Uruguay via Buenos Aires 2005 Part 3

The final part of my week-long mini sojourn to Uruguay and Buenos Aires. 

It took almost as long to get into Buenos Aires from Tigre on the bus as it took to leisurely motor along the delta from Carmelo, Uruguay.  The traffic was awful and it was growing dark.  I also felt a little sick because all I had had for lunch were nine small saltine crackers, two marshmallow chocolates, a mini candy bar I had left from United’s lounge in Chicago, and some water.

Buenos Aires 4Once let down in the center of Buenos Aires, I determined I should take the subway to the neighborhood of San Telmo to find the hostel.  I found a subway entrance and simply followed the crowd.  I grew a little nervous when I realized I had reached the platform and was without a ticket; I had seen no ticket counter, no turnstiles.  It was 80 degrees above ground in Buenos Aires that day, in early winter, yet the air conditioning (if there ever is any) in the underground was turned off, and with the crowds, the temperature was even warmer.  The platform was already full when myself and my large backpack pushed our way into a small corner near the entrance and a shop, but people just kept coming and coming and coming.  Soon it was like a sauna, and no trains arrived.  In broken Spanish I asked the woman next to me where the ticket counters were and she pointed upstairs, but you could not even see upstairs anymore with the still-arriving mobs.  She asked how I managed to get downstairs without a ticket, but I honestly had no clue.  I saw no place to buy one and simply followed the crowd.  She said it would not be a problem.  I felt trapped because I saw no easy way to force my way up through that crowd.  And still no trains arrived.  I asked the woman how much a taxi might cost to my destination and she told me four or five pesos (about $1.50-$2.00).  What?  How much is the subway?  Seventy centavos.  Well if the taxi was only a few dollars I would much prefer to take it than suffer the rising heat of the train-less underground.  But you can walk, she says, it is only 15 blocks!  How wonderful to hear that someone would think that walking 15 blocks was very doable and easy!  In many places the common response to a destination 15 blocks away would be that it was far too distant to walk.  Another young man offered to go upstairs as well and show me where I could catch a bus; he said the subway workers were on strike.  And so we shoved our way up the stalled escalator, past all the people still unknowingly descending into the tunnel.

Upstairs the air felt refreshingly cool so I decided to walk.  I made it to the hostel to check in just in time for the storm to break.  It was about 8 PM and I was starving, but when I tried to go outside I was soaked within five minutes even though I carried an umbrella.  I went back inside the hostel and took a shower.  By the time I was finished the torrential rain was over.  I walked the ten blocks to the Plaza Dorengo where I found a small, dark, smoky cafe with windows open onto the plaza and a guitarist singing traditional songs.  Though I had been reluctant at first to eat where there might be loud music, prefering to be somewhere quiet, I stayed almost two hours savoring my salad with Roquefort cheese and empañada along with the sounds of lonely, romantic ballads.  I thought, now, my holiday is turning around.

Buenos Aires 3Except the weather was not up to cooperating.  It was overcast as I stepped out the next day to head to the posh side of Buenos Aires. to visit the Cemeterio de la Recoleta – where the crème de la crème are buried in grand, ornate tombs.  It was lightly raining when I reached the gates of the cemetery but it seemed appropriate weather for the location.  The Recoleta Cemetery is like a small city for the weathly, powerful, and connected deceased.  A small park and a posh shopping center with very upscale furniture stores and chic eateries, including the Hard Rock Cafe Buenos Aires abut the high walls.  Inside there is a grand entrance with statues and wide streets leading off from a sort of central square.  Friendly cats – no wonder they have the reputation of being associated with death – leisurely stroll around the lanes, lie on the steps to the mausoleums, leap from the tomb rooftops, dart into open, un-cared for tombs, and give guided tours.  Well, for at least 20 minutes I was tailed by one particular cat until we caught sight of a rival furry tour guide, and then she took off.  I am here in a large part to see the tomb of Eva Peron.  I followed an English tour I heard was heading for her tomb, though had I wandered around by myself it would probably not have proved difficult to find as there was a large crowd standing in front of it.  Her tomb, regardless of the controversy surrounding her life and still her legacy in death, is a pilgrimage site.  I paced nearby until the crowd left and then as the rain fell steadily harder, was able to get a close up look.  I tried to peer into the tomb, but to be honest I had a small feeling that if even the slightest movement might happen anywhere near me I would probably scream.  As Evita was embalmed, a uncommon practice in Argentina, I thought perhaps the body might be more on display.  I know that sounds rather morbid, but the entire cemetery appeared to revel in grotesque, over-the-top demonstrations.

