Thursday, December 16, 2010

From Rags, to Robbed.

After a very uneventful, and rather boring, four-day stay in Bulawayo (Zimbabwe's second-largest city), we were ready for a change. We decided to hop the overnight train to the capital city of Harare, opting for the (presumed) comfort of a sleeper car over the cramped seats of a combi or touring bus. Besides, at $10/person for first-class it was a bargain, compared to the rates at some of the dumpy lodges and hotels we've experience in the country.

The train was to depart at 8pm and arrive in Harare around 9am the next day. (Certainly a much longer ride than the five hours in a bus, but it was much less expensive, we could stretch out, sleep, and save on one night's accommodation.) As soon as we boarded we began to understand the drastic differences in price.

The floor boards in the hallway of our car were rotting out, to the point that someone is gonna fall right through to the tracks in one of the trips very soon. The entire train car reeked of body odor but, sadly, this is fairly common in buses...and just strolling down the streets of Zim. And, the door to the compartment adjacent ours was in such need of some WD40 that it let out a terribly high-pitched screech whenever the door was opened or closed, and that was quite often. The toilet was disgusting, covered in a black film which I would prefer to never know the source of. But, at least we had a private compartment...

Our first-class compartment was filthy. I mean straight up nasty. It appeared as if maintenance and cleanliness were two things that had not yet been imported to the country. Heidi had decided she would sleep sitting up, not wanting to get her clothes, sleep sheet or body infected by whatever lurk on the pleather bench seats/beds. (Luckily, we were offered bedding, which appeared clean, and were able to put a barrier between ourselves and the remnants of previous passengers.) And as for security, our door was initially built with a sturdy lock (which was now broken) and a little slide chain, similar to those found in hotels and apartment buildings. The little knob for the slide was so worn that it didn't stay in place and was replaced with a large screw fastened into the chain. Nice!

After some time the two of us managed to get some sleep, although it was much less comfortable than the trains I have slept in before (in Eastern Europe). When I awoke the next morning I was sick. My head felt stuffy, pounded terribly and I had convinced myself that it was the result of the nasty odors and invisible creepy crawlies throughout the train. Moreover, I really had to make a #2, but would've rather stuck my ass out the window than use that bad excuse for a toilet. Since we had only about 90 minutes to go, I decided to hold it.

Nine o'clock came and went. Our sheets were collected and another railroad employee popped his head in to tell us we were almost there. Looking out the window I saw no evidence of a city of more than 2 million, but rather that of agrarian society. Finally around 11am, after I had concluded I would die, and gave Heidi my final wishes, we started to see piles of garbage, cramped together buildings and masses of people. Thirty minutes later we were disembarking, giving everyone else in the station something to look (or stare) at. (Apparently, the whites of this country don't take the trains or combis as we get stared at like nobody's business every time we do.)

We ran into some kind of rally about human rights at Unity Square, and the place was packed. People were whipped up into a fervor, but broke up fairly quickly when the keynote speaker was whisked away by a small motorcade. After that we grabbed some pizza and hailed a taxi to Greystone, the neighborhood where we would be staying for 2 nights with Idir, our Couchsurfing host.

When we pulled up to the address given us, after the cabbie asked three groups of men where it was, we were sure a cruel joke was being played at our expense. The home was in a small cul-de-sac with only 4 others, each of which were behind large stone fences with very well manicured shrubbery. The taxi driver pressed the button.

I explained to the disembodied voice on the other end that we were looking for Idir. The man stated that he wasn't there, but let us in anyways. Turns out the guy was the property owner and Idir was renting his guest cottage. The gentleman welcomed us and gave me Idir's cell number, which I promptly called while the man stood watch over us. Over the phone, Idir explained that we should make ourselves comfortable and he would be in a little later, as he was at work. The landlord let us in the cottage and we plopped down on the couch and watched the Food Network until our friend returned home.

Idir was extremely charismatic and friendly from the get-go. He showed us around the house and offered to let us use the showers, which we were both in need of after the arduous train journey. While Heidi was washing up we chatted and I learned that he is an Algerian national working, on contract, here for a company called Telecell, helping to update their network. He explained that he had had similar jobs all over the world, particularly throughout Africa. He was fairly young and was ready to get out later that night and show us a night on the town, and we didn't want to be rude...

As he was leaving for an hour or so, we inquired about nearby dining options. There were none. He then offered to drop us off somewhere or let us dig through his cupboards. (His contract was ending, and although he planned to return in about a month, much of the food would go bad, so he offered it to us, if we could prepare it.) We decided to stay there, whipping up a simple salad and some pan-fried potatoes while he darted out to visit a friend.

When he returned it was time to go. He brought us to a place called Lime, which was similar to nightclubs back home. He continued his generosity by paying our cover before I knew what was going on. And, he even got the first (and later, second) round of drinks. He then took off for a company Christmas party, leaving Heidi and I at the club for about 90 minutes, where we just chatted and people-watched as the DJ played hits from the 90s and machine-generated fog filled the room. Upon his return we took off for a disco down the road.

As we waited in line to pay the $10 cover Idir received a call from a friend. There was a happening private party right next to the Chinese Embassy, and we should go there. Thank God! The last thing I wanted to do was pay $20 to get on a dance floor with a bunch of 19-year-olds. That being said, the people watching outside was a trip and a stark contract to the street scenes of central Bulawayo or Harare. Here kids, black and white alike, were decked out in the latest designer fashions, pulling up in imported European rides that were thumping like my Cadillac back at Henry High. Good times...

Some guards outside the party directed us where to park our car on the lawn, blocking in a dozen others in the process. The party was complete with a DJ and throngs of beautiful people from all over Europe, Africa and India. This was certainly a party for children of diplomats and other movers-and-shakers here in Zim. It was a wild sight, but it wasn't our scene. While Heidi and I stayed close, refusing to mingle with the strange crowd, Idir did the same with his Egyptian buddy. After an hour or so he was ready to go, and so were we. He offered to take us back to the disco we left, but we were spent and all of us headed home for the night.

The next day Idir invited us to lunch with some of his friends. A fellow Algerian was preparing couscous hand-rolled by Idir's mother in Algeria. How could we refuse? We offered to get a bottle of wine for the hosts but Idir refused, as he had a box of soda, beer, wine and liquor which he was already bringing. (Basically, he was cleaning out all drinks from his house, as he was returning to Algeria the following day.)

