Blog moved, redirecting to in 2 seconds!

August 25, 2009

The Scale of China

It's really, really hard to convey the scale of China. My usual strategy is to talk about the number of cities that have, say, over 10 million people in them, or whatever.

Here's one fun fact we learned the other day: the best hospitals in China have on average daily outpatient numbers of 10,000 people. 10,000 outpatients every day. The biggest hospital in the world is in China: 5,000 beds.

Also, there are 470 million pigs alive in China right now.

Sanitation and Health in China

The country is going bizerke over Swine flu. But there are so many things that could be done to improve sanitation and health in the country....instead they're installing more temperature-reading devices at the airport.

Hand soap in bathrooms are rare. Paper towels are even rarer -- the drying device of choice is the hot air blower. These, of course, almost never get the job done, so people are disinclined to want to wash their hands in the first place.

Then there's food cleanliness -- in particular cleanliness of plates and dishes and tables. This is an area of weakness all over the third world.

August 16, 2009

My Current Moment

I find myself using the handle of a disposable hair comb to scoop peanut butter out of a mini, emergency jar of peanut butter, given to my new friend when he went to Sichuan Province ("I'm afraid you might starve," he was told), and then the jar of peanut butter was passed onto me.

So, to recap: in Beijing, using a hair comb (the handle part) to eat peanut butter right out of the jar.

It is my first taste of peanut butter in five weeks. And it is glorious.

August 15, 2009

Etiquette at Dinners

We learned about Chinese business etiquette at meals. It's remarkable how hierarchal and authority-driven it all is.

American etiquette, vis-a-vis power and status, might call for the most important person to sit at the head of a rectangular table, collect the check, and initiate a toast if necessary.

Chinese etiquette is so much more elaborate. The most important person sits facing the door and then people sit in different positions based on decreasing levels of importance. If you chime drink glasses with someone of higher status, your cup is to be slightly below theirs when the cups connect. There's much more. It's complicated.

August 13, 2009

Eating in China

What's the history of family-style eating? You know, the method of food serving where it's all put on communal plates in the middle and each person helps himself.

I'm told that this became the Chinese-way originally as a way to save / conserve resources and food.

Is it possible that this style of eating somehow reduces overall individualistic tendencies or culture in a country in general? (I strongly prefer individual plates to family style.)

Other observations on Chinese eating: there is usually a single bowl or plate and all food you eat gets managed from that bowl (usually filled with rice on the bottom). The idea of side plates or bowls is uncommon (I even asked Chinese people about this and they confirmed that extra side, empty plates for bread or other food are rare).

Given the smallness of a typical plate or bowl, you inevitably have to put some food directly on the table (not on a plate). Or some food just spills over. Given how unclean most of the tables are, food gets dirtier more easily.

Chopsticks get the job done most of the time but there are times which call for a knife. But knives aren't used.

As in all poor countries, Coca-Cola is more common than water at meals. Anything but water is served at meals.

Napkins are not a big deal, and sometimes not offered at all at cheap places.

A Rural Village Outside Beijing

In any country it's true: the big city doesn't represent the whole country. California is way more and way different than San Francisco and Los Angeles alone. New York is not America.

In China this is important to remember. How many tourists have visited Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai, and then report back home on "China"? Really, they saw Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai. Not China.

Yesterday, we drove four hours north of Beijing to a small village admittedly ready to accept tourists but still pretty basic. It was beautiful countryside. Less polluted, more breathable than Beijing proper. We hiked around the village, around water, up a mountain of sorts, and took in all the natural beauty. And it was beautiful, the rolling hills, sun off the lake, the grass and trees. I'll post pictures later to make the point.

At night some of us lay on the top of the castle and watched the stars, to the play-by-play astronomy commentary by a budding astrophysicist. I haven't done that in awhile -- stargazing. I should do it more often. On a clear night, in a non-urban place, with meteor-showers in the sky: this is quite a tranquil experience. If you ever want to feel unimportant and small, just spend a night looking at the stars (lying down -- on your back -- do it right for the full experience).

The following morning we went to the less touristy part of the Great Wall. I was at the Great Wall three years ago, but the section closest to Beijing, and so packed with tourists (and thus, touts). The section we went to this time around was remarkably uncrowded and therefore more pleasant. What to say about the Wall? The great Richard Nixon put it best, perhaps, when it said something to the effect of, "It is, indeed, a very great wall."

I appreciated the beauty of the non-cityscape, but found myself itching to return to Beijing, oddly enough. I think this was for the high speed internet connection and showers that awaited me; I'm guessing if I had those amenities in the village, I would have wanted to stay a great while longer.