It begins to rain quite hard and I discover that the batteries on my camera have died and the spare pair I thought I had are actually dead too.  So, I decide to go and have lunch and see about buying some new batteries.  It stops raining after some time and about 1 1/2 hours later I return to the cemetery, but it starts raining again! My umbrella makes it still bearable, so I did not mind too much.  I was impressed with the excellent drainage system the cemetery seems to have – probably better than many of the neighborhoods for the living.

Buenos Aires

Overcast Buenos Aires

As I walk back towards the Subway I realize it is 3:30 PM and there are supposed to be tours in English at Casa Rosada (the Pink House), the Presidential Palace, only at 5 PM on Fridays.  I feel lucky that I just happened to think of this and head off.  I arrive at the palace around 4:20 PM.  There is a fence around the front perimeter; people are going inside but they must pass muster with the guard there.  I go up and explain I am there for the tour.  He tells me to come back Monday.  I explain that I am there for the ENGLISH tour on Fridays.  He tells me they have been suspended and waves me away.  Once again foiled.  What is it about this trip??  I walk around the Palace and it suddenly begins to rain very hard.  I pull out my umbrella and dash across the street to a government building with a large roofed entrance way.  I make my way to Avenida Florida, the shopping street, which is so much livelier than on my first day only five days before.  I find a tourist information office and go in to ask about Tango shows.  I also ask them why the English tours of the Casa Rosada have been canceled.  They look at me puzzled and say they have not been cancelled – they are every Friday at 4 PM.  I briefly imagine myself running back through the rain just to give that guard a piece of my mind – typical developing country guard/police bullshit to just tell people things are closed, cancelled, or never existed.  But I’m am no longer really that upset by these things, it just happens when you travel.  Had I more time, I would just return another day.  Its just I had only this one opportunity.

Buenos Aires 1But I lucked out at last; I found a Tango show in San Telmo.  They offered a five course meal and a 1 hour and 45 minute Tango show for US$55.  At this point during this ever-frustrating holiday, I expected the food to be overcooked, the service to be bad, and the show a disappointment.  But, it was all wonderful.  I had the next to best seat in the house, the food was delicious, and the show of Tango music, song, and dance was incredible.  It was the perfect final evening of my holiday.  The next day my flight left at 7:40 pm and so I needed to leave the hostel for the airport at 5.  I slept in, showered, and headed off once again to Avenida Florida for some shopping.  I bought two CDs of Tango music, some Patagonian chocolate, and a winter coat – just $40 for a coat that would cost at least three times that in the U.S.  I had a final meal of Argentine beef – a fast food place in the Galleria food court that did burgers, steak, sausages, and chicken to order on the grill right in front of the customer.  Not your usual fast food place!

Buenos Aires 2Just as I start heading back to the subway (to go to the hostel to catch the taxi to the airport) I notice a large crowd down one of the streets.  I notice this because as I am crossing a three lane road I notice a few people standing in the middle of the road staring.  I think at first these two guys must have a death wish or something, and then I turn and see down the Avenida toward the obelisk (which resembles the Washington Monument) a large crowd of people.  Ooooh, a protest I think!  I immediately think of my Aunt C who tells me when in a foreign country and you see a large crowd of people like that one should go AWAY from it.  So, of course, I walk towards it, and I am glad I did.  It turned out not to be a protest but a gaucho, or cowboy, festival.  The roads were roped off and sand was placed down on one of the lanes.  There were men and boys in traditional gaucho gear – ponchos, pañuelos (scarfs), flat topped, wide-brimmed felt hats, white dress shirts, bombacha trousers with matching jackets, and boots – astride their equally-decorative horses.  Stereotypically perhaps, many of them smoking.  Riders were galloping down the sand covered lane.  I had to get going, but I took 10 minutes out to watch and take some pictures before heading toward the metro.  Again, I felt lucky to have come upon this.  Although I was disappointed that I was unable to stay longer, it was enough to have seen it at all.

