Wednesday, August 22, 2007

New Blog

OK, folks, this is it. We sold the van. We are renting property in North America. I think it's time to move on to a new blog.

If you want to keep up with our adventures in LotusLand (Vancouver), please follow these links for Kim and Douglas, respectively.


I hope to see you there! I like keeping in touch this way. Please leave comments if you're still reading, so I know you're out there.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

sweet home Carolina

We're back in NC, after a few more delicious days in Buenos Aires. After we left Brazil, we planned to spend our last few days in Uruguay before heading back to BsAs to fly out. We took exceedingly comfy night buses to Colonia, which was founded by the Portuguese to smuggle goods into Spanish-colonized Buenos Aires. It still has its cobbled streets and loads of lovely old colonial buildings, and we had a good time wandering around. The siren song of Buenos Aires' coffee and delicious food called us back early, though. We could smell the goodness as soon as we stepped off the ferry. Luckily, we arrived back on the right day for the famous antique market in Plaza Dorrego, in the San Telmo neighbourhood, just a few steps away from our favorite hostel, Residencial Carly (highly recommended).

The square was packed with antique vendors selling everything from 150-year old lace, pocketwatches, glass seltzer bottles (we got a green one), working Victrolas, amazing huge old padlocks that you would expect to see on the back of a 1800's paddywagon, piles and piles of family silver, art nouveau tiles, and everything in between. There was also lots of art - our favorite was the figures made out of silver forks - you could get guitar players (playing a spoon), court stenographers, marathon runners, bike riders, you name it. The square was packed with vendors and people, and the stalls spilled out onto the pedestrian streets north of the square. The crowds extended for 20 blocks - there were people filling the street for as far as we could see. It was like a Grateful Dead concert meets the Antique Roadshow - there were marionettes, art, street performers, kaleidoscopes, 10-piece orchestras (including a piano!!), hippy jewelery, and handmade shoes. We wandered up and down the streets for hours, had delicious ravioli and pizza in a streetside cafe, and ended the night watching tango shows in the square. First there were the professionals, all in black and tophats. When dusk fell, they were done, but they left the dancefloor and music equipment set up, and the square filled with local tango enthusiasts. Their outfits were great - from stripey track pants, to swishy tango dresses. One tall woman with short platinum blonde hair was wearing glittery green shoes with brown legwarmers. Picture the Breakfast Club all grown up and dancing tango. It was fantastic.

The trip back was long but totally uneventful. We were a little worried that the US immigration folks wouldn't let me back in the country as a visitor, but the official only asked us one question and waved us on through. We didn't even have trouble bringing back our yummy Argentine salami. The customs guy asked us whether or not we had any meat, and we said we did. He asked us whether we'd bought it at a deli, or killed and skinned it ourselves. We said 'er, deli' and he waved us on through.

Now we just have to reorganize our stuff (it was all packed and organized for Ireland...), visit all of our friends and family, get the car, and head to Vancouver!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Two for One

For the lazy readers out there, this entry will be a winner, two countries for the cost (in eye wear) in one blog.

We finally managed to find an agency to ship the car back to the USA, a company called Transpack in BsAs. It would seem we are the first people in history to do such a thing and it took two full days, mostly waiting and having transpack do yet another inventory of the car. This was very frustrating and Kim spent most of the time calming me down. But enough of inificiency, the cars having fun on the high seas and with luck will arrive in Norfolk, Virginia in a month.

We left Buenos Aires on a boat for a town called Colonia in Uruguay and then hopped on a bus for Montevideo. In BsAs we had tried to get Kim's visa for Brasil but were told it would take the rest of the week at a minimum, so we figured it couldn't take any longer in Montevideo. And, as we had already seen so much in BsAs, figured Montevideo would be a better place to spend the days waiting. I won't get started on the idiotic political visa thing, but be assured that its very stupid.

Montevideo is a pretty grey town, and after being spoiled by the amazing Argentine coffee and pastry botiques we almost starved to death. It did however offer lots of walking around and even a dead guy in a box gaurded by 2 very serious soldiers. Artigas was the 'founder' of Uruguay and not only was his wee box of ashes in a tomb in the middle of town, there's a statue of him at about every corner.

We found a great little hotel to stay in, most notable for its wonderful marble staircase and bed sheets with more holes than cotton. The proprietor was completely zany and proper mad, amusing us at every turn.