August 11, 2009

Back in China

"Get me out of here." Those were my first thoughts upon landing back in Beijing after the pretty painless 12 hour non-stop from San Francisco.

It's not the first time I've had moments of instant regret of sorts when arriving in a place that's dirty, dangerous, poor, or some combination. It's usually followed by some immediate action toward following through on the regret -- checking to see if I can change flights, change hotels, or in some other way improve my situation. I remember settling into my "bed" in the hut that was planted in the water deep in the Amazon jungle in 2008, bugs all around me, and thinking, "Why oh why did I leave behind my nice lifestyle in the U.S.?"

Usually, though, things improve, and I look back and feel proud and glad I did it.

In Beijing, I think my early discomfort stemmed from sleep deprivation more than anything. I'm still recovering from South America. But there are also real things about China that make life difficult, and no matter how good the "moments" are, China will never be one of my favorite countries. The smog and pollution in Beijing is insane; the language is absolutely foreign to me and I have trouble communicating even basic things; the food is decent but usually too spicy, even in the east (the west's cuisine is crazy spicy); there are holes not toilets.

My first two weeks in Beijing I will enjoy the soup-to-nuts services of my hosts and fellow delegates here. Thinking back to when I was here solo in 2006, I am absolutely amazed I got around and functioned on my own. I think once you have a host or someone who knows the ropes, you immediately cede control of the situation and become pretty helpless on your own. You're in "follower" mode. Had I landed in Beijing knowing I'd be fending for myself, my attitude would be different and more aggressive toward making myself get to where I need to go.

In 2006 I was in China in October. Now it's August. Then, the weather was pleasant, save for smog. Now, the weather is miserably hot and humid. If I've learned one thing through travel, it's that I really do poorly in extreme temps in either direction. I'm a man of moderate temperature and regular fog.

The good news: I think I've gotten most of my negativity out of the way, the sky is actually blue today in Beijing, and I'm beginning to get some sleep on my rock-hard mattress of sorts. I feel like better times are on the way.

August 05, 2009

Strange but True Cultural Preference in the Southern Cone

They have really thick window shades to block the sun when you go to bed / wake up in the morning.

As someone who prefers a very dark bedroom when sleeping, I loved this about Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. When I stayed at people's homes, they all had (at times fancy) window shades that kept the bedroom unusually dark.

Always fascinating how these cultural preferences evolve...

Myths About Chile

A guy I met traveling, Pinaki, begins a post on his own travel blog with: "I'm sorry Chile. I really am." He goes on to discuss all the misconceptions he had with Chile before arriving. The bottom line for Pinaki is that Chile exceeded expectations.

I had high expectations for Chile, and they were met, so while the way my thinking evolved was different, we ended up at the same place: we both love Chile.

Some myths about Chile:

It’s boring. This is most common. I'm not sure what this means. It's true that Chile is socially conservative. Divorce only recently became legal. The Catholic church has a strong grip on everything. Okay. Fine. It's also less cosmopolitan than Argentina. Agreed. But there's still plenty of "action" in Chile, plenty of culture and excitement and dancing and craziness. And an entrepreneurial people who work hard and play by the rules.

It’s expensive. After Brazil, Chile is the most expensive country in South America. This is true. Still, I had several USD $5 meals, and a metro ticket will cost less than USD $1. So it still felt much cheaper than the States. And of course with the expensiveness you get the safety and stability that a Peru or Bolivia or Ecuador can never provide.

The people aren’t beautiful. Whatever. It’s true the women don't blow your socks off and the men…well, let’s just say that mullets must be an acquired taste. But there are enough pretty people. And who do you think YOU are anyway, a model?

You can't understand their Spanish. They talk quickly. They eat the ends of words. They have lingo. But even me in all my Spanish amateurishness could get around alright, and I'm sure in a month or two's time I could understand and speak Chilean Spanish well enough.

Valparaiso, Chile



Valparaiso was perhaps my favorite city of my South America trip.

First, it's only a two hour bus ride from Santiago, so easily accessible from a major metro area.

Second, it's physical set-up resembles San Francisco in its hills! There's are hills filled with colorful houses (and run-down shacks, alas) that sit atop the main town area bustling below.

Third, there's an artistic, laid-back vibe that seems authentic to the place and very accessible. I'd analogize it to Carmel or Monterey, California.

Walking the streets of Valpo, staring up at the hills, staring out at the water, eating some ice cream while sitting in a park: it's all just lovely lovely lovely.

I stayed up in the hills, which, come sunset, creates an awesomely tranquil and romantic setting to look out over the water and boats. The one downside to staying in the hills is that restaurant options are limited -- best to explore the downtown area by day, and eat dinner there, before retreating up for nighttime.