I then arrived at the closest metro and found it closed!  Would these unfortunate events never end?  But now used to this, I quickly pulled out my Buenos Aires map and found the next subway stop.  It was open and all was well.  I made my flight with no problem and it was with a smile that I said goodbye to South America for now.

Uruguay via Buenos Aires 2005 Part 2

My unexpected trip to Uruguay in May 2005 continues as I leave the capital Montevideo, which I found oddly deserted and subdued, and head toward the summer playground of Punta del Este, but in winter, and the UNESCO World Heritage town of Colonia del Sacremento. 

Punta del Este 1

Punta del Este marina – the one beautiful moment there

Punta del Este, the international jet set summer playground, was my next destination.  I figured I might at least be able to afford to stay there in winter, when in summer it would be booked out months in advance and too pricey for my wallet.  Since it is supposed to be such a popular vacation spot, I imagined beautiful white beaches and a lovely town with quaint attractive buildings.  Two and half hours away by bus and I was about to be terribly disappointed.

[From my diary:] This morning as I headed out of my Montevideo hostel to Punta del Este I could sense a change as I might be heading for adventure.  The bus terminal was modern and I had no problem buying the ticket or finding the bus.  We departed and arrived on time.  As we drove, the sun came out and I had high hopes it would remain so.  But here I am not in Punta del Este and it is overcast, the sky almost uniformly white. 

Punta del Este 3I found the hostel fairly easily (well, after many wrong turns and bad directions) and then set out have a walk around the town and some lunch.  I walked down the deserted main street, again feeling things weren’t quite right.  The town might be like any resort/beach town in the off seasons, think Ocean City, Maryland or Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in winter.  Very, very quiet.  Though Punta is supposed to be glitzy and expensive and trendy, I saw only old, worn out cars parked along the streets.  I had some less than fabulous pasta at a small cafe and then headed back to the hostel to get some guidance.  The girl in charge of the hostel was out and a man came downstairs.  He told me he didn’t work there but he’d been there for months and maybe he could help me.  My guess is that he was Uruguayan or Argentine though his English was almost accent-less.  I asked, “What is there to do here?”  “Sweetheart,” he said, “there isn’t anything to do here.”  I was amused at his “sweetheart” address to me.  It came off sounding rather cheesy and awkward, like he was just trying out its effect on foreign women.  He proceeded to tell me that I should have come with a friend or a boyfriend (thanks for making me feel alone buddy) and that he was there with “his girl” and they would be watching a video that night, maybe I might join them?  He pointed out to a beachfront from through the hostel front window.  “See that beach,” he says, “in the summer it is so crowded with people you can’t see the sand.”  I said that having a beach that crowded would not necessarily be a boon to everyone.  I asked about Cabo Polonia, where there are sand dunes and the country’s second largest sea lion colony.  Oh, don’t go there, he tells me.  Because it will be absolutely dead, there will be nothing to do.   “In the summer,” he says, “it is beautiful.  They have a naked beach and you can drink and smoke anything you want.  You can do anything you want there.”  Uh, we clearly have different ideas about what is “beautiful” and “fun.”  I wanted to see sand dunes and sea lions and enjoy stark natural beauty, not a bunch of drunk, stoned, naked people.  Such a shame to miss all that, I know.

Punta del Este 2

El Mano

I decided to just walk around the point.  It was sunny and not too cold and the walk was so much prettier than the Rambla.  Here at Punta and nearby Maldonado are where many wealthy Argentines keep large summer homes.  The walk reminded me very much of the walks along the ocean at Monterey, California for the climate and the architecture.  Each house was pretty and unique.  There was also a small port from where, in summer, boats head out to Isla Gorriti and Isla de Los Lobos, and in the winter the fishermen were selling fresh fish.  Sea lions swam around the colorful boats.  Around the point I slowly walked, with only a hopeful stalker bicyclist aiming to ruin it.  He biked past me several times.  At one point I must have made the mistake of saying “hola” while smiling.  He biked on ahead and then parked and got off to sit on the stone wall.  As I passed he smiled at me and patted the wall next to him.  Forget it buddy I said (okay I really said I don’t speak Spanish and he indicated that he didn’t care by shrugging his shoulders) and I walked on.  Around to the sculpture “El Mano” or as it is known in English, the Hand in the Sand – what appears to be five fingers of a giant hand, either reaching out of the sand or the last gesture of someone sinking away.  I thought it reminded me of the Planet of the Apes and the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand at the end.   I wanted a picture of me by one of the fingers, but there was no one else around.