For lunch we were also joined by a couple of French girls (working at their embassy), a young German woman (in country with an NGO), the Egyptian buddy from the night before, the host, and Momma Rose and her family. Momma Rose is an old Irish lass who spent 30 years in Zimbabwe, before leaving for Italy with her husband when the political situation started to get hot. She was accompanied by her daughter (who recently moved back to Zim, from NYC, to get cheap labor to help raise her son) and her grandson. They were all a trip and seemed to have the mentality that the locals are a bit sub-human to themselves. Rose stated that she never exploited any blacks during her time in-country, but the way they both referred to their helpers was just a little jarring for me.

Together, we shared a wonderful meal of couscous, which was covered in a meaty broth to add some flavor. The conversation was wide-ranging and, at times, interesting but I couldn't help but feel out of place. The French gals seemed a bit self-righteous and Momma Rose's crew a little bigoted. Thankfully, the three North African men were all very engaging, friendly and intelligent. I must say it was a very strange mix of people, but they were all there for a good reason: to bid Idir adieu.

The next morning Idir was leaving very early, allowing us to sleep in and leave at our leisure. As we retired that night we said our farewells, and he even gave us 6,800 Kenyan Shillings (about $80), stating he wouldn't be using it and we should. We explained that we wanted to do more to show our gratitude, but he declined anything else, stating that is not the purpose of Couchsurfing, and suggesting he might hit us up for a place to crash in America someday.

Around 11am (the next day) we ambled out of the gates of our temporary home, with Idir's dog chasing us down the long drive. (She had become quite attached to Heidi, and the opposite was true as well.) We had about an hour walk to the nearest bus stand, where we would take a combi into central Harare and find a budget place to crash. As Heidi's back was hurting, I carried both bags for half the distance. As we were getting fairly close to the main road a little VW Golf pulled up and the driver asked if we wanted a lift.

Exhausted and sweaty I quickly accepted. Being a fairly small ride, the driver stated that we could put the bags in the trunk. After loading them in we hopped in the car.

As we headed down the road the driver engaged us with conversation about Wikileaks, what we thought of Zimbabwe and other rather inconsequential topics. I explained that we really liked the people and felt very safe here. After a short ride he pulled off the road and stated we could catch a bus at the corner. We thanked him for his kindness and I tried to give him some money for gas, but he repeatedly refused. We hopped out and as I opened the trunk the car sped away...with our bags still inside!

I yelled at the top of my lungs, hoping he had made a mistake and simply forgot, but this was clearly a deliberate act. A nearby security guard ran out to check out the commotion, as another man ran towards us and a group of ladies looked on. Everything was gone. We had our cash, credit cards and passports, but everything else was in the trunk of that God-forsaken Volkswagen.

(Usually we keep the hard drive, camera and mp3 player in a separate bag, which never leaves our side. But that day I told Heidi we should put everything in our backpacks, as the combis are very cramped and more bags just mean more hassle. It was the perfect storm of crapiness for us, and made the criminals' haul slightly more valuable than worthless. Beyond the bags and aforementioned electronics there was little more than stinky clothes, toiletries and anti-malaria medicine.)

On the verge of tears, and pissed at myself for being too trusting (i.e. gullible) we moaped over to a nearby military base, explaining what happened to the two camouflaged kids toting AK-47s. They were of little help, but a guy driving into the base said he would take us to the police station after he got some things from inside.

The police station was little more than a counter with two female constables and a two-way radio. There we filed the report, after which we took a cab to the Central Police Station for an official stamp from the officer-in-charge. From there we went to he US Embassy, knowing full-well that they would likely be of little assistance on a Sunday.

After explaining our predicament to the Zimbabwean guards I was allowed into their little outpost, while Heidi sat under the midday sun. Inside I spoke with an American woman, over the phone, who extended her (rather insincere sounding) sympathies and told us to come back the next day.

The following day a consulate officer gave us some info on getting money wired (from family) and where to get more anti-malaria pills before sending us on our way.

At our budget lodge, on a rundown little street close to central Harare, I told our tale of woe to a group of Zimbabwean men who asked how we were finding the country. Once we got into our room I was scolded by Heidi for doing so. She told me that I need to stop telling everyone our business, instead keeping things simple and polite. Although I am rather trusting of people, in general, perhaps she was right...

A day or two later, when we returned from buying some new (rather expensive, but cheaply made) clothes the manager came to our room and said a man wanted to speak with me about what happened to us a couple of days prior.

The man was a middle-aged black dude with a shaved head and salt-and-pepper beard. He asked me to sit before stating that he was sorry to hear what happened to us, but could help us get our things back. What the hell? Immediately I thought this man was working in cahoots with the thieves who had, somehow, found us and came to extort us for our luggage. My head began to pound as a rush of emotions, from relief to anger to violence, filled my being. The I began the interrogation...

The stranger calmly stated he didn't know these men, but could get the things back via African juju: black magic. He offered to perform a spell on my leg, making it swell to twice its normal size, in order to prove his abilities but I declined, instead continuing with questions in order to determine if this man knew our assailants. During our conversation he made two phone calls to someone (that sounded like a woman), speaking in an unfamiliar tongue which was interjected with English words from our conversation.

The man stated that the criminals would be compelled to bring our things to us, due to the juju, if I performed a spell which he would give to me for $30. After our things came back to us he would require an additional $150. Well, even if he was in cahoots with the bastards I would shell out $180 to get all of our things back. So, I inquired more: how would the criminals know where to bring our things? He explained that, since they dropped us off at the lodge, they would know where to go and the juju would force them to do it. But, they hadn't dropped us here and had no idea where we were staying, I explained. Stunned, the man stopped and thought. He explained that the juju would not work, and apologized before walking away. A woman also staying at the guesthouse, who knew this guy, was listening in and explained that another, more powerful, man would visit her he following day and could, possibly, help us. I shrugged and returned to my room.

I am fairly certain that none of those people were affiliated with the thieves, instead either genuine believers in the powers of juju, or simply con artists looking to make a buck on our misery. Regardless, the whole situation made me (and later Heidi, when I explained everything to her) even more uncomfortable, so we decided to check out the next morning and find another place to stay.

Now we are staying with a wonderful couple, who we got hooked up with via Heidi's friend Lorie (and her friend Michelle). With only a text they invited us into their home, which is already plenty full with two kids of their own, another girl they are caring for, two dogs and a cat. They are teaching at the International School out here and have a lovely home, with a beautifully manicured garden. We are sleeping in the rather basic, but nonetheless fabulous, guesthouse. They have been nothing but very kind, even having us join them for a family dinner last night. Their kindness and generosity, along with that of many other people we have encountered, fills my heart with joy...especially after the dastardly act of a couple of dudes whose actions made me want to hop on a jet plane and go home only a few days earlier. (Had it not been for my wonderful Heidi boo, I probably would've done just that.)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dollar Dollar Bills Y' Zimbabwe!