August 01, 2009

Getting Robbed in Buenos Aires

It’s a numbers game: you spend enough time in poorer countries where petty crime is common, and it’s going to happen to you. No matter how vigilant you are, there’s only so much you can do against determined criminals.

Granted, what happened to me today could have been stopped had I been a bit more on guard and scrupulous, so I don’t mean to write off my own failings as a statistical inevitability. Still, this is the context in which I’m viewing the incident, if only to make myself feel better (and because it’s true).

I arrived at the Buenos Aires bus station after a really long bus ride. A 28 hour bus ride. It wasn’t supposed to be that long, but various delays, border control issues, and a malfunctioning bus turned it into an adventure. I don’t mind long bus or plane rides as I can get through a bunch of reading, and this trip was no different. But still, I emerged out of the bus exhausted, dehydrated, and needing to go to the bathroom. So I was more vulnerable at the outset. I walked down into the taxi area to take a taxi to the apartment where I would spend my final night in South America.

At the taxi area where I waited there were few taxis coming, and many of us waiting. A couple cabs came and the others got in them, but after those there were none in sight.

So I walked into the next area of taxis, where more were stopping. One gentleman came up and asked if I needed a taxi. I said yes. So he stood out in the street to try to hail me one. Then another driver who was already parked came over and asked if I needed a cab. At first I was unsure – why was he just parked there? Why wouldn’t he drive up and pick up all the other waiting passengers? His cab looked legit, except that it didn’t have a phone number on the top. But some cabs have the number, some don’t. I said yes and followed him to the car.

The guy who was supposed to hail me one followed me to the car, offered to put my bags in the car, but I declined, knowing he would want a tip if I let him. He still asked for a tip, and I said no.

The driver asked where I was going and I gave him the neighborhood and cross streets. He acknowledged the cross streets and started driving. He was older (in his 60’s or 70’s) and friendly. Not too friendly – not enough to cause suspicion – but friendly. He noted how beautiful a day it was. He made small talk.

Then he asked if the route he was going to take worked for me. I said it was fine. Again, it put me at ease – he made sure I was OK with the route.

We arrived at the intersection where I said to drop me off. The meter, which worked and ran the whole time, said 23 pesos. I gave him a 20 peso bill and a 10 peso bill. He looked at the 20 peso bill and said (in Spanish of course – the whole thing has been in Spanish) that it was no good. It was fraudulent. That I had to go to the bank and change it.

If I didn’t know anything, I would have resisted this explanation and insisted that he take it. But I had heard that ATMs in Argentina sometimes spit out fraudulent bills and that taxi drivers sometimes do not accept bad bills. So it struck me as plausible, even though I’m not able to distinguish good from bad bills.

So I showed him a different 20, he said no good. Then a different 10. No good. All in a friendly voice. At this point cars were honking at us to move so we crossed the street. I showed him more bills. All were bad he said, except for the one 20. Cars honking again – we had to move.

The moves proved physically a bit disorienting.

At this point I began wondering what would happen if he didn’t think any of my pesos were legit. Would I just leave the cab and not pay? Give him the pesos, real or fake, and then leave? Would he force me to go to an ATM and get new pesos?

I then showed him my three 100 peso bills and asked if any of them were ok. He looked at them. No, no, no.

Then he moved quickly. He looked again at the bills, handed me a 2, then a 10, asked for the 20, etc, explaining that some of the bills were legit but not all. It all happened quickly. He then handed me folded bills again and stuffed them in my hand and said “this will be ok.” As I began to open the bills to see what he gave me back, he said urgently, “Watch your bills! A child will try to steal them! Watch your money!”

He then reached over and opened the taxi door. Now I was getting concerned. If someone were trying to steal my money, why would he be opening the door to let them? I clutched my bags (I had all my luggage).

He then said more urgently, watch your cash, watch your cash, be careful, right now be careful, ushering me out the door. I took one look at the folded bills, the 20 was on top, and the 10 underneath it. I clutched my bags. At this point I figured something strange was going on, but due to the language barrier, physical disorientation, lack of free hands with my luggage, and cars honking around us, I didn’t have the frame of mind to go through each of the bills he returned to me. I was more concerned that he might try to drive off with my bags, or that the child he pointed to (the non-existent child) was about to steal my wallet. I got out of the cab, looking around suspiciously, grabbing my bags, and he drove off.

At the apartment I went through my bills. He had stolen several hundred pesos, replacing the 100s with 2’s.

Could have been worse. It could have been violent. Could have stolen my passport or computer or other luggage. But still, this hurts, gives me a sour taste about Buenos Aires, and makes me all the more distrustful of third world taxi drivers.

