Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Our last huzzah

Night on the streets of Buenos Aires

Since my father and his wife Joyce were visiting us in Buenos Aires for Christmas, we checked in to the luxurious downtown Plaza Hotel to await their arrival. For the last week of our sixteen months in South America, we would be living at a very different standard than we had become accustomed to. Uniformed attendants opened the polished brass doors as we entered the marble lobby and a bellman took our bags to our room. Our suite of rooms was just slightly smaller than our apartment in San Francisco, and I leapt on to the fantastic bed (complete with down mattress cover and eight fluffy pillows) as Chris turned on both of our flat screen TVs. To get in to the Christmas spirit, we went to a nearby dollar store and bought the best plastic Christmas tree, lights, and sparkly bangles $15 can buy.

Busy shoppers on Calle Florida

Despite the snow storm that shut down most of northeastern US travel for 24 hours and resulted in the cancellation of their flight, Dad and Joyce managed to catch a flight only a day later than they had originally planned. After they arrived in Buenos Aires, we immediately hit the packed streets around our hotel for a little shopping. Buenos Aires is known for its cutting edge fashion as well as inexpensive leather products, so we wandered the streets for a couple of hours, avoiding the stores with agressive hawkers inviting their 'friends' in for a 'special bargain.' In addition to the fantastic shopping during the day, we ended most evenings enjoying fine wine and food. My father quickly settled in to a routine of ordering a refreshing white Torrontés to accompany appetizers and a rich Malbec to compliment huge steaks.

Around the sparkling dollar-store tree Christmas night

While taking a tour of the city to get a feel for its many different neighborhoods, we stopped at the Cementario de la Recoleta. This elaborate cemetery guards the remains of Buenos Aires' elite families who pay dearly for some of the most expensive real estate in Argentina. Walking the narrow alleys of the cemetery we recognized names that are commonly used for streets in any town in Argentina, such as Sarmiento, Mitre, and Alvear, but we were headed for the cemetery's most visited resident: Evita Peron. Luckily when we visited the cemetery, it was almost empty. We visited her grave without waiting in a line that can stretch around the corner. Some mausoleums were constructed from immaculate marble with elaborate statues guarding the entrance of tombs complete with stained glass windows. Others were crumbling into rubble, the tomb's entrance a mess of broken glass and wooden shards.

Elaborate statues in the Recoleta Cemetary

We also took a one-hour boat ride across the mouth of the Rio de la Plata to visit the exquisitely preserved town of Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay. The oldest town in Uruguay, it was originally settled by Portugal in 1680, and changed hands many times between Portugal, Spain, and Brazil before the entire independent country of Uruguay was established in 1828. We wandered its rough cobble stone streets, peeked in some preserved homes, and enjoyed a quiet lunch on the main town square before heading back to Buenos Aires later that afternoon.

Lighthouse built in the remains of a crumbling cathedral in Colonia de Sacramento

We spent our last day in Buenos Aires with my parents wandering the picturesque streets of the San Telmo neighborhood. Every Sunday this area hosts a huge antiques fair, complete with tango dancing demonstrations and empanada vendors on every corner. We lingered over some beautiful old seltzer bottles, as well as soon cool gaucho equipment, but decided our bags were already too full to fit just one more thing. After they left that night, we spent another 48 hours in Argentina before heading to the airport ourselves. And now, this is it: our last blog post from Latin America. At 5:30 am December 30th we took off from Buenos Aires International Airport on a flight (via Panama City, Panama and Houston, Texas) to Miami, Florida. I never thought I would say this, but I'm ready to stop traveling for a while. We are looking forward to some quality family time in the United States as we figure out what we want to do with our lives. Taking this trip has been one of the best things we have done with our lives, and I know it has permanently changed us. Still to come for those who are interested: a greatest hits list, and an estimated budget for those considering a similar trip. Thanks for reading our blog and sharing the last 18 amazing months with us.

Old seltzer bottles for sale in San Telmo

Monday, December 14, 2009

Somehow it all worked out in the end

After six tranquillo days on Panagea ranch, we drove a beautiful route through the heart of gaucho Uruguay to the coast. We stopped halfway to the coast at a canyon called Quebrada de las Cuervas and shared the campground that night with about 200 high school students from Montevidéo. Luckily the campground was large so we managed to avoid most of the chaos. Waking up the next morning we took an interesting hike in to the nearby canyon. The hiking trail consisted mainly of ropes to help hikers scramble down almost vertical jumbles of rocks to reach the rushing river below. After pulling ourselves back up the canyon wall, we continued on to the coast.

Quebrada de las Cuervas, Uruguay

The weather got cold and cloudy as we reached the beach in the small town of La Paloma, so we pulled out our winter clothes as we set up our campsite by the shore. We were a little worried about the pine trees groaning in the wind around our car. After caballo's narrow escape from the tornado, we felt it might be pushing our luck to park below so many creaking branches. One branch crashed harmlessly to the ground about ten feet from our car, so that blessing from Copacabana, Bolivia, still must be functioning.

Windworn Virgin greets people on the beach in La Paloma

After a week without internet, we pulled out our laptops in our Wifi-enabled campground and tried to catch up. My heart sank as I read an email from the company we thought we had a reservation with for shipping our car back to the states. Turns out the boat wasn't going to the US after all. Several weeks ago when we made the reservation, the shipping agent neglected to mention that when they told us a boat was scheduled to go to Florida, there wasn't actually any confirmed cargo for that boat (and our car isn't enough to send an ocean tanker anywhere). No shipments had come through, so they were canceling the trip. Panicked I called the shipper and they really couldn't help us. They recommended we contact K-Line, another shipper, to see if they had any ships sailing. Luckily I quickly was able to confirm a K-Line ship sailing from Buenos Aires to Florida a week later than we had originally planned. Given this change of plans, we had an extra week to burn before we needed to return to Buenos Aires. After spending four days checking out the coastal cities of Punta del Este, Piriápolis, and Montevidéo, we returned to the estancia Panagea for another week of ridin', wrangling', and wraslin'.

Piglets on the Panagea Ranch

With great trepidation we then returned to Buenos Aires and headed to the port. After dealing with paperwork, corruption, and inefficiency when we shipped our car from Panamá to Colombia, we were ready for a fight. Amazingly, we arrived at the port, met with the aduana (customs) to show some documents, crossed the hall from the aduana to the shippers, and the keys were out of our hands within thirty minutes. The hardest part of the process was actually finding the port. Fingers crossed that the car will show up on January 17 in Jacksonville Florida. For detailed information about shipping the car, please see our Drive the Americas website. Next and last on the agenda for our trip, holidays in Buenos Aires with some family.

Epilogue

While sitting in downtown Tacuarembó (30 minutes from the estancia) using the free Wifi around the town square, our car and its California license plates attracted the attention of a local news team. They brought over a reporter, camera, and microphone, and proceeded to interview us for five minutes in Spanish. For all of our Spanish speaking friends, please try not to laugh too hard at our terrible Spanish. Our Spanish deteriorated under the pressure of becoming a local celebrity. See the YouTube video or watch it below. The subtitles I added indicate what we meant to say, minus all of the grammatical errors and other embarrassments.