Zimbabwe is a country of very recent political and economic turmoil. President Robert Mugabe rules with an iron fist, and has "won" some elections via very questionable methods, including bribery, intimidation, torture and murder. Only recently has he agreed to share power with the Prime Minister, who represents the opposition party. Sadly, that agreement was only symbolic (to pacify the people) and the power still remains firmly in the hands of Mugabe's Zanu PF party.

In the last decade Zimbabwe experienced unheard of hyperinflation. According to Forbe's Magazine, by December 2008 annual inflation was estimated at 6.5 quindecillion novemdecillion percent (6.5 x 10108%, the equivalent of 6 quinquatrigintillion 500 quattuortrigintillion percent, or 65 followed by 107 zeros – 65 million googol percent). Needless to say, life savings were wiped out and even bread became something most could not afford. As a result, the government abandoned the Zimbabwean Dollar last year and adopted the US Dollar as its currency (despite the fact that it was previously illegal to use USDs in Zimbabwe!)

So, who wouldn't want to come visit, right?

Unfortunately, I have no pictures to post for this blog, as taking photos on the street is currently illegal in is being a homosexual (but only if you are male)...oh, and so is writing anything disparaging about President Mugabe (so if I get locked up please delete this blog). The day we arrived in Bulawayo a protest by gays and other sexual minorities was quickly quashed by police.

We left Botswana for Zimbabwe in short order, as we were desperately hoping to find some reasonable accommodations at a fair price. Our tour book, published just last year, stated a backpacker's joint in Bulawayo would cost $5/pp for a dorm and $20/night for a private double. But, when we got there we discovered prices had dramatically increased, with the doubles going for $60/night. We haggled for $50 and stayed for two nights, before moving on to the ratty, but functional, YWCA where a double is $20/night.

While prices for some restaurants are equivalent to those back home, other places are really cheap. We have had sadza and beef twice, for about $1/plate. (This is a traditional meal which is eaten by hands. The sadza, made from corn meal, is balled up and used as the utensil and flavor sponge.)

Power also seems to be unreliable here in Zimbabwe. One night we splurged and had a nice meal at a local sports club. When power went out there they had a backup generator: a sure sign that the occurrence is not a rarity here. When we got back to the hostel they had candles all over and flashlights for us to use. We also met a white Zimbabwean who started leasing out his gas station because of the unreliability of fuel in the country. We have seen numerous gas stations with signs stating that there is no gas or diesel available. Those that do have it are charging just over $5/gallon!

Speaking of the white guy we met on the street, he was quite the storyteller. Upon seeing us he practically ran over to greet us. When he realized we were foreigners he opened up. The older gentlemen, who smelled of beer and had quite the neck beard going on, stated that he once owned an 18,000 square kilometer game farm just outside of the city. He used to take "people like (me)" there in order to hunt the wildlife that roam there. About four years back the government seized his farm and tossed him in jail. (This was part of a widespread government initiative seeking to right the wrongs of colonialism, thereby seizing land owned by whites and giving it to black Zimbabweans.) The nine Land Rovers he purchased, for game drives, sit next to his fuel station, rusting out.

The man was clearly bitter, pointing to some blacks on the street and stating that they are the ones who are driving the latest model cars and wearing the newest fashions. He recalled how government officials have intimidated him, even stating that it is possible that he could disappear, and would never be found by anyone. He also mentioned a (presumably white) friend who was extorted at one of the many police roadblocks around the country...simply because his truck was too dirty! (In reality, he said, it was just one of many ways that the police use their power to get bribes, or make life hell for those who object.) Although the man was clearly racist, he had a lot of interesting things to say, and I appreciated listening to him. And, although colonialism was the cause of many injustices, worldwide, I question whether the current land seizure program (which continues rolling along) is really the best way to right the ship...

One final note: Although the currency is the US Dollar, all change is given in South African Rand, as nickels and dimes are nowhere to be found here in Zimbabwe. Additionally, South African Rand and Botswana Pula are widely accepted, albeit for a sometimes unfair rate. And, the money here s straight nasty. Since banks here don't have the ability to exchange spoiled bills with the Federal Reserve they remain in circulation, often looking more like dookie brown than dollar green. And there are more two dollar bills here than at Monticello (the home of T Jefferson, not the town in MN).

Needless to say, Zimbabwe is a trip! Soon, we'll be off to the more touristy areas of Harare, Victoria Falls and Hwange National Park, as Heidi's sister is coming over to join us for Christmas.

Pole, Pole, Pole Our Boat...

After staying in the rather unimpressive capital of Gaborone, Botswana for a couple of days (with a very gracious Peace Corps Volunteer) Heidi and I hopped on a cramped minibus, bags in tow, for the bus terminal. The terminal is a chaotic mix of hawkers, minibuses, full-size buses and travelers where the western tourist can become easily intimidated.

Heidi and I had planned to head for the town of Maun, along the eastern edge of the Okavanga Delta, where we would chill for a few days and take a trip up the river in a traditional boat, known as a mokoro. As our book stated there were no direct buses we planned to travel to Francistown, overnight there, and continue on the next morning to our ultimate destination. Luckily, Heidi spied a full-size bus bound for Maun, so we inquired with the driver: it would arrive around 9pm and he would help prearrange lodging for us, so two clueless honkeys weren't roaming the streets after dark. Good enough. We hopped on and waited for all the seats to fill up, at which point we'd depart.

The ride was about 10 hours and nothing too interesting. Most stops were only long enough for passengers to get off, while others scrambled on to fill the vacant seats...and sometimes stand in the aisle. Additionally, men and women alike would hop on to sell cold drinks, (cold) fried chicken & chips, magazines, belts, and pretty much anything else one might need. We had some fried chicken around lunch time, having missed an opportunity to eat on a previous bus trip. It was greasy and cold, but it was sustenance.

As we arrived on the outskirts of Maun the driver stopped and called a lodge from right outside of its walls, inquiring if rooms were available for us. It was full. We continued on to the BP station in town, where all of the remaining passengers exited the bus and were whisked away by waiting taxis, friends and family. Meanwhile, we stood there...clueless. The driver explained the person he had charged with finding us a room wasn't answering, but he did finally reach him and the young man arrived in a rickety taxi a few minutes later. He drove us to a budget hostel in town. It, too, was full. I asked if we could use his phone and call a place in our book, but his phone's battery was dying and couldn't make calls. So, we hopped back in his car and he drove us to another place. It was also fully booked!

Just down the road was another spot, for around $100/night. It was way out of our budget but it was also late and we didn't have the luxury to be picky. Regardless, they had no rooms for us either. At the next lodge the manager explained they had one vacant room, but it was reserved and if we took it we would be subject to eviction, should the party who held it arrive. No dice! The manager was nice enough to call a place in our guidebook and inquire for us. Rooms were available. Score. He reserved a spot, under our name, and we were good to go...or so I thought.