July 30, 2009

Santiago, Chile


Chile is the Switzerland of Latin America. Chile is the Japan of the Southern Cone. Santiago is Zurich. Santiago is Tokyo. Valparaiso is St. Gallen. Valparaiso is Kyoto.

OK. This might be stretching it. Chile is still a developing country, with all that that entails. But it is striking to arrive in the country after time in Argentina and Uruguay -- it feels like arriving in Hong Kong or Japan after time spent in China and India. (Granted the contrast is not as stark; but then, nothing compares in intensity to India.)

The Santiago airport is clean and well-signed, and the personnel are helpful and professional. I got in a taxi at the airport, and he looked at my address, conferred with a colleague about the best route, then called the office en route to double check directions. The highways were exceedingly well lit (it was night time) and all traffic laws were obeyed to the T.

I spent the night with a friend in Vitacura, a tony neighborhood in the north of Santiago. The next morning I went for a run in this Atherton-style hood. The air was crisp and cool and the Andes mountains served as an unmatchable backdrop. (Think: Boulder Flatirons, except grander.) Again I noted how everyone obeyed crosswalk signs and how well marked everything was.

The next night L, D, and I shared a couple bottles of Chilean wine and several plates of tapas at a hip, loud wine bar (that turns into a dance club at midnight). Spanish was the common denominator, so I got plenty of practice. Wine always loosens the tongue as well, especially when it’s a foreign language.

Vitacura is not the real Santiago, so I spent the next six nights in an apartment in Barrio Brasil, a neighborhood near the center of town that’s full of students and nightlife and restaurants. It was an ideal location and the apartment set-up worked well as it allowed me to buy some groceries/food.

I took the same approach to Santiago as I did in Buenos Aires: walk around, more or less randomly. There was plenty to see, including ample mullets (the fashion choice of most Chilean young men), spontaneous dance protests in streets, school children, and more. I walked to the zoo and metropolitan park and to get there I had to walk through the Palestinian neighborhood. I know this because a guy came up and asked if I needed help (it’s happened three times so far in Chile; didn’t happen in Argentina or Uruguay) and he told me there are 70,000 Palestinians living in Santiago.

Food in Santiago is still heavily meat-based but not as much as in Argentina and Uruguay. Churrascos are the go-to. “Completos” are just hot dogs but with loads of sauces on top. The produce and fish are tasty, thanks to Chile’s coastal location.

The Santiago metro is the best I’ve ever used, anywhere (Japan is probably better, but again, Japan is a separate category). The trains come every two minutes or so; there are a million people standing around to help you through every stage; queues are formed and respected; the trains are trash-free and well-signed; and the coverage of the subway/metro is vast. You can get anywhere on the subway, it seemed cheap, and very user-friendly.

Pollution in the city? Yes, it’s there, and the smog and so forth is as advertised. But it wasn’t as oppressive as I expected. Some told me it would be impossible to run outside due to smog. Not so.

The city is segregated by class and in the nicer neighborhoods there isn’t much poverty to see or deal with. The wealthier suburbs are incredibly American-looking. Similar looking homes, trimmed grass lawns in front, etc. I was told that American ex-pats can live in one of these suburbs and feel right at home.

Bottom Line on Santiago: I love it.

Vigilance on the Travel Trails

A person traveling with me tells me that I am the most vigilant traveler she’s traveled with in terms of security precautions, preemptive battles against scams, etc.

Other than a passport issue in Switzerland four years ago but besides that nothing bad has happened to me. Never been robbed or mugged and nothing’s been stolen from a hotel room (even though I always hide my stuff under mattresses etc especially in lower end hotels).

I’m not sure whether this actually makes me MORE vigilant. Perhaps if something like this happened, I’d realize its big picture insignificance. Until then, it’s an “unknown.”

Either way, I think I have an optimal amount of vigilance – I do venture into dangerous hoods, countries, etc. just always try to be safe…

July 29, 2009

Culture of Intelligence in Chile

In metro stations there are bookshops and what appear to be mini-libraries. In Plaza de Armas there are at least 30 chess tables set up and lots of businesspeople wearing suits competing over their lunch hour. People read on the subway. Just three signs of an overall culture of intelligence that I notice in Chile.

Chile_bencamera 030

July 27, 2009

Terremoto - Chilean Alcoholic Drink - Literally Translates to "Earthquake"

It's famous. There's a big scoop of ice cream on top. It only takes one.


