed to me with a big adorable grin, "Don't tell anyone, but I don't know how to swim." But that didn't stop him. Soon he was paddling around down there with a life jacket like a three-year-old. I think people found a way to jump off almost every possible perch on the boat.
The roof of the boat was a big flat platform, perfect for a dance floor. This was the most surreal party — I think for all of us. I was chatting up top with one of the Brazilians who helps run the hostel, Frederico, when a man in a small motor boat drove up alongside our boat. Frederico asked me if I liked coconut. When I said yes he called down to the man below in Portuguese. The man threw up a coconut. Frederico pulled out a pocketknife, whacked off the top of the coconut, tossed in a straw, and gave it to me. The all-natural refreshment couldn't have been more fitting.
At one point the Brazilians turned off the music and joined all together in song and dance. They really know how to make their own fun. Just the sight of them all singing and dancing made me extremely happy.
The bar turned out a continuous flow of caipirinhas. You would think they would mass-make these ahead of time for the sake of ease, but instead the cocktails were ever so fresh, made from limes they chopped the moment before they threw them in your cup so they could only make four at a time, with two regular-size shakers.
The next morning our time in paradise expired. Andy kept asking, "Are you sure you don't want to stay a few more days?" I could stay the rest of my life so happily here, but I was also very excited to see Rio.
For dinner back in Rio we metroed to the world-famous beach, Ipanema. Public transportation (the subway and the buses) here is extremely convenient. It helps that the city sprawls along the water in a line.
After sundown, the promenade that runs along the beach is still a stream of beautiful fit Brazilians walking, running, rollerblading, bicycling, flirting, and playing. On the sand just below, beach volleyball and soccer are still going too.
As we perused restaurants, we missed how cheap Argentina and Peru had been. Brazil was no cheaper than the States, it seemed.
In the morning our guide, Elvarado (again, hired through Wildland Adventures), picked us up at our hostel to take us on a Historic City-Center tour. He recounted a history that resonated with those we heard in Peru and Argentina — of natives, European conquest, struggle for and achievement of independence, turbulent politics during the 20th century, and finally a brighter picture of better governance and prosperity in the new millennium. But Brazil stands out from the other two for being colonized by Portuguese instead of Spanish and for experiencing a peaceful transition to independence. Today the president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has a 90 percent approval rating for applying smart economic policy to pull many out of poverty — along the lines of distributing loans to motivate production. A woman is next in command in Lula's party, so in a few months, when his two terms have run out, Brazil is expected to have a female president!
We visited a few monuments and churches. Most memorable was a Franciscan convent — a church interior excessively and magnificently clad in gold.
We walked for hours, stopping every once in a while at the very convenient juice shops on nearly every other corner. They make the most refreshing smoothies out of all kinds of tropical fruits. They also serve coffee, cakes, sandwiches, etc. You usually just stand at the bar while you have a snack. I tried an açai smoothie, which I thought was far better than anything I've ever had at Jamba Juice.
Besides a female president, Rio has a lot to look forward to. They are working hard to improve their city, by cracking down on crime and developing infrastructure, in anticipation for the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.
Elvarado took us to the neighborhood where he lives, Santa Teresa, by way of old rickety tram. This quieter residential town is smack-dab in the middle of the greater metropolis, and the very old tram that rides up the hill from the city center passes through scenic jungle surroundings. The 10-minute ride was like transporting us into story land. The setting: bohemian hill town populated by artists and intellectuals who all take care of each other's kids and take time to stop and chat to whomever they meet while strolling the cobblestones. The Great Depression led to the abandonment of the grand abodes once owned by some of Rio's upper class. The '60s brought hippies to reoccupy the dilapidated hillside mansions.
We stopped at the neighborhood bar so Elvarado could say hi to three of his friends: a sculptor, a professor, and a fellow tour guide, who were having their midday beer. This bar doubles as a convenience shop, with a rainbow of essentials arranged like a grand piece of artwork against the wall behind the bar.
We couldn't get far before Elvarado would run into another friend, this time a tiny old woman with a weathered potato-skin face and a big, crooked-tooth, lipless smile that made my day. They embraced and spoke words we couldn't understand. Elvarado went on to explain that she was their neighborhood's Carnaval queen, a woman always loved and respected by all.
We climbed hills and stairs to Parque das Ruínas, the ruins of a hilltop mansion inhabited 80 years past by an extremely wealthy female patron of the arts. At the very top of her house was a panoramic view of the city from her balcony! And I thought we were spoiled with the Puget Sound view from our house. This view was something else. The expansive bay set off by mountains, a sprawling dance of skyscrapers. She would have grand parties up here, but this house too fell into disrepair following her death and was even inhabited by homeless people for a few decades. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't mind being homeless if I got to crash up here!