Back at the hostel I have my dinner and watch a movie with Sweetheart’s girl.  I hit the sack early because I planned to leave Punta del Este as early as possible.

[From my diary:] My hope was to make the 7 AM bus to Colonia, but I slept long and woke up just five minutes to.  I had to settle for the 8:45 AM, which would get me to Colonia at 2:30 PM.  The bus ride was uneventful, I slept in shifts.  The sky cleared, then darkened, then cleared again. 

Colonia 4

Scenes from Colonia

I arrived at Colonia del Sacramento, the oldest town in Uruguay.  Founded in 1680 near the confluence of the Rio Uruguay and the Rio de la Plata by the Portuguese and later ceded to the Spanish, Colonia as it is known is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Though it too seemed lost it time, it seemed more appropriate for it to be so.  I am not sure which time Colonia is supposed to be lost in, but it was by far my favorite place in Uruguay.  The weather was beautiful – when I arrived I first changed into a lighter weight long-sleeved shirt and my fleece and returned almost immediately to take off the fleece.  It was sunny and warm – around 70 degrees despite the leafless sycamore trees with their fallen dried orange leaves littering the streets as evidence of the early winter season.  There were actually some other tourists in Colonia, most probably on a day tour from Buenos Aires – located just across the river, 45 minutes away by fast ferry.  I liked the no pressure strolling around the cobblestone streets – some of them of very roughly hewn stone without much attempt at placing them closely and smoothly together – looking into shops.  No one pounced on me as soon as I entered the stores.  No high-pressure salesmanship.  I was almost disappointed.  In Asia I would have been lured, even pulled, in from the street and drawn into haggling for items I had no desire to buy.  But in Uruguay, the lack of customer interest or even customers at all seemed unimportant.  There was something aggravating and yet also pleasant in this lackadaisical approach to sales and life.  Things were unhurried and in Colonia it felt so very appropriate – with the eclectic mix of Portuguese and Spanish colonial and early 20th century with hints of the 21st – there did not appear any desire to rush the town into the modern era.  There were horse drawn carriages, 1920s and 1930s vintage cars, along with what I would guess to be early 50s vehicles.  A 2005 model would have been the outlier, not the norm.

Colonia 3

Door knocker in Colonia

I strolled for several hours through the streets, climbing up the lighthouse and along the ruined walls of an old fort, to finally stopping for an early dinner at a small restaurant with a view of the sunset over the Rio.  I was the only diner and I sat outside in the warm air enjoying the view and a steak.  The only disturbances were a dog that wished to share in my meal who was shooed away by the two waitresses who sat glumly across the street on the curb watching over me, and a poorly dressed old man who sold me two band-aids for five pesos.

It seemed almost too calm and relaxing.  Why wasn’t I more pleased that the dogs were not attacking me? That the band-aid seller was not more persistent and aggressive?  This holiday seemed unlike so many I have taken.

Back at the hostel I was savoring the last few pages of the book I had brought.  I had tried to ration the pages – I had not expected to have much time to read, and certainly not to finish the book.  I should have brought two or three books with all the time I had on hand.  Mostly I had spent the time I could have been reading in another favorite hobby of mine – sleeping.  I slept on the plane, on the boat to Montevideo, on the buses to Punta del Este and Colonia.  And still I could go to sleep early at night.  It was as if I was making up for all the less than adequate sleep for the past few months – and still with all that sleeping, I could not stave off the end of the book.  Three days left and a long flight back and I was finished.  But just then the woman sharing the dormitory came in.  I explained that I was leaving Colonia the next day but was debating between the 9:15 am ferry to Buenos Aires or to spend another quiet day in the town and take the 5:15 pm; however, having just finished off my only reading material I was inclined to leave in the morning.  She told me I should take the way back via Carmelo and Tigre.  I had no idea to what she was referring, and she told me there is a slower boat leaving from a town about an hour’s bus ride north of Colonia.  The boat would wind its way through the Parana River Delta and arrive in the suburban town of Tigre, from where I could then take a bus or train into Buenos Aires.  The idea of a more adventurous and less conventional way to return to Argentina appealed to me.