Turns out that neither the manager or our driver knew of this other place...or how to get there. He asked for directions on the phone, but they both still seemed bewildered. So, we jumped in the car en route to the area where we thought the place was. On the way we came to the lodge I initially wanted to call, and our driver asked if we wanted to check there. Why the hell not. After driving off the highway we drove along a muddy road, surrounded by water on both sides, until finally pulling up to a gate. Our driver yelled for the watchman. Luckily for us there was a room...or rather a tent. It wasn't just any tent, but a nice canvas job on a concrete slab, covered by a corrugated steel roof. Inside were two comfy beds, and a small table with a lamp. Quite a nice little spot. We snapped it up, and thanked the driver for his troubles, both in words and Pula (the currency in Botswana).

Our digs ended up being a fabulous little spot, for a reasonable price. Both the toilets and showers were outside, with no roofs, surrounded by reed and bamboo for privacy. Rather than having doors a simple rope drawn across the entrance indicated whether or not the facilities were occupied. We were right on the river and the bar was also outdoors, complete with a pool table, thatched roof and a great vibe.

The next day we registered, got some groceries in town, and booked a mokoro trip up the Okavanga Delta. A mokoro is a traditional Botswana boat, and is made by carving out a single log. The task is arduous and can take up to three months, completed solely by the individual who will act as the poler, or operator, of said vessel.

After a one hour ride up the Delta in a speedboat we were dropped off on the bank of the river, near the village of Boro. There we met Timon, our poler for the day, and hopped into his boat. Our camp supplied little plastic chairs, for back support, and we were off. Between Heidi, myself and Timon, the boat was absolutely full. While we sat, he stood in the back and pushed us along with a pole, much like an Italian gondola.

The edges of the boat sat just inches above the surface of the crocodile-infested water, and we had a very slow leak too. About once an hour Timon would take a break from poling to sponge out some of the water that had accumulated on the bottom of the boat. "No worries," he assured us as he squeezed the excess back into the river. What we did have to worry about, he observed, was angry hippos or elephants. Although such incidents were rare, they could certainly cause us plenty of problems. He also stated that the crocs were not aggressive and we should remain calm if we saw any, as anxious passengers could cause him to lose his balance, and overturn the mokoro.

As he pushed us through reeds and along water lilies he explained something about the indigenous uses of the mokoro, which ranged from transport, to fishing, to going into the delta to harvest reeds for home building. Beyond that (and the occasional speedboat or tour plane flying overhead) it was absolutely silent and serene.

Timon also explained that he was part of a polers cooperative in Boro. The prices for mokoro rides are fixed and all of the community shares in the profits brought in from the venture. Every morning a number of polers show up in the center of the village and learn whether or not they will have to work that day. He had been working in that capacity for 15 years and said he enjoyed it.

After nearly two hours in the mokoro we pulled up to an island and disembarked for a bush walk. Timon prepared us for disappointment, explaining that, in all likelihood, we would see nothing more than scat and tracks, as most animals were inactive during the heat of the day (and it was HOT). But, as soon as we emerged from some flora there was a lone bull elephant gnawing on some grass. He was a good 200 meters away, but Timon told us to proceed with caution, and we took refuge behind a termite mound. If the beast smelled or saw us there could be trouble. As the pachyderm rumbled closer to our position our guide moved us further into the bush. Then the giant turned and headed the other way, so we continued on our walk, transfixed on the elephant for some time.

Along the way we also saw antelope, a warthog, a water buffalo carcass and myriad species of bird. All in all it was a very nice nature walk, but we were both exhausted by the time we arrived back at the shore for lunch, before heading back to Boro and our awaiting speedboat.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Random Items from South Africa...

Sorry it's been so long since I have posted a blog but internet access in South Africa has either been painfully slow, expensive or both. We are now in Gaborone, Botswana where it seems to be a little better. Beyond that, there is nothing much to do in this little national capitol, so I'm gonna try to catch you up on our last week or so in South Africa...

Bob Has His Head in SKY.

SKY stands for Soweto Kliptown Youth, and is a foundation for the children of Kliptown, one of the poorest areas in Soweto, a very large town on the outskirts of Jo'Burg. Kliptown is the home to some 50,000 people, in a huge informal settlement that consists of ramshackle homes, porta-potties and shared wells for hundreds. As an orphaned child, Bob grew up on these very streets and wanted to make sure other kids didn't have to go through what he did, so he founded SKY...AT THE AGE OF 16! Today SKY feeds three squares to about 300 kids every single day. Beyond that, the organization has a daycare for working mothers, and is home to more than a dozen children who have nowhere else to go. He has taken some of the poorest children in South Africa to compete in soccer tournaments in Norway, and other points abroad...all for free! Bob is an amazingly inspiring man and I was truly blessed to spend some time with him, just chatting and learning about his philosophies on life. He even abandoned his, relatively, comfortable bedroom so that the kids who live at SKY have a refuge from their shared bedrooms, if they need a little space or added comfort. All of the money for SKY comes from private sources and grants which Bob seeks out. I met this guy and there is nothing shady about him. There is no channeling money for personal gain, or anything. He is just a sincere man with an enormous heart and genuine concern for the Kliptown kids. If you can, consider giving something to SKY and let Bob know what a wonderful thing his organization is doing...

Please Boss...

After Jo'Burg we went to Cape Town for four days. There we explored the city center, checked out a castle established in the late 17th century by the Dutch East India Company, visited the opulent waterfront and took a hike to the top of Lion's Head peak. Our visit there was fairly nice but, all in all, I wasn't a big fan of the city...or the country as a whole. While apartheid was abolished two decades ago, it still seems like most of the power, and wealth, is in the hands of the minority: those of European descent. Things have improved greatly, but there is still a mentality that whites are better, smarter and more privileged than those who have lived on this land for millennia. I was often called "boss" by black South Africans asking for a handout, and it made me cringe every time. Perhaps that is merely a term of respect here...but I think it harkens back to the days when former President Nelson Mandela was serving time on Robben Island and black school children were being forced to learn Afrikaans.

It's Freakin' Expensive Here!

For some reason I thought that stuff in Africa would be cheaper...especially places to stay. Well, that's certainly not the case. For the first two nights in Cape Town we shelled out somewhere around $43/night for a double room, or two bunk beds. We were on the rather trendy Long Street, but that is 4 times more than we spent in some touristy areas of Bolivia. Luckily, we did manage to find a place for nearly half the price for our final two days in Cape Town. And, while we had an en suite bathroom at that place the neighborhood was a bit sketchier and we really had to be back by nightfall. One night we ventured out for pizza a few blocks away and by the time we headed back --around 8:30pm-- people were already starting to eye one another with suspicion on the street.