July 22, 2009

The East Coast of Uruguay

Confession: I hadn't heard of Punta del Este prior to this trip. I soon learned how big time it is: rich Latin Americans, rich Europeans, rich Americans all descend on the Punta del Este beaches in the summer (January/February). It's the place to be seen.

In winter (right now), it's empty, but stil beautiful. Adrian and I drove there from Montevideo (two hours). We ate overlooking the water. Stunning views.

We spent the night in a neighboring ghost town (crazy expensive and packed three months of the year, empty the other nine months) at the one hotel that was actually open. The lady working the hotel was very motherly and sweet and Spanish-speaking only.

The following morning I went for an early morning run on dirt roads and along the beach. Quite lovely and tranquil.

Take away on the east coast: extremely seasonal (probably more so than the Jersey shore for example), beautiful, and much more real estate development yet to come.


Almost Missing My Flight from Montevideo to Santiago

This is the story of how I almost missed my flight from Montevideo to Santiago. All conversations occur in Spanish unless otherwise noted.

At 2 PM Tuesday in Montevideo I went to the front desk of the hotel and told them I'll need a taxi that night to go to the airport. He told me he could call a remise for me.

Every day in Latin America I’ve been trying to figure out the difference between a remise and a regular taxi. People tell me different things. Is it cheaper or more expensive? What’s the advantage to one or the other? I’ve heard a million contradictory opinions. I have no fucking idea which type is better if you’re just trying to get from A to B at minimal cost (ie, not a town car). I ask the hotel desk guy if it’s expensive compared to a taxi. He says it will be a little less expensive. I say ok – call the remise.

He asks for what time. I tell him my flight is at 7:45 PM. He doesn’t offer a suggested time of departure. So I ask how long it takes to get to the airport. 20 minutes. Ok. So I am working backwards, out loud, in Spanish. He doesn’t offer any help on timing. “Let’s see, get there at 6:45, so leave at six?” Silence. I say, OK, have the remise come here at 6 PM. He says he will.

I ask how much it will cost. He says 600 pesos. It’s my last day in Uruguay so I’m trying to use my pesos. I don’t want to take more out of the ATM because of the $5 transaction fee. I have 520 pesos in my wallet. I ask him if I exchange some U.S. dollars for pesos (via the hotel) to get me to 620. We do that.

Then I work online for the next few hours in the lobby area. It started pouring rain. Thunder and lightening.

At 5:50 PM I go to the front desk and a new guy is working there. He proactively tells me the remise is still coming at 6 PM. I wait in the lobby. At 6:05, the remise hasn’t called the front desk (as they’re suppose to do when they arrive), so I wait outside, and the front desk guy waits out with me. The rain has made quite a mess of the traffic. At 6:10 PM there’s a traffic accident (car rammed the side of another car) right in front of the hotel, blocking the street. Then, separately, a car alarm goes off and keeps ringing for 10 minutes non-stop. As George Costanza once put it, “The sea was fierce that day my friends.”

6:20 PM. No remise. No taxis either. Since it’s raining and rush hour, hailing one off the street was impossible.

At 6:25 PM the hotel guy calls the remise and gets told it’s not coming after all. “That’s ok,” he tells me after he hangs up, “That’s a really expensive car. Much cheaper to take a taxi.” He says he’ll call a taxi. Then, what I hear him say in Spanish is, “You should pay me something because I’m getting you a cheaper car.”

A taxi finally come at 6:45 PM. I get in. I tip the hotel guy and he tries to reject it – maybe I misheard him. Driver tells me it will be 200 pesos to the airport. I say ok. Takes forever to get there with the rain. Then again, maybe driver was “taking me for a ride”. We arrive at 7:15 PM. He says it’s 400 pesos. My international flight leaves in 30 minutes. I don’t have time to argue. I give him all the pesos I have left and run toward the terminal.

I find the check-in counter for Pluna Airlines. By this point, in my head, I’m already going through my contingency plans: where would I stay in Montevideo if I miss my flight? When is the next flight to Santiago? How can my phone-less self get in touch with my host in Santiago to say I’ll be a day late?

At the counter I learn they’ve closed the check-in for Santiago. I beg and plead. A woman comes out and yells at me for being late. I try to tell her the taxi was late. She fires up the computer and starts checking me in. She tells me I’m a bad person. I tell her the taxi. She keeps telling me, in English, that I am a bad person.

A woman comes up to me and says I need to pay her USD $20 to check my luggage. This seems like an absurd amount but I’m late, and not fluent in Spanish. The woman put the twenty dollar bill in her pocket. Nice. She gives me a luggage tag.

I get a hand-written boarding pass. Then I’m told I have to pay a country departure fee, which is par for the course in Latin America. I run to the departure tax fee window. I pay USD $30 departure tax.