Colonia

Beautiful Colonia del Sacramento

And so the next day at 11:30 I took the bus north to the small river town of Carmelo.  I had about an hour to walk the town and buy provisions for the boat.  Again it was beautiful weather, so although I circled the same 10 blocks at least twice and I did not find anything of particular interest in Carmelo, I felt rather excited to be there.  The boat ride was again uneventful and relaxing, but this time I felt content because I could look out the windows at the brown river and the life along the delta.  I could step out onto the back of the boat and feel the sun and wind on my face.  It felt delicious, almost undeserved.  Within two hours we pulled up at the dock in Tigre and those heading onto Buenos Aires boarded the company bus.

Uruguay via Buenos Aires 2005 Part 1

In 2005 I was working in Washington, D.C. in my first post-graduate school job.  I had only been working for a few months and really wanted a holiday, but had not banked a lot of money or time off.  I also love me a random, new, out of the way destination, but somewhere I could cover a fair amount within a short period of time.  And for some reason, I honed in on Uruguay.  I do not remember why only I had not been there before, I had found a flight, and there was enough, but not too much, for me to see in a week.  This trip was most certainly something out of the ordinary.  Yet this was 15 years ago and I am surprised by how little I recall of the trip, not the beauty of Colonia del Sacramento or the travel challenges I ran into that led me to originally call this email story “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

MontevideoWhy would I want to go to Uruguay?  This was the question posed to me by just about everyone to whom I mentioned my trip.  Why not go to Argentina? they asked.  Well as just about everyone knows I like to take holidays that are a little different.  I do not necessarily want to go to someplace that everyone else is going.  However, looking up some statistics, I came across a website that said that Uruguay receives more international tourists than Argentina, Brazil, and Chile.  This actually left me rather puzzled.  Really?  Where were they hiding?  But I think I may know how this happens, if you count every Argentine that goes over for a weekend of shopping, then Uruguay may indeed have more “tourists.”  I’d be willing to bet that 80-90% of tourists to Uruguay are Argentine or Brazilian, another 10% are the international jet set and celebrities a la Naomi Campbell, Leonardo di Caprio, and Claudia Schiffer that descend on glitzy Punta del Este in the summer.

But those realizations came later.

On a Friday afternoon, I began my unexpected holiday to Uruguay.  I had little expectations really, I just wanted to get away, but the excitement was building.  And quickly it was dashed.  Despite the existence of a direct flight, I had found a cheaper option through Chicago.  Unfortunately, this did not work out in my favor.  The flight was delayed out of Reagan National and, due to storms, also delayed landing in Chicago.  As we circled Chicago O’Hare, my overnight flight to Buenos Aires took off.   There was chaos in Chicago, many stranded passengers, and it took time to finally speak with customer service only to learn the next flight was 24 hours later.  I spent the first day of my vacation holed up in an airport voucher hotel dining at various O’Hare airport restaurants.

Montevideo 3

Montevideo shopping street with a view of the old city gate leading to Plaza Independencia

I have to revise my plan.  I am dejected.  I think maybe I do not even bother going to Uruguay, because I am flying into Buenos Aires my plan is to take the boat to Montevideo.  I have no idea when the boats to Montevideo depart.  We touch down a little early at 10 am.  I think noon would be a good time to have a boat and I figure I might be able to race across town on a bus and get to the boat in time.  But I figured wrong.  The boat leaves at 11:30 in the morning.  I find this out around 10:45 in the morning when airport information informs me they tell me it will take 40 minutes to get into the city…  The next boat is at 3:30 pm.  I am momentarily stunned that my “plan” ( i.e. that was to have no plan) is not working.  Usually, I am very lucky when I travel.  This does not feel particularly lucky.  I concede defeat and book the bus.  I arrive at the port around noon.