There's also lots of antique shopping in Montevideo. We did a fair bit of browsing but having sent the van on its merry way didn't have any way of carting back all the beautiful stuff. We've managed to pack super light for this short leg up to Brasil and are trying to keep it that way.

From Montevideo we caught a bus to Porto Alegre in Brasil. A really different bus trip, we left our passports with the driver and woke up, unmolested, in a different country. Wow. And talk about comfy, the seat reclined to almost horizontal and there was dinner and drinks and breakfast served. Wow. As my Dad was off vacationing himself, we found our way to his new house in Santa Cruz do Sul. Gabriel met us and showed us around town and took us to Kim's first Churrascaria, a distinctly Brasilian way of cooking. She hasn't stopped talking about it since. The meat just keeps on coming.

Once my dad got back we immediately started making plans for a trip around the south. We decided to head to Cambara do Sul. This is where the highland fall, quite precipitously down into the Atlantic. Cambara is a sleepy cowboy town on the virge of a tourist explosion for its rustic charm. We stayed with a family sitting around the wood stove eating pinhão and drinking Chimarrão (mate). You should certainly follow the previous links to learn more about this. The pinhão is a seed from the huge pine trees and are either boiled or roasted on a fire. Both are delicious. Erva mate is a green tea that one make in a gord and drink through a metal straw. Most every Brasilian, Argentinian, and Urugayan has one of these gords in their hand and a thermos of hot water in the other.

We saw Fortaleza, a beautiful canyon where the river has cut into the flat prairie all the way down to the Atlantic and then on to Itaimbezinho water falls. This is where David almost died as he was washed over the edge before I gallantly saved his life. Well, OK, I was nearby. Its too hard to describe what a beautiful place this was so you're going to have to wait till we can upload the photos.

From there we decended to the coastal town of Capao de Canoa for the night. A wonderful Brazilian beach town with multicolored tile covered condos and fisherman with bamboo poles and fish dangling from their bicyles handlebars.

Finishing out our tour we passed through Porto Alegre for lunch, another churrascaria. We all got just the buffet bar, a common precursor to the onslaught of butchered animals. This works great for me as a vegetarian. Poor Nevia called over a waiter with a huge skewer of meat and said to him "look, I'm stuck with all these vegetarians, won't you do me a favor and slice off a chunk of meat for me". Poor woman, she almost went one whole meal without meat.

It's hard to believe that tomorrow we will begin heading back to BsAs and from there fly north to North Carolina on Monday. We are amazed that what took us 5 months to drive will be over in 12 short hours. We are sad too. We are happy too. We are excited to get home and see Saira and everyone else. We are more in love now than before we started. This was predicted by many, well, in the context of "you'll either be more in love, or divorced" at least.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Buenos Aires!

Here we are, in Buenos Aires, the destination of the trip. We made it! We arrived the day before Douglas´ birthday (he´s now officially old and decrepit) and have been enjoying this wonderful city ever since. We had a bit of a hard time finding parking at first, and driving here is scary (8 to 10 lanes of tiny zooming cars, lots of complicated traffic patterns), but once we parked the car, on Carlos´ recommendation, we were very relaxed.

We have also booked a spot on a northbound boat for LaTortuga. I think she´s looking forward to the hard-earned rest! A vacation at sea for the van. We found a company on the web called Transpack. They are based in BsAs and ship cars and the contents of homes wherever you want to go. We met with them, they gave us a quote for putting us on a boat next week, and that was that. They were very professional and the process looks like it will be simple. They do the customs paperwork in Argentina, and we will pick up the car in Norfolk, VA in 3 weeks!

We can´t quite believe that´s the end of our Latin American travels with the van. We still have two weeks, in which we´ll pass through Uruguay and head northeast to Douglas´ dad´s place in southern Brazil for a few days of visiting. Then we have to come back to BsAs to fly home on June 11 - plane tickets from here to Miami were less than half the price of tickets from anywhere in Brazil!

Right now we are at the home of an Argentinian VW enthusiast, Carlos, who contacted us by e-mail and offered us to stay at his home. Tomorrow he´s having a get-together of the BsAs VW club!! We´re very excited to meet everyone, including Cris and Barbara, who wrote Guapo´s blog and helped to inspire our trip.