We descended what look like normal stairs as you walk down, but when you turn around you see an explosion of color in a mosaic that turns the stairs into a playful marvel. This long flight of stairs is tiled by Selarón, a Chilean artist. He's toiled for decades, picking tiles from his ventures all over the world to add to his masterpiece. His signature icon, which you see in many of the tiles he paints himself, is a dog with a pregnant woman. Pictures of the artist himself, with a huge flamboyant mustache, show him to be as quirky as his characteristic symbol. Despite the fact that the stairs look complete, all filled in with tile, it is actually always a work-in-progress, which he calls his "great madness." A fun fact we learned: hip-hop producers Snoop Dogg and Pharell filmed parts of their "Beautiful" music video on these steps.
I thought my own quirky dad would appreciate this bizarre artist and his tile festival of stairs as much as I did, so I picked him up a signature tile of Selarón and a postcard. The 10 reals ($5 US) that I paid will go toward funding Selarón's work.
We parted with Elvarado at the bottom of the stairs to tackle a couple of museums on our own. The Museum of Fine Arts had an impressively innovative floor of modern art I particularly enjoyed. The Historical Museum enlightened us on the indigenous natives of Brazil, the country's history of slavery, and many other important topics.
At the hostel we met a whole crew of fun backpackers (Irish, Moroccan, British, Italian) and shared taxis to Lapa, the neighborhood downtown that has fantastic street parties on Friday nights. What a scene! The four blocks were absolutely teeming with young revelers. Where cars would usually go stood stands upon stands of food and drink.
We observed a mesmerizing African drum show. Twenty-some drums, an orchestra of percussion. Even gringos couldn't help moving to the beat.
Next we came up to a couple of guys performing Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian art form invented by slaves to secretly practice fighting by disguising it in the form of a dance. It involved crazy acrobatics like I've never seen! They're figuratively fighting, but it's actually a beautiful dance with incredible coordination and skill.
I was a kid in a candy store on the streets in this part of Rio — so many cool sights to drool at. We explored for hours, beers in hand. We even ran into our friends from Ilha Grande!
Elvarado met us once again the following morning for a full-day tour. He drove us in his car to our first stop: the Christ the Redeemer Statue on Corcovado Mountain. Rio is such a fascinating sight of a city I would be content just riding around all day watching it out a car window.
The wind parted the clouds just long enough for us to have a few Kodak moments. I love this statue. While many crucifixes show a suffering, slouched, dying Christ, this one is strong and resolute, showing that while Jesus was crucified, he was actually not defeated. Sacrificing his life was a tremendous feat of strength, and the bold posture of Christ the Redeemer is a great representation of that.
On the tram ride back down from Corcovado (through reclaimed tropical forest), a quartet of samba musicians played for us. A few Brazilian passengers on board raucously joined in a fun verbal interplay. When the man singer passed out a shaker, I realized the interactiveness of this musical genre. I envy Brazilians for their playfulness and tendency to spontaneously break out in group song/dance.
Elvarado drove us north along the coastline, breaking to show us his favorite beaches. Each of Rio's beaches has its own personality — anything from famous to secluded, wealthy to poor, wild waves for surfers to calm surf for kids.
Maracanã, their beloved football stadium that holds such a sacred space in Brazilian hearts, didn't do much for me and Andy, who have very little to do with soccer since we stopped playing in middle school. It is fun, however, to marvel at a city that is so wholly devoted and in love with a single sport. While in the States, the most popular sport seems like a toss-up between baseball, American football, and basketball, here one sport dominates. That's soccer.
Everything is an all-out team sport for Brazilians: their overwhelming shared love for soccer, their breaking out in joint song, and their devotion to putting on the world's biggest three-day party every Mardi Gras — Carnaval.
We visited their Sambodromo, a long, massive, one-sided concrete stadium. Its sole purpose — to house the Carnaval parade. Seats are very plentiful, but their extremely high price demonstrates how much Cariocas prize their celebration. In the small, adjacent museum we saw a few examples of the extravagantly showy costumes worn by the samba schools in the parade, made new each year! We also viewed a video recording of the event — unreal! Puts all other parades I've seen to shame.
I had apprehensions about this huge space-rocket-shaped construction that claimed to be a cathedral. They were all dispelled, however, once I walked inside the Nova Cathedral to see a bath of natural light colored by gloriously large stained-glass windows on all four sides soaring up to a great height as if in praise of God. The shape that reminded me of a rocket ship actually represented a bishop's hat. A great wooden cross was awesomely suspended over the altar. Among the sculptures of saints decorating the quadrants of the cathedral, that of St. Francis particularly spoke to me with its dynamism and grace.
Our final destination with Elvarado was Sugar Loaf Mountain, yet another high viewpoint of the city. You know you are in a truly beautiful city when two of its main tourist attractions are high above on the mountains to offer views of Rio. We rode two cable cars up to this funny-shaped mountain. Clouds interfered to limit our visibility, so the $25 we each paid was a bit of a waste on this cloudy afternoon.
Despite being exhausted from getting only a couple of hours sleep the night before, we knew it was our last night to see Lapa in action (the next night was a Sunday and then we would fly home on Monday). So we rallied to return to our new favorite nightlife hotspot for the second night in a row. We shared feijoada, the traditional meat and black bean stew here. Salty, but good. We had finally found out that most entrées here were plenty for two people, which really helped our budget. We wandered around people-watching and peeping in on bars with samba bands playing. If only the nightlife was like this in Georgetown (where I go to school)!