My “plan” also included not acquiring any Argentine money; I figured I would just purchase the bus and boat tickets with a credit card and speed ahead to Uruguay.  But unfortunately, now I had three hours to kill in Buenos Aires.  In the boat terminal, there were neither open money changers nor left luggage facilities.  Very traveler-unfriendly.  I buy my ticket and ask if I can leave my bag at the travel office.  They say no but tell me to try at the information desk.  They also say no and tell me to try at the check-in counter.  He also says no.  But I am tired of hearing no, so I go back to the travel office and put on my sad traveler face and one of the guys goes over and bullies the check-in guy to let me leave my bag.  One little triumph.  A minor fortunate event.  I have two hours before I have to come back for boarding.  It is overcast and a Sunday.  It was as if I had flown into a Stalinist state during the Cold War.  There are not many people out and they are huddled in their coats, the shops seem half-empty on Avenida Florida, supposedly Buenos Aires’ main shopping street.  I change US$10 so I can pay for lunch.  I sit reading my book until it is almost time to return to the boat.  It has started to rain.  I am not in a particularly good mood, but then I think I am in for some adventure with the 2 1/2 hour boat ride ahead of me.

DSC00943

Uruguay dining equals MEAT

Instead, the boat journey takes 3 1/2 hours and it is completely uneventful.  It is so overcast outside all we see is white from the windows.  No view.  It grows dark while the boat putters on.  I fall asleep for two hours.  When we finally arrive in Montevideo it is dark, around 7 pm, and it is raining.  I am one of the first ones off the boat only to have to wait for what seems a ridiculous amount of time for the luggage to come out and for everyone to file through the bottleneck through the x-ray machine.  There is no money changing places.  I am puzzled by this seemingly key tourist service lacking.  If it had been daylight – when I thought I would arrive – I would have walked some way from the port, but the guidebook says to definitely NOT walk in the port area after dark.  Suddenly, I am standing with two German guys who are going to a hostel.  I become one of their group.  I don’t know how it happened, I think a woman offering tourist information lumps us together.  That is fine because they seem to know where they are going.  There is a huge line waiting for taxis and no taxis to be seen.  The German guys suggest we walk away from the crowd and we hail a taxi just entering the port.  We pile in together and our driver proclaims we are lucky to hail his taxi because he says not so many Uruguayans speak English.  The Germans have an address.  We arrive at a building with no sign and buzz the doorbell.  It turns out to be a little retro hostel called Red Hostel.  Walls painted red, a small living room of sorts in front of the service counter.  Sofas, bean bags, a lit fireplace, low lights, and three computer terminals.  I get a dorm bed; there are only two other girls in the room and they are not there at the moment.  I never do meet them.

The next day I decide to head out into Montevideo, heading first for the Ciudad Viejo or Old Town.  I’m looking forward to the cobblestone streets and colonial architecture.  I decide to walk the whole way, a few dozen blocks is not too much for marathon-walking me!  But first I must finally get some money and pay for the hostel.  Walking down the main street, I think Avenida 7 Julio, I notice that nothing particularly stands out.  The stores are nondescript and actually many are not even open although it is by now 9 or 10 am on a Monday morning.  This is the capital of the country, where at least half of the 3.5 million Uruguayans reside, and yet there is very little bustle.  There are people on the sidewalks, there are cars and buses, but it just does not feel right to me.  I come across the main square,  Plaza de Independencia.  There is a large statue of Artigas, the Uruguayan independence hero, upon a horse.  The Plaza is almost empty.  A line of colorfully dressed school children is having a tour.  Two other tourists stop to take a picture.  I decide to follow the kids.  We pass through the old gate to the city.  I take a picture.  We are then on the main pedestrian shopping street but again it seems oddly deserted.  I feel as if I am transported back to Tallin in Estonia where years ago I also stepped off a boat from Helsinki to arrive in a town with a pretty central old town but surrounded by depressing Soviet-era buildings and boulevards and although the weather is nice, the people seem braced, huddled, unfriendly.  Except, this time I am in the Old Town of Montevideo and this one is not nearly as nice at Tallin.  There is a lot of construction, but it does not feel industrious.  Does this make sense?  I have the feeling that I am in a town that was long ago abandoned and people are now only beginning to return and rebuild their lives.