We´ll be posting more entries on our travels in Argentina just as soon as we get a chance.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


We are in heaven. Cancel your next faraway vacation plans and come to Argentina. It could not be better than this.
As soon as we crossed the border from Bolivia, things were different. The roads were paved. The officials were friendly, and didn’t ask you to stop your car and come into their dark little office by the side of the road. Amazingly, a customs officer looked inside our car when we were crossing the border (not necessarily a good thing…but the first time on the entire trip, and we’ve crossed 10 international borders) but he was very friendly also. He opened two cupboards full of food, some of which was contraband, shut them, and asked us if we had anything we shouldn’t. We both answered a rather weak ‘uh, no…’, he asked us how fast the van goes (we were worried this was a trick question and lowballed it), and sent us on our (paved!!!) way.

We drove for a few hours through some spectacular desert scenery, and arrived in Tres Cruces, a small town on the side of Ruta 9 south. The gendarme at the customs waypoint asked us where we were going, and we replied “uh, we’re not sure, maybe here?” He told us we could certainly sleep in the middle of the town, no problem, so we parked next to the church and then went looking for food in the little kioskos surrounding the central square.

This was our first clue that we were not in Bolivia anymore. The stores actually had something other than rotten fruit! We were overjoyed. We found tomatoes and garlic, some KitKatlike chocolate bars called Rhodesia (what Zimbabwe was called before independence, and we couldn’t resist – they were pretty good), and even some delicious sausage. Cecile and Alexandra would have been impressed – small salamis, juicy inside, covered in a very fine coating of white mold. Absolutely delicious, and we’re hooked. Douglas may have even tried a bite or two when I wasn’t looking. We’re debating how many we can store in the black ammunition box bolted to the bottom of the van. Should we write “400 Argentinian salamis” on the customs declaration? Maybe not….

The next morning we drove through the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a collection of absolutely gorgeous red and green (the ROCKS are green, not the vegetation) hills. We especially enjoyed the road signs and the fact that there were LINES on the road, something we haven’t seen since leaving North America. The windy track dropped us down several thousand feet in altitude, and we arrived in the charming town of Salta.

How to describe Salta…they really love their cake. We saw 8 shoes stores in a single block (Nathalie, these are your people). I even found some cute little shoes that fit my strange feet, brown with flowers embroidered on the sides. The central park is surrounded by cafés with outdoor seating, and lined with orange trees. People strolling in the park pick the oranges, for eating. There’s a very social vibe, and we enjoyed sitting in a café with WiFi, eating things with dulce de leche (caramel) on them and watching the people go by. Saltenos are into their beer, too – we often saw pairs of middle-aged women eating sausage and drinking beer at 11am. What a life. While eating French fries on the pedestrian mall, we decided we could live here, and that we were going to come back and work here for a spell. It is just too fabulous.

Unfortunately, we were having another car problem – the clutch slave cylinder was leaking, and the leak was getting worse. It all started in Quinta Lala, and we’d just been adding extra fluid until now, but in Salta the leak got worse, and we decided we needed to do something about it. So, the goose hunt was on. That’s what we call it when we go out to look for something we need but are pretty sure we won’t be able to find, like a clutch slave cylinder for a 1982 Vanagon. Inevitably, each store tells us they don’t have it, but the store 3 blocks away will have it for sure. This patterns proceeds for several iterations until we end up back at the first store.

We got a cabbie to take us to a VW repuestos place, and sure enough, he told us we’d have to go to Chile to find the part. But, of course, he gave us a closer option, too – the store down the road would certainly be able to rebuild the part for us. We set off in search of shop number two. The hunt was on. 3 stores later, Douglas boldly called an end to the hunt, removed the part on the side of the road, and took it inside. And lo and behold, they had just the right gasket to repair the leak!! He put the part back in, we bled the clutch, and were back in business.

We set off down the road (devoid of mummified dogs, washboard, and van-permeating dust) in search of the next place to stay. After a few more hours of brake-squealing scenery (lots of picture-taking) and some nice pottery craft homes on the side of the road, we arrived in Cafayate, a small wine-producing town in a landscape that looks surprisingly like California wine country. I guess wine country is wine country. We circled the central plaza along with lots of old Ford Falcons, Renault 3CVs, some unidentifiable but really old (and possibly homemade) small cars, and hordes of classy bicycles. We think there are perhaps more French cars here than in France. They’re well-maintained, though, and for probably the first time on this long trip, I don’t taste diesel in the back of my mouth from all the truck and bus exhaust.

At the south end of town, we found a campground (!!it’s hard to say how nice it is to be camped at an actual campground, instead of on the side of the road, or a chicken-filled parqueo, or a noisy central square) and then biked into town, to find a café that served wine on the sidewalk. We found one, and settled into several small bottles of delicious local wine, along with a spread of bread, cheese, olives, salami, ham, and chips. We watched the bicycles and old cars go by, and savored the social evening life – folks heading home with an armful of bread, or meeting friends in the square.