The flight ticket cost USD $300 (one-way, for a two hour flight). Now I’d already paid USD $50 in extra fees.

I run to the security check-in station. As I’ve said before, security at Latin America airports is less a securing procedure and more of a “welcome to the gates!” exercise.

After taking nothing out of my bag and with my shoes firmly on I walked through the metal detector. 7:40 PM. My flight is supposed to leave at 7:45 PM.

Then I get lost. There are a gazillion duty free shops. Where are the planes? Panicked, thinking I’d already missed my flight, I yell to a security guard, “Donde esta las puertas??” He points. You have to walk through chocolate station after chocolate station, Johnny Walker stand after Johnny Walker stand. It felt like a Vegas casino with darkness and mirrors. Totally disorienting.

Find my gate. They haven’t boarded. Starving. I haven’t had dinner yet. I look for restaurants. None. I go back into the duty free but I don’t have enough pesos for any of the high end chocolate or booze. Eventually I find staircase leading up to a food court to buy a sandwich. I buy a triangular boxed sandwich – those disgusting kinds like they have in London. And agua sin gas. I then run back to the check in area and board the plane

The sandwich is soaked and the bread is so thin that I am basically gripping wet tomatoes in my hand. But I eat, because I’m a big man, and big men need food. Then I fall asleep, and miss the food service. I leave my umbrella on the plane by accident when de-planing.

At Santiago customs, I learn I have to pay a $131 arrival fee, because I’m American, and the U.S. enacted a similar fee on Chilean nationals.

And that’s the story of my six hours getting from Montevideo to Santiago.

Hunger and Bathroom Needs

I’ve gone TEN hours with no food. I’ve gone entire days with just a sandwich and a cliff bar.

I’ve gone hours having to go to the bathroom and not being able to.

International travel – where you don’t have access to a kitchen, don’t know where the clean bathrooms are, don’t know where the cheap/quick food options are (e.g. a Subway equivalent) – builds these capacities pretty well.

July 21, 2009

Latin Dancing

Latin people take their dancing seriously. Whereas the typical American, if he can dance at all, will only know hip-hop MTV style grinding, Latin people have a wider repertoire of moves. Salsa. Tango. 1-2 step (not quite sure what that is). And a million other variations.

There are also set expectations for how men are to ask women to dance whereas in the States it's more of a free for all.

At the one club/bar I went to in Montevideo, grinding was eschewed in favor of circle dancing, solo dancing, or other local variations.

Montevideo, Uruguay

Montevideo is a city in part defined by what it's not: it's not Buenos Aires. Tourists to Montevideo often are coming from BA or en route to BA and treat Montevideo as a stop-over. This understandably generates a certain amount of defensiveness on the part of Uruguayans. Tourists looking for flashy big city action are too quick to dismiss tiny Montevideo and all its humble charm, but locals, too, are too eager to point out differences or Uruguayn superiorites which flatly do not exist.

All in all, I had a lovely stay in Montevideo, and I would certainly consider living there. It is probably a city better to live in than visit, though even a short-term visitor like myself had plenty to do and see.

The relative smallness of Montevideo lends itself to walking, and walk it I did. I was staying in Ciudad Vieja (old town) but walking to the different barrios, or to the waterfront, didn't take long at all.

After arriving by ferry from BA, I met up with a reader who was super gracious with her time showing me and other friends of hers around town. We had coffee in an ultra-hipster cafe which implored on a sign inside, "Don't tell other people about this cafe." Which of course is wondefully counterintuitive viral building marketing.

At night we ate at a typical meat restuarant (meat is eaten perhaps even more in Uruguay than in Argentina) and then went to a house party / birthday party at an apartment. Fun seeing local and ex-pats mingle. As always the language of choice was Spanglish, or mostly Spanish. Always interesting to see how locals react to very American looking Americans. Some harbor knee-jerk resentment; others knee-jerk curiosity; others simply display a univeral friendliness to all comers. (Uruguayans are friendly folk.)

The following day I checked out the town by foot and then at night we went to dinner, then hung out at a park which was epic in its own way, then a bar with a dancefloor downstairs. Montevideo seems to have plenty of nightlife options -- BA seems to have almost too many options. But both Montevideo and BA start LATE and end LATE. Sleep deprivation: it's a way of life.

Along the way I had two chavitos, which is the national sandwich (how cool is that?) and kept buying more agua sin gas than probably anyone else. Thanks, diabetes.

Bottom Line on Montevideo: Come, visit, spend a few days, then head to the east coast. I'll be back, Uruguay!