Our last full day south of the equator was bright and clear. Cramming all of Rio's important sights into the space of two days paid off by affording us a leisurely day. We metroed to the Hippie Fair in Ipanema. All the things I wanted to take home with me were too big to carry: a hammock, big bright painted murals of the favelas with jazzed-up colors, and intricate wooden chairs.
We bused it down the coast a bit to Posto 9, perhaps the most famous stretch of beach in the world. This was right by the bar where "The Girl from Ipanema" had been seen and written. The sand around it was carpeted in towels and beach chairs. I wondered out loud why people would come here if they had the option of less crowded beaches. Andy astutely pointed out, "It's all about seeing and being seen." Yes indeed, women showed off their tanned assets in itsy-bitsy thong bikinis. Men showed off their football-toned bodies in little Speedos many American men wouldn't be caught dead in.
We walked along the water's edge checking it out. We had our sights set on Leblon Beach, just south of Ipanema, quieter as well as very nice, in an upscale neighborhood.
The clouds cut our beach time a bit short, and we walked the several miles all the way back to our hostel enjoying a mild temperature and the promenade running all the way along the beach bustling with active locals.
We had grown to love small hole-in-the-wall restaurants here that serve simple fare of meat, rice, French fries, the occasional pizza, and big bottles of local beer.
We had heard quite a few hostel friends rave about the fun they'd had at the "Favela Funk Party." We were very speculative at first. Going to a party in the slums? Gruesomely violent images from the film City of God surfaced in my imagination. Our friends would reassure us about safety and how the facilitating company totally takes care of you. If it's safe enough for them to run, and tons of tourists partake without trouble, then it must be safe. So we paid our 30 dollars for a ride on what we decided would surely make for a memorable cultural experience.
They corralled us all into a big van. I agreed with Andy that it felt like a hen (English bachelorette) party with the majority of passengers excited, talkative British girls. The only exceptions were two very nice Brazilian cousins from south of São Paulo. The guy running the service clearly got a kick out of shuttling gringos to favelas because he gave us a sarcastically ominous pep talk and issued a spat of semi-serious rules. About 20 minutes into the ride, as we entered what looked like the favelas, all the loud high-pitched British voices were suddenly dampened.
They unloaded us right in front of the club, and I felt like we were a young naïve school of fishes in a scary sea of young people we didn't know what to think of or how to act around. We entered the big warehouse of a club and a headed immediately for the VIP area upstairs that we gringos had special access to. When Andy wanted a drink we had to first go buy a drink ticket from the vendor person who sat behind protective glass. It was by no means a full bar, just a few basic options.
We took on the dance floor with a bit of trepidation. Soon it felt just like any other club, except that our white faces stuck out a bit and the local guys were shirtless. For several songs lines of these shirtless guys danced a choreographed line dance. Hip-hop/line dancing is definitely something I haven't seen before. They were good! And fast!
We ran into our favorite Ilha Grande girlfriends again! Again, small backpackers world! By 2 or 3 am the fabulously flamboyant MC invited about a dozen people on stage for a dance-off. They really know how to shake it. By 5 am I was so danced-out I slept the whole van ride home.
The next day, during our last few hours, we strove to soak up as many final Rio sun rays as possible. Today, Copacabana (our own neighborhood) beach. This time we knew how to get our hands on the beach chairs, how to order my new favorite açai smoothie at a corner juice stand, how to stand our ground in the aggressive undertow of the surf, and how to pay a cheap price for a beautiful lunch at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where all the neighborhood's grandpas like to hang out having beers all times of day. It finally felt like we knew how to work this city, and now we had to leave. But I plan to stow away these insights because I definitely want to return to my new favorite city, the lovely Rio de Janeiro.
In the same time zone but in another hemisphere, I am now back at Georgetown University, beginning my junior year of college.
When I tell my friends what I did over the summer, most of them ask what it's like down there, as if that portion of Latin America mystifies them. I tell them that Machu Picchu is, in fact, not overrated, and that its ancient majesty and sacred surroundings live on. I tell them that tango in Argentina must be the most sexually alluring, yet dignified, art form ever invented. I tell them that Brazilians are masters at life: lovers of dance, song, progress, beauty, tradition, and love itself. I tell them that paradise can be found on a small island off the coast of Brazil, rimmed by perfect yellow-sand beaches and small sailboats, but not a single car.
Half of my friends are studying abroad this semester. People are surprised when I tell them I am not studying abroad. I must be crazy, right? Andy had what he calls "the time of his life!" while in Rome. Everyone else I know who has studied abroad raves excessively about the unforgettable adventures they had.
So what kind of Steves doesn't seize the opportunity to study abroad? I realized I can eat my cake and have it too. I want eight full semesters of Georgetown classes, to which I have developed an awful addiction (I know, I'm a nerd). As for the summers, while I revel in my fond memories of South America, I have already begun scheming for next summer...
Europe served as my training wheels. South America was my kid bicycle. What will be my motorcycle?