The next morning was lazy. We slept late, ate breakfast at our picnic table, and then biked into town to check e-mail, go to the bank, and look for more wine. We took tours at two bodegas, and one cheese making place, and came home laden with cheap, delicious wine and cheese, then settled into a nice dinner at our campspot.

There is something magical about the light here – or maybe it’s the friendly people, or the very relaxed ambiance. Maybe it’s the lack of body armor and razor wire…I’m not sure, but we feel very peaceful and at home. I’m feeling so relaxed at being in a place that has the trappings of civilization that I’m practically floating above the landscape. It’s still different and interesting – you can still buy coca at the corner store – but things work, there is the infrastructure people need to go about their daily lives, the food is good, and the wine is better. I don’t feel like people are scrabbling every day just to keep it together. Every country we’ve been to has been a great adventure, and glorious in its own way, but getting to a place with familiar infrastructure feels like a reward for completing an obstacle course - it’s very relaxing.


After a few more hundred km of washboard, we arrived in Tupiza, a southern miracle of a town nestled in a red rock river valley where Billy the Kid met his demise after robbing a bankroll train. We stayed parked in the yard of a cute little hotel in the middle of town (after I did some pretty fast talking – they didn’t want to let us stay), and had a nice time wandering around eating Saltenas (dough pockets filled with various yummy stuff, like chicken or olives or eggs), circling the central square, and generally soaking up the nice small-town ambiance. I’m really going to miss the Latin American central squares. They’re always full of people in the evening, taking a stroll after dinner, making out on park benches, eating ice cream, watching people go by. We would have liked to spend more time here, but were anxious to cross the border to Argentina and make our plans for the remainder of our trip. I did take time to visit Hotel Mitru’s fabulous book exchange, though - one of the best we’ve seen.


Once we left the salar, we grew back to our normal size, and lost our powers of super-high jumping. It was fun while it lasted.

We set off south, and passed through the town of Uyuni, that subsists solely on tourism. We have seldom seen a bleaker place. Everything was made of mud, brown and dusty. We bought what few things were available in the market, had the car washed to get the salt off, and then turned our tires southward, for Tupiza, and the border with Argentina.