We have also encountered expensive lodging in Kimberley, Mafikeng and now in Botswana. I think the main reason for this is the lack of an established backpacker network. Most of those who travel in Africa have some cash and yearn for luxury accommodations. In fact, I am beginning to think that backpacking in Western Europe would have been cheaper, simply because there is a network of hostels all throughout the continent. When you have a $70/day budget (for two people) and $45 is going towards lodging there isn't much money left for anything else, and that blows!

A little US Cape Town...

The Confederate warship the CSS Alabama spent a short time in Cape Town during the US Civil War. The ship was built, in secret, by some Brits and handed over to Confederate troops. While the ship never docked in a Confederate Southern port, it terrorized Union vessels --primarily merchant ships-- around the world during the Civil War. In all, the ship was responsible for the destruction of 65 Union vessels, never harming crew or passengers of the enemy, but rather detaining them only until they could be dropped with a neutral party. During its South African expeditionary raid the ship stopped in Cape Town for provisions. As a result, the ship is a piece of South African lore, complete with an Afrikaan tune entitled, "Daar Kom die Alibama." The ship was destroyed by the USS Kearsarge, off of France, in 1864.

A Big Hole, Thousands of Lives Lost & One Mammoth Diamond Empire.

From Cape Town we took a bus to Kimberley, where we were dropped off (around 1am) in the tourist center parking lot, along with a handful of other travelers. Luckily, we had made prior arrangements with a guest house/hostel in town and the proprietor said we could give him a ring when we got in, and he'd come swoop us up. Unfortunately, the phone only accepted pre-paid cards, but a very nice man allowed us to use his celly. Our driver was there a few minutes later and we were off to la la land.

The impetus for our visit to Kimberley was to visit the, aptly named, Big Hole. The Big Hole is proported to be the largest hole, excavated by hand, in the world (although there is some controversy surrounding this as a historian, a few years back, made a claim that the title really belongs to another open pit diamond mine in South Africa. But, I digress...). Even more importantly this is the spot where Cecil Rhodes created the De Beers company, named after the family farm on which a diamond was found...leading to the coming frenzy which brought some 50,000 hopefuls to Kimberley.

Initially, the Big Hole was a number of separate claims, with each being pain-stakingly dug by individual people, and their help. But, through time this changed and two men competed for control of the entire mining of whom was Cecil Rhodes. Eventually, he bought out Barney Barnato and De Beers was started. Today the company only controls 40% of the diamond industry, although it used to have its paws on more than 90%. The diamond trade is a business which I am not too fond of, and this visit only solidified that. The rush for the diamonds at the Big Hole resulted in the loss of countless lives (estimated at between 20,000-30,000) all for a poultry 3 tons of diamonds. Is it really worth it?

(There is actually a rich diamond field in Arkansas but, because conditions for miners are so poor, it will never become a commercial operation. That being said, you can take your family there and go dig for your own treasure, for only a few bucks. Hillary Clinton's 4 carat rock on her wedding band came from that very field.)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Portrait of Long Street, Cape Town

Sitting on the balcony of our lodging for the night in Cape Town, South Africa, I take some time to just watch the world go by...

The entire evening, football fans are walking up and down the street, donning the yellow and gold of team South Africa. Many faces are painted, the revelers hooting and hollering, while many others are blowing the God-forsaken vuvuzela, a plastic horn which gained international notoriety during the 2010 World Cup. Around 8pm the thickness of football fans on the sidewalk increases, and their joy seems to indicate that their team was triumphant. (It wasn't until the next morning that I learned the team, in fact, the USA of all teams, just down the street at Cape Town Stadium, during the Nelson Mandela challenge.)

The most flamboyant of all fans is a rather skinny black man, draped in all sorts of yellow and gold, along with the colorful South African national flag. On top of his head he his wearing, or rather carrying, a headdress which towers more than two meters above his dome. It has six vuvuzelas protruding from all sides and additionally consists of a hodgepodge of housewares, including boxes, bags, garland and anything else that is colorful, eye-catching, and blows in the wind. Truly, a spectacular homage to Bafana Bafana (a Zulu term which means, "Our boys," and is the local nickname for the national team).

While the football fans leave the pubs, and nearby stadium, two scantily clad women in high heels take up posts on the street corners. They don't appear to be prostitutes...but aren't far of either. They are both handing out fliers, but only to men. And, not only are they hitting up pedestrians, but also bouncing out into traffic as well, high heels clicking on the pavement along the way, in order to solicit their (stripping/exotic dancing) services to guys in their cars, waiting for the light to turn green.

As I watch the world go by, I take note of the roof of the Grand Daddy Hotel, just across the street from me. Atop the third floor of this rather chic Cape Town hotel sits seven vintage Airstream trailers, imported form the United States. The shiny, aerodynamic mobile homes now sit there for the African traveler who wishes to, as their website puts it, "pimp their park life and flash their trailer trash." (At nearly $180/night that is one experience I didn't need to experience.)

A Cape Coloured woman, who is clearly down on her luck, walks up and down the sidewalk, with a lime green backpack on, asking passers-by for change. She is met with a chorus of shaking heads. She persists with a cabbie, and he finally obliges her with a few pence. (Cape Coloured is a commonly used term here on the cape and refers to people of either mixed ancestry, or those of Malay descent brought to this part of the world, by the Dutch East India Trading Company, for slave labor.)

A man with a bright orange vest scrambles up and down the road, directing motorists as they park along the street. With a combination of whistles and hand gestures the man, working solely on tips, prevents the motorist from hitting the car behind them, or from scraping his fancy rims on the concrete curb. As you handle your business, whether it be for work or pleasure, he'll also keep an eye on your ride. (But be sure to tip, lest you get jacked.) Music begins pumping out of a nearby dance club.

A black public safety officer wearing a neon green vest, armed with only a radio and baton, pushing a rickety mountain bike, calls a young man over to him for an unknown offense. The man, amongst a gaggle of other pedestrians, realizes he is being summoned and only continues walking, now a little faster, away from the cop. The cop motions again, this time raising his voice, only just slightly. The man keeps walking, and begins to jog as the cop starts trying to negotiate the crowds with bike in hand. As the violator rounds the next corner the officer gives up and radios in a description of the offender. A car horn honks.