July 18, 2009

Cordoba, Argentina


Cordoba is Argentina's second largest city. We arrived on a Sunday morning and it was dead. A ghost town. No one out. I think this is b/c Argentina's a catholic country so more stuff is closed on Sundays, and because they go out so hard on Saturday nights that people don't really get up until late afternoon on Sundays.

There's nothing "to see" in Cordoba but that doesn't mean it's not a pleasant place to pass a few days.

It feels more Argentinean than Buenos Aires -- fewer English speakers, more darker skinned/indigenous people, less cosmopolitan overall.

Highlights from Cordoba: going for a run on cobble stone streets, eating dinner at a super local place where an old woman told us the menu orally in Spanish, resting in the lobby of the Sheraton after walking around for several hours aimlessly.

July 14, 2009

Drinking Mate in Argentina

When in Argentina, be an Argentinean. And that means drink mate, the classic local tea that they drink like I drink 2% milk at home. Locals carry around a thermos of hot water and re-fill their tea throughout the day. Here I am, drinking mate:

Argentina_bencamera 019

July 13, 2009

Iguazu Falls


They are one of South America’s top attractions and they sit at the border of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.

It’s a 1.5 hour flight from Buenos Aires, which I made with my hosts and Steve. You can also take a 19 hour bus ride.

The water falls put Niagra to shame. They are huge in every way – the total area is wide, the water rushes fast, and the fall / drop is very deep. In some parts you can’t see the water hit the bottom due to depth and mist that ricochets up from the falls.

Due to fog and rain we were not able to take the moonlight-walk tour in the evening. The benefit of the cancelled tour was an extra-leisurely buffet dinner at the national park where we talked and laughed and met a New York film editor who was also trekking through Iguazu.

The town outside the park is small but cute. We ate at the same restaurant for three meals. The restaurant plays interesting jazz/Latin covers of 80’s and 90’s American music. I had mate for the first time – the popular Argentinean tea that you fill and re-fill with a canteen of hot water.

July 12, 2009

Price Discrimination

So far I’ve been charged 10 pesos, 4.5 pesos, and 3 pesos at various locations in Argentina for the same size and brand water bottle. Not the price swing you’d expect for a generic.

Oh, to be a (white! rich! gringo!) tourist in South America….

July 09, 2009

Business in Argentina Gets Done in Cash…No, Really, Cash

You can’t get a loan.

Want to buy a house in Argentina? All cash, baby. All cash. 100% equity.

Want to do a commercial real estate deal for a million pesos? Bring a briefcase full of US Dollars. That’s right. A briefcase full of cash.

No joke. This is not a movie. This is business in Buenos Aires in 2009.

It’s easy to bash the banking / financial system in the U.S., especially after the last 12 months, but a few days talking to business people in Argentina reminds me we have much to be grateful for.

Buenos Aires

some quick musings and blow-by-blow, higher level thoughts to come later:

It’s a city with a lot of hype and very high expectations. I can’t say I was disappointed, which then says a lot. It does indeed have a European feel (architecture-wise especially), it seems livable and walkable, the people are friendly, there’s a nice water element, food excellent, etc. The people are attractive but not especially attractive. (Seriously – people talk about the women like they’re goddesses– not really.)

The nightlife is perhaps BA’s most noteworthy feature. Steve and I didn’t see it all but we did go out one night and got a sense. Here’s the deal: it goes on LATE. The clubs, bars, set-up is all the same as anywhere (with a few exceptions – you pay for drinks at a cash register, get a ticket, then go to the bartender). The main difference is how late it all starts and how long it goes till. Most nights you eat dinner around 9 or 10 PM. On weekends, you then might pre-game at around midnight, and get to a club at around 1:30 AM or 2:00 AM. If you show up at a club before 1:30 AM, no cover charge. You’ll stay till about 6 or 7 AM. Insanity. (Got offered cocaine in the club. first time. they must target tall white gringos. I was deeply honored.)

I spent at least 8-9 hours just walking around the city. It lends itself well to just wandering around – there aren’t any big attractions to see, at least in my view. No must-see museum or monument or market or square. There are a bunch of mid-level attractions.

The first day Nate and I walked around, checked out a flea market, ate a traditional sausage sandwich, took a bus, saw the widest street in the world, checked out Puerto Madero and the Pink House (where the prez works – like the White House). Second day I met a book/blog reader, walked around some more, met an old friend at a coffee shop, and enjoyed terrific winter weather (which is like SF weather in the summer). Some of the hoods feel like NYC SoHo.


Third day Steve arrived, and we….did more walking. laid out in a park. Korean food for lunch, pasta for lunch (even though we thought it was going to be a steakhouse), then the club.