We had heard that parts of the “road” from Uyuni to Tupiza were tricky, and we were a bit worried about the van making it. We had read about the infamous km 33 in Guapo’s blog, but forgot that it was just south of Uyuni, or we wouldn’t have attempted it so late in the day. In the distance, we saw dunes, and 4 big trucks, all stuck. As we got closer, we saw that the dunes lapped over the road, and the guys driving the trucks were trying to dig them out. We stopped and watched 2 trucks, a big orange Volvo and a beige petrol tanker, dig their wheels out and then power through the sand, driving as fast as they could, fishtailing the whole way. The sandy patch was about a foot deep, and probably 30 meters long.
There were 2 more trucks stuck at the other side, and we were still waiting and watching and trying to decide what to do. One of the newly-liberated truck drivers urged us to “go, go, go, now, now, now, while it’s light and there are people” who would have to help us, he said.
So, we did. Douglas gunned the engine and Tortuga powered through the foot-deep sand for about 5m. Then our low-hanging engine caught on the high-piled sand in the middle and acted like a brake. We were stuck, but good.
While we were thinking about how to extricate ourselves, we had to wonder why doesn’t someone do something about the road??? EVERYone got stuck, from big trucks to families in 4x4s. Everyone would get out to push, including grandmas in traditional dress (she did take her hat off), leaving the 12-year old to drive. He did great through the sand, even though he couldn’t really see over the steering wheel, but once he got to the road he stalled it, and someone bigger had to take over. Even the big commercial trucks were stuck, or at least waiting behind someone else who was stuck. This was everybody’s problem, clearly.
We know from Guapo’s blog that it’s been like this for at least 5 years – probably forever. Why don’t they build a wall to keep the dunes off the road? Or move the road? Or save up and buy a town grader and clear it now and then? But no. And that’s just one of many instances where we’ve seen the people here living with a stupid situation that could be fixed with a little ingenuity. Part of the third world, I guess, part of the adventure we came looking for.
In the end, the oncoming truck drivers didn’t offer to help us – they asked us to back up and get out of their way so they could get through. They did help us back up, and then they powered through and drove off into the sunset, leaving us on the side of the road. One small blue 4x4 opted to head off the road into the desert, going around the dunes, and he got through fine.
So now what are we to do?? We’re stuck on the side of the “road”, the sun is about to set, and we have 30m of dunes in front of us. We were planning to wild camp on the side of the road anyhow, so we considered staying where we were. But we didn’t like the thought of being right on the side of the road, or of waking up with the dune crossing staring us in the face. We thought about going around through the desert like the 4x4, but we weren’t sure we wouldn’t get stuck out there far from the road – worse than being stuck in the middle of the road, because no one has a reason to help you because you’re not in their way. Douglas wanted to go for it, and spend the evening digging our way out. We had 2 10’ long planks, and could have laid them out for traction. I, of course, was thinking about dinner, and didn’t want to spend an unknown number of hours digging in the sand in the dark. Not a fun day at the beach. We eventually agreed to go back up the road and look for a campspot, and tackle the sand in the morning, when there might be people to help.
As we were going back up the road, we saw the small 4x4’s tracks, emerging from the desert. We thought – what the hell, if we get stuck, we’ll camp there. We scouted it out on foot, and it seemed firm enough. We cautiously nosed the van down the 45 degree sand bank at the road’s edge, and into the desert. And the sand held us up!!!! We stomped and whistled and did little victory dances in our seats, then drove another few km and pulled off the road on someone else’s tracks to camp…
It got COLD that night, and we woke up to ice crystals on the insides of the windows, and a 2inch long icicle hanging from the tap. No water. Douglas started the car to heat it up a little, and it died after a few minutes. (Just a note – I would NOT want to attempt this trip without a mechanic!!!) After a couple of minutes he figured out that the fuel filter was probably clogged, took it out, and saw actual CHUNKS of gunk inside it. Luckily, he had presciently bought one just 2 days ago, so he popped it in and we were off.
We had 200km to go to get to Tupiza, and we were guessing it would take us 2 days. *2 days* to go 200km. That’s 120 miles. We weren’t choosing the crappiest road just for the fun of it – we were taking the “main” road from Uyuni to the Argentine border. The main track inevitably gets washed out, or too washboardy, so there are many alternate tracks. Several times we were driving along on one of the tracks, and then saw that we were being passed by another vehicle on a different track, just a few meters to one side, on a different and totally unreachable track. The thorns and soft sand in between usually prevented us from switching tracks.
On the way, we got lost – we had been following a riverbed south from the town of Atocha, and when the track split, part of it continuing with the riverbed, and part of it crossing over into the mountains on the other side, we kept following the riverbed. The “road” deteriorated, and I discovered that I kind of like off-road driving (driving on the road in Bolivia is pretty much like driving off-road anywhere else) and am kind of good at it. We also saw a lake full of pink flamingoes, which made the unscheduled detour worth it. Eventually we arrived in a small mining town named Atasi, and were told we had missed the ‘detour’ many miles back and should turn around. The old road, marked on our map, has been phased out and they’ve made a new one. This is easier than it sounds, to be sure, involving little more than driving a 4x4 back and forth a few times and naming the resulting signless track the “road”.
So, turn around we did, retracing our steps with comments like, “o, there’s the mummified dog we saw earlier” and “it looks like the flamingoes have left their lake” and “aha, the llama herd, we must be on the right track.”
I keep calling Bolivia a wasteland, but Douglas clucks his tongue at me and says we’ve only seen a tiny corner of it. He’s a perpetual optimist. And he’s right. But this tiny corner is a wasteland. Every breath tastes of dust. Every possible nook and cranny of the van is covered in a thick coating of fine brown dust. I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of it all. The roads are washboardy dirt tracks through the empty desert, if you’re lucky – otherwise you just follow everyone else’s tracks through the riverbed. Towns of 200,000 don’t have supermarkets, their tourist offices are closed and full of broken furniture, and you can’t buy bottled water in jugs larger than 2L. Every time you ask for something, the answer is “no hay” (there’s none), usually accompanied by a scandalized look, as if to say “why would you think that was available??”
The one thing Bolivia has in abundance is silence. Every night we have found a little spot off the road to park the van, angling it so its new shiny reflective tape (Peruvian law) won’t catch passing headlights and attract unwanted and possibly unfriendly attention. We’ve seen pink flamingos and emus. Our ears are ringing from the silence. And that’s nice. We think maybe Bolivia is the kind of place that takes time and patience to appreciate. Maybe next time.