As night begins to blanket the cape On Broadway Theatre lets out from a showing of, "Cracks in the City," the comical performance of a multi-cultural female foursome. The crowd is well-dressed and mainly white. They scurry along quickly to their waiting chariots so that they might drive off to the comfort of their secure suburban flats or houses with 8 foot concrete walls and electrified fences. All the while bass thumps from passing cars and an errant vuvuzela sounds from the mouth of a tipsy football fan down the street.

A white plain-clothes officer patrols Long Street in an unmarked white pickup with matching topper. On two occasions he stops parked (black) taxi drivers, blocking them in and lighting up the surrounding buildings with blue from his hidden emergency lights. The officer gets out. He is wearing jeans, a navy polo and has a revolver on his hip. He photographs one of the taxis, most certainly for operating without the proper license, and orders the driver to get lost and not to return. The second cab driver is legit and is released a short time after his paperwork is scrutinized.

Around 10pm a small sidewalk cafe next to the theatre closes down for the evening. The balding and middle-aged (white) proprietor shuffles onto the sidewalk and stacks the white plastic chairs before hauling them in, followed by a couple of tables. The lights click off a the door locks.

An angry black transvestite, wearing a shoulder-length blond wig, black heeled boots, a tight short black skirt and grey top, clomps across the street, with little regard for the cars zipping along the road. She is upset and begins yelling at someone (whom I cannot see because they are below me) in an indigenous tongue, likely Xhosa or Zulu (although difficult to say, as there are 11 different official languages in South Africa). After she says her piece she walks away briskly, from the direction she came, only to return and yell just a little more. Again, she leaves.

A car with a noisy exhaust passes by.

Long Street.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

My South America Excellent Eleven...

...because a Top 10 is so cliche.

11. Spying penguins, from a rocky boat. Islas Ballestas. Paracas, Peru. There aren't a lot of places in the world where you can see penguins waddling along in their natural habitat. Luckily for me, I was able to go on a (relatively inexpensive) tour where our very skilled boat driver took us extremely close to the rocky outcroppings, in very rough waters, which the Humboldt penguins call home.

10. Strolling through the Witch's Market. La Paz, Bolivia. This is, without a doubt, the only place I have been where you can pick up a llama fetus, talisman, and an aphrodisiac on the street. The dried fetuses were the most bizarre sight amongst the goods for sale, and are buried by the poor when a new home is constructed.

9. Bodega Wine Sipping. Cafayate, Argentina. I have never been a big fan of wine, nor do I know much on the subject. In Cafayate, as a result of perfect conditions, the myriad bodegas and vineyards make the divine drink difficult to avoid. Over the period of a few days we visited four vineyards, giving me an appreciation for the work that goes into producing the stuff. And, the free samples were a nice bonus too!

8. Overnight family stay on the tranquil Taquile Island. Lake, Titicaca, Peru. Truly, this entire tour was really quite pleasant, and a bargain at that. The unique, man-made, Uros islands were fascinating, as were the cultural & societal norms on Amantani (island). But, sharing a home with a humble family on the incredibly quiet Taquile island was the frosting on the proverbial cake. Beyond their graciousness and the town dance (in which we participated), it was quite relaxing to hear sheep out the window, rather than incessant horn honking.

7. Hiking to hidden waterfalls along the Rio Colorado. Cafayate, Argentina. We almost didn't make it to this hidden gem, as I was too cheap to shell out some $5 to have a local kid guide us. Luckily, some young girls saw me leading us up the wrong riverbank and corrected our course. After a two-hour walk we arrived at the third, and most spectacular, waterfall. The water was extremely frigid, but we had brought our suits and were obligated to utilize them. After another small group left we were the only people at this great little spot, making us feel like the only people in the world. (Sadly, the walk back out, plus 5 more kilometers back to town, wasn't romantic, so much as backbreaking.)

6. Sandboarding & riding a dune-buggy in the desert. Huacachina, Peru. This place is truly a little oasis, and a great getaway from the main tourist track in Peru. Surrounded by a lake, this seemingly sleepy village is perfect for a postcard, as seen from a distance. Get a little closer and it becomes clear that this is a haven for adrenaline junkies and young backpackers looking to let loose. Although we didn't exactly fit the profile it was nice for a couple of days. And the highlight was doing 60 mph up and down sand dunes, only to be let out of the buggy and given a board to ride down on.

5. Climbing to the top of Huayna Picchu with the sun rise. Machu Picchu, Peru. Getting up at 4:30am isn't usually very rewarding. But when the payout is a picture-perfect day on a peak nearly 1,200 feet above the ancient site of Machu Picchu it's more than worthwhile. Getting up to the top is about a two-hour hike, at a very reasonable pace. It's pretty steep at times, but certainly possible for anyone in decent shape. Only 400 people are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu everyday, so get there early and get your admission ticket stamped. The only drawback is that it's packed at the top!

4. Following the Che Guevara trail. La Higuera & Vallegrande, Bolivia. I learned a lot about the iconic revolutionary hero as we followed the last days before his execution, arriving at the spot his lifeless body was photographed by the world press exactly 43 years, to the day, after the historic execution. He was certainly an amazing man, who held noble ideals and gave himself to causes he believed in worldwide. His greatest flaw led to his untimely demise: an unwillingness to negotiate via any means other than force.

3. Gazing down the Devil's Throat. Iguazu Falls, Argentina. With 275 individual falls, Iguazu is truly a spectacle to behold. From the Argentine side there are a number of breathtaking vistas from which to admire the rushing water, with some catwalks close enough for a good soaking. But, the highlight of Iguazu is certainly La Garganta Del Diablo, better known as the Devil's Throat. You are perched right above the gigantic U-shaped waterfall, rife with rainbows and fluttering birds, which make their nest behind the mighty falls.

2. Partying til the break of dawn with a fellow Northsider (and her studly Argentine man). Buenos Aires, Argentina. They say that Porteños party like nobody else, and Chelsea and Ale certainly showed us that was the case. After a dinner, sometime around 10pm, we started off with a couple of libations at their pad, only to head out to the FIRST party just after midnight. We hit the club as the clock neared 3am! And when we finally emerged from the subterranean disco the sun had already made her appearance...for the following day!

1. Kickin' it with capuchins @ Inti Wara Yassi. Villa Tunari, Bolivia. If you are a frequent reader of my blog you may find this a bit contradictory to statements I made in the blog about this experience. True: it was grueling work with long days and no time off. True: the dormitory conditions are slightly better than horrendous. That being said, it's hard to fathom something more rewarding on this journey, thus far. I was privileged to have the honor of working with capuchins in their natural habitat. While the alpha male would, occasionally, challenge me by jumping on my back or showing his very sharp teeth, some of the others would groom me, or even nap in my lap. It is certainly not for the faint of heart, but is an incredible experience and one I will never forget.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Two Weeks in the Paris of South America...