Next day a blog reader showed Steve and I around. Walked through famous graveyard – some unbelievably ornate tombstones and the like. Lot of laughing and good conversation. One take away: poor countries face a really difficult brain drain. Their smartest young people want to leave!

Met an American ex-pat – got good run down on what ex pat life is like, biz environment, etc. Most ex pats come for low cost of living and nightlife, it seems.

Steak for breakfast, steak for lunch, steak for dinner. It’s good. i can’t tell good steak from bad but i’m sure it’s above average.

July 06, 2009

Swine Flu Mania in Argentina

Talk of swine flu has died down in the U.S., but in Argentina (where it's winter) it's all the rage and more. Exiting the plane in Buenos Aires we each had to wear a mask and then go through a health screening. Schools have been closed for a month. New restrictions have been enacted -- no children shopping alone in malls alone, a seat between each person at movie theaters.

To date, 50 people have died of swine flu in Argentina.

Every year, 10,000 people die of seasonal flu in the U.S.

May 11, 2009

Language Thoughts

- "Ideas" is one of the hardest words for non-native speakers to pronounce. Especially in French but in all European languages.

- "Make" as a verb is overused by non-native speakers. For example, "let's make a picture" instead of "let's take a picture." I assume it's like me using tener as a catch-all verb in Spanish.

- I like how the Brits say "indeed" as a superlative. E.g., "Thank you very much indeed for that speech."

- I remain fascinated by how non-natives have a very hard time selecting "this" or "that" - they select but it's usually not the right one. Grammatically makes no difference but how it sounds to the ear.... For example, "The boys were being very rude at the show by yelling out at the audience. I can't believe they acted like this." The last word should be "that" -- at least this sounds best to my ear.

Impressions from Switzerland '09

This is my fourth time to Switzerland in four years. It remains my favorite place abroad. After San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boulder, I have spent more time in Zurich than anywhere else.

- When I stay with people one of my challenges is breakfast. I eat breakfast every day but some people do not, and if you're not a breakfast person you don't think of asking your guest about this. But my hosts in St. Gallen -- they're German - they take bfast seriously, as all Germans do. And they've been very attentive to my breakfast plans.

- The Swiss have huge amounts of pride in their country. I notice this every year.

- Swiss banking secrecy is as much an issue of Swiss identity as it is a competitive differentiator. Without the secrecy, who are the Swiss? Is life worth living?

- Easy way to make conversation with a Swiss person: Ask if they prefer Migros or Coop, the two main discount groceries. It's an epic battle.

April 10, 2009

Cartagena, Colombia

I spent a few days by myself in Cartagena on the coast of Colombia. Beautiful place but I think my expectations were too high going into it. I had heard such great things that I was preparing for paradise. Instead I got weather way too hot and tropical for my SF-fog-drenched self. Plus I'm not too into old colonial buildings -- I've seen it a million times in Europe.

The beaches aren't bad -- better than I had been told. The people are friendly. Coastal food a bit different than in Bogota. Very walkable.

Cartagena1 Cartagena2

The "Typical Mountain" Dish from Colombia

What young male wouldn't get excited at the below?

Ex-FARC Musical Performance

One of the most inspiring nights in Colombia was a musical presentation from a bunch of de-mobilized FARC members. They left the jungle and re-integrated into society. They sang, in Spanish, about peace and love. Below the pic see the link to a Quicktime movie (30 secs).

Muisc Download movie P3310038

April 08, 2009

Quote of the Day

"From our hours spent in airports we know that most Americans, when presented with large chunks of free time and removed from demanding home entertainment systems, will still find almost any excuse -- a cell phone, a laptop, another bag of chips -- not to pick up a book. To travel is to be continually reminded of the growing homelessness of the written word." - Thomas Swick

April 04, 2009

Stamps in Passports

It's always fun to look through your passport and see the stamps from various airports. And to look at your friends' passports and see where they've been.

But there seems to be no practical value to the stamps. All airports now scan your passport and the whole system is computerized. I've never seen a border official actually look at my stamps.

I suspect it's tradition at this point.

Just as reading long letters of famous historical figures is good fun but will not be an option for future generations reading about us, I suspect stamps in passports will be a thing of the past soon enough as well....

Travel Helps You Understand What You Don't Like

Travel helps you understand what you don't like.

Traveling in Alaska taught me that I get sea sick easily, and don't like boats.

Traveling in India and western China taught me I do not like spicy food.

And now traveling in Cartagena, Colombia has taught me that I don't like tropical weather. I kind of got this sense when I was on the beaches in Costa Rica, but now I'm sure of it.

I'm a child of the fog.