Well, we´re wrapping up our time in Argentina...not to mention South America. Although we have both had a wonderful time on this continent, I think we are also both ready to move on to something new. (Truth be told, I´m getting a little homesick too. Having been away from the people and things I love for months is extremely challenging and would be downright unbearable without Heidi.) On Thursday morning we´ll arrive in Johannesburg for another round of culture shock, and a trek that should take us, overland, from South Africa to Nairobi in about 10 weeks.

Since arriving in Buenos Aires we have been the guests of Chelsea and Ale, and they have been more than accommodating to our every need. (For those of you who don´t know, Chelsea is a friend from back home who moved down here about a year ago after falling for her very dreamy Porteño, Alejandro. He and I first met nearly two years ago when he came up to Minnesota to stay with Chelsea for six months.)


One of the things that stands out most about Argentine culture, especially in the glamorous metropolis of BA, is the cuisine. The majority of Porteños take their dining experiences very seriously, and as such the majority of restaurants have white linen table service with bow-tie clad waiters. Even at your typical pzza and pasta joint the experience is much more than just one for the taste buds. Unfortunately, the added quality of service, and attention to detail with the meals, adds to the final price. Dining out here is nearly as expensive as it is in the U.S., although you will get more bang for your buck down here...most of the time.

Since arriving we have feasted on baked Keppe at a Middle-Eastern restaurant, had McDonald´s delivered, licked our fingers after devouring pizza with palm hearts, and eaten some fabulous steak that our host prepared for us. Beyond that, we have sampled more amazing flavours of ice cream, from artisanal heladerias (ice cream shoppes), than I care to mention in this blog. The food has been outstanding, and much better than anything we experienced in either Peru or Bolivia. Like I said, there is a price to pay for the higher quality...and that affects the bottom line (not to mention my attitude since I can be a little Scrooge-like while we are on such a tight budget.)

The Cafe

We also ate a very hearty, and tasty lunch, at a cafe run by Ale and his sister, Anahi. The two of them just took over the joint about six months ago but seem to be doing well for themselves. It´s in a business district and serves up coffee, medialunas, and some lunchtime fare to busy executives from early morning to early evening during the week. The food was good and the atmosphere is clean and modern. My only suggestion would be to raise the prices, as some of the stuff is priced considerably lower than it is at neighboring eateries.

A Piece of America

On our first full day here we took a trip to the US embassy, in order to have pages added to our passports. (Although we both have a number open right now, the State Department advises travellers to African nations to have lots of open spaces for visas. Some tourists have been denied entry to a country for not having THREE clean pages!) While the process was rather quick it was pretty disappointing to learn that the fee is $82/pp, as opposed to the price from just a few months ago, when it was Free-99. But, what´s a guy to do? Although sitting in the embassy was a rather unimpressive experience, it was unique to have a man with clear English help us, and to see all the red, white and blue throughout the place. I rejoiced in sitting in a little piece of America, lamenting only that it lacked the Mountain Dew and overweight majority that I have come to miss back home.


As for being tourists, we have done plenty of that too. We got a tour of the House of Congress which, while impressive from the outside, is totally worth skipping. From there we walked down the main drag to the Pink House, the South American version of our White House. The feminine-hued building was the site of national mourning only days earlier, as former president and sitting first-husband, Nestor Kircher passed away the day we arrived in Capital Federal. In San Telmo we window shopped among numerous antiques, and peeped out a Russian Orthodox church, built with materials shipped over from the Motherland. We were amongst a handful of tourists at the tomb of Evita Peron at the famous, and beautiful, Recoleta Cemetery. The four of us strolled amongst the waterways, skyscrapers and fancy restaurants of Puerto Madero, sipping on overpriced drinks as the sun set behind us. And we, quite literally, smelled the roses on a stroll through El Rosedal not to be confused with the mall in the St. Paul suburb.

The Countryside

We also got out of town on two occasions. First, Heidi and I took a two-hour bus ride out to San Antonio de Areco, a quite little town about 70 miles outside of the city. There we checked out a traditional gaucho estancia and marvelled at the spectacular works of the multitude of silversmiths throughout the peaceful village. The weather was perfect and it was nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, if only for an afternoon. (Sadly, we timed our visit poorly, missing the Fiesta de la Tradicion by only a day. There we would have seen gaucho demonstrations and people all geared up in the traditional clothes of yesteryear.)

The following day all four of us, and Ale´s bud Christian, took a train out to Tigre, a town that many Porteños visit for weekend getaways. The place is along the river and many residents live in neighborhoods along a series of waterways throughout the delta region. We spent that afternoon just strolling about and checking out the things for sale at the rather large weekend market. Unfortunately, the wares available were more geared towards the BA resident looking to add some pizzaz to their home decor, rather than the gringo tourist looking for a cool bracelet.


Sadly, we have slowed down a bit over the past few days, as Heidi has been battling an upper respiratory illness. My self-diagnosis is a non-contagious strain of bronchitis brought on by the city´s pollution and abundance of cigaretter smokers. (She seems to be improving but we plan to get a professional´s opinion if she has not improved by tomorrow. We actually went to the hospital today, but only the ER was open due to a municipal holiday. A doctor there said only people needing immediate medical attention should wait.)


The day we went to the embassy I also withdrew 800 pesos, equivalent to about $200. Chelsea was nervous about me carrying around that kind of cash, stating that our next stop was in a bit of a sketchy neighborhood. I told her I´d take some of the loot out of my wallet before that and place it somewhere else...just in case. Well, as we waited in the embassy I took out the majority of the cash and put it in a zippered pocket close to my chest. I also put my credit card there, but put it back in my wallet a short time later, after convincing myself it was much ado about nothing. Of course I didn´t feel that way after three punks on the subway relieved my of the wallet and its contents.

The subway was pretty busy, and bodies were definitely touching as the train sped from station to station. Two stops before our final destination three kids got on the train, clapping and singing as they embarked and shuffled right over to me. Suddenly they stopped with all of the noise. A minute later we got off and I, being the paranoid type, checked the pants pocket which held my wallet and Heidi and my passports. It had been secured with a zipper and velcro flap. The zipper was open...and the wallet gone! As we reviewed the situation Chelsea said she heard one of the kids say, "It´s mine," no doubt talking about my cheddar. Although I was pretty pissed about the situation, I was glad that they left the passports and that Chelsea advised me to move the majority of my money elsewhere. All told, the kids got the equivalent of about $25. I called my bank and canceled the credit card as soon as we got back to Chelsea and Ale´s crib. (I have a different bank card, for just such a situation, so we still have access to cash. What sucks is that the card that got stolen charged no ATM fees and actually REFUNDED thoses from other banks. So, now I have to pay about $10 in service fees for every withdrawal, as opposed to $0 with my stolen Charles Schwab card.)


For most Argentines, dinner is between 9pm and midnight. As such, they get a later start on the evening than I am accustomed to. As a result of the later start, they also have a much later finish, as Heidi and I experienced the night we went out with Ale, Chelsea and (their friend) Becky for some Halloween parties on the Saturday before the 31st.

I think we ended up leaving for the first party around midnight. It was heavily attended by expats, and they were in full swing by the time we arrvied. We hung out there for about two hours, mainly sticking to ourselves, drinking beer, dancing and eating cookies before heading to the club...a little after 2am! After paying our entry fees we slowly made our way through the throngs of revellers down to the dance floor. At that point we were two floors underground, among thousands of drunk and sweaty Argetines, and all I could think is that we would certainly die in the event of a fire. (Tragically, nearly 200 people died, and hundreds more were hurt in a club fire here in BA less than six years ago, causing the auhorities to crack down --at least a little-- on dangerous clubs.)

After grabbing our drinks we moved up one floor, as the dance level was so packed it was nearly impossible to move, let alone get your groove on. On the upper floor we had some wiggle room and just kind of chilled out, dancing the night away. When we finally emerged from the joint we were greeted by daylight. It was very surreal walking the streets of Buenos Aires at 7am on a Sunday morning exhausted and in costume.


We also attended a couple of Avant-garde performances while in BA. The first was a tribal dance show, which a friend of theirs was performing in. Honsetly, the show was not very good at all, and I dozed off a couple of times. It seemed to be a group of women, who enjoy being looked at, putting together rather boring dance routines and performing them to tribally-influenced club music, all the while wearing somewhat scandalous clothing.

The second show was much better. Bruta Fuerza is a traveling show which is sort of an extra-sensory acid trip. The entire audience is stuffed into a relatively small room and the show begins with a man on a stage in the center of the crowd. As the show progresses different stages open up in other areas of the room, forching the audience to move. Water is sprayed down on the spectators and some performers even come within inches of the crowd, via a see-through stage that drops from the ceiling above. It´s unlike anything I have ever seen, although a bit like Cirque Du Soleil. It was certainly entertaining and worth the price of addmission, although I much prefer the 60 peso ($15) price to the $80/ticket being charged in NYC right now.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Upon leaving the relaxing setting of Cafayate we hopped a bus back to Salta, from where we would make a connection to Puerto Iguazu for a look at some of the most impressive waterfalls in the world. After a four-hour bus ride we arrived back in Salta and decided to head back to the hostel we had stayed at on our earlier visit to the city. Unfortunately it was full. The man at reception suggested a couple of other budget options...which were also full. We ended up walking around to half a dozen hostels before finding one with a room at a fair price.

In order to break up the 19-hour bus ride, just a bit, we chose to stop in San Ignacio, home to some of the most well-preserved Jesuit missions in South America. Settled in 1696, the Jesuits left the mission in 1768 after begin expelled. Although the mission was destroyed in the early 19th century it remained lost in dense vegetation for nearly a century, and restoration began some 40 years later. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is now the second-most visited place in Northeast Argentina, seriously lagging behind Iguazu Falls.

The place was quite impressive, built from local red sandstone. Equally as interesting, however, were the principles upon which the Mission was founded. Of course the Jesuits were imposing their religion on the indigenous Guarinis, but they also offered a sort of Utopia as well. The missionaries offered security, medicine and also allowed the Guarinins to keep some of their long as they didn´t interfere with the belief in their new (Christian) God.

The next day we waited along the side of the road, and waved down a bus to Iguazu...with the assistance of a very friendly local man from the tourist office. Upon arriving in Iguazu we stopped at a booth in the bus station offering double rooms for about $25 USD, nearly double what we paid in Cafayate. Nonetheless, it seemed like one of the cheaper options so we started walking for Resedencial Uno. Although the room was rather uminpressive we decided to stay. That may have been a mistake. Quite frankly, the joint was a dump.

There was constant construction, with hammers pounding on the floor above us until 10pm. The circuit breaker for our room cut out multiple times, including twice while Heidi was showering, leaving in her in the dark with no hot water. The bed was a little gross, and Heidi woke up the first morning with bites all over her midsection. (Although I am relatively sure it was not bedbugs, I´m still a little suspicious.) The TV room smelled like dog, with common room couches covered in animal hair. The day we decided to watch a movie the power to the TV went out, as too much power was being used elsewhere in the hostel. Oh, and breakfast consisted of bread, tea, and Tang-like juice. But, we came for the falls and not the hostel...

Iguazu Falls consists of 275 separate falls over an expanse of nearly 2 miles. Local legend has it that a god planned to marry a beautiful mortal woman. When she fled with her mortal lover in a canoe the god sliced the river in two, condemning the couple to an eternal fall. Although not quite an eternal drop, some of the falls descend quite a bit...up to 270 feet. While the falls can be visited from both Argentina and Brazil, 2/3 of them are in Argentina. (This was good for us, because crossing into Brazil would have run $100/pp for visas.)

We paid the "special" price for foreigners (about $22 USD) after a 10-minute wait in line. Regardless, the spectacle is well worth the price of admission. There are a handful of different trails on the Argentine side. We started off with the Circuito Superior, or Upper Circuit. This walk provided panoramic views of the falls from the Upper Iguazu River. Next we hit up the Circuito Inferior, which take you much closer to some of the same falls as the Upper Circuit, however from much lower, allowing you to cool off a bit in their misty expanse. After eating our packed lunch we headed for the highlight of the day: Garganta del Diablo (aka The Devil´s Throat.)

On this walk you follow a series of catwalks across the river, just feet away from an older collection of catwalks which remain in the water after being destroyed during a flood less than 20 years ago. The entire time you can hear the thunderous rushing of thousands of gallons of water, however the water all around you is only moving slightly fast. Finally, you are there: looking right down into a gigantic U-shaped waterfall that is too impressive for words. The rainbow-laden mist created by such a mass of falling water makes it impossible to see the bottom. Across this enrmous falls one can eye the catwalks of the Brazilian side as well. It was certainly a spectacular natual wonder, and should not be missed on a visit to this region of South America.
We rounded off our trip to Puerto Iguazu with a walk, the following day, to Hito Tres Fronteras
where the borders of Brazil Argentina and Paraguay converge. Honestly, it´s nothing spectacular to see...but kind of cool to realize that you are only a stone´s throw away from two other countries. Each country is marked by an obelisk painted the same colors as its flag, making it easy for visistors across the river to differentiate which country they are looking at.