Montevideo 2

School kids pass by Artigas statue on Independence Square

At the port, I decided that although it is just before noon, I might as well have lunch to give myself something to do.  And this is supposed to be the place to have lunch and not dinner because it is not safe here after dark.  It is not particularly cold, but the warm fire in the restaurant feels nice.  [From my diary:] So far my impression of Montevideo is not too favorable.  Thre are plenty of people living on the street, in doorways, in parks.  There is a dejected feel here.  Actually, the restaurant where I am eating is quite nice – a roaring fire to grill meats and vegetables.  Lots of wood and brick, warm, dark colors.  It feels very nice in here.  If only the music were not U.S. eighties hits.  That seems off, but again hardly surprising that the soundtrack to this trip (in the taxi, in the hostel, in the restaurant, in the shops) is American music.  I order Lomo or filet mignon.  I am in Uruguay after all and beef is the national dish.  Both Uruguay and Argentina are known for their beef, the ranches, and gaucho (cowboy) culture.  The steak is wonderful and I begin to cheer up.  This was all I needed, a good meal and now I can sightsee happily.  I go into the old market which is full of small restaurants with bar stools around large grills.  Meat, meat, meat hanging everywhere, cooking.  It smells wonderful.  I imagine the heat from the grills might be too much in summer, but it is just right now.  I head out and decide to go to the National Museum.

After a few confusing turns, I find one of the four buildings of the National Museum and go inside.  It seems nice enough but seems a strange collection.  There are no English explanations, but really there seem to be few explanations at all, even in Spanish.  There is a room of what I guess is of early man in South America.  Maps of the migration across the Bering Strait and through North and Central and South American.  A life-size version of an early indigenous man.  Some pottery and bones.  Another set of rooms have paintings from the colonial periods and early independence.  One room is dedicated to Artigas the hero.  But a “room” might be misleading as it was really a small alcove with a bust, a painting, and a mural with his words.  And strangely there was also another room with modern black and white photographs pasted onto three-sided cards on a table in the center of the room with a CD of new age music which seemed to alternate baby cries with erotic moans and heavy bass.  I have no idea what that room was supposed to signify.

I went in search of another of the four buildings only to find it padlocked shut with no sign indicating anything whatsoever about the reason for this.  Okay, fine.  I decide to take a walk along the Rambla, the road along the other side of the peninsula.  The guidebook said that this was a pleasant walk and one traveler had described it as the highlight of their trip to Montevideo.  That person was clearly drunk, drugged or had had an even rougher start to holiday than I had.  As I crossed the four-lane highway I had to be extra careful of the Monday afternoon traffic, barely making it across when the one car came barreling down the road towards me. Again I wondered if there had been an evacuation of the city and me and only a few other souls were unaware of this.  It was sunny and the sea/river was a bit rough.  It usually cheers me to see the water but the ugly high rises in the distance just did not do much to lift my mood.  I was beginning to feel sleepy and decided to just return to the hostel for a nap.

That evening I went out for a free performance of tango being offered at the Montevideo Cultural Center.  I found the building just in time and found a seat in a small crowded room.  It was like a small chapel in an old school, narrow, with pew-like seating.  Again even though I was in a room full of people, I felt as if we were lost in time, in a forgotten era.  I sat and waited for the singing and dancing to begin.  I sat there for 30 minutes and it never did start.  There was an announcer who brought two guys onto the small stage and they sat behind an old grand piano and chatted.  Occasionally the audience clapped and I joined in.  It was like watching a radio talk show.  I started to wonder if I had, in fact, wandered in on a town hall meeting and the tango was going on somewhere else in the building.  I thought to ask the guy next to me, but then the game would be up – I would be found out to be a phony, having just sat through 30 minutes of dialogue I could not understand.  I just got up and left.

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Horse-drawn garbage cart

Back at the hostel, I watched a movie with other guests while I planned my escape from Montevideo the following day.  My favorite part of Montevideo was NOT the Rambla, but instead two other things – my first exposure to the children’s school uniforms, which seem a cross between a lab coat and a painter’s smock: knee-length white lightweight polyester coats with large pockets, buttoned in front, with pleats on the girls’ uniform, topped by a large blue bow at the neck.  Add a black French beret on their heads and they would have looked the part of the quintessential French painter.

The second thing I liked was the horse-drawn garbage carts.  Throughout my walk around Montevideo, I distinctly heard the clop clop clop of horse hooves on cobblestone.  At night, on the wet pavement and in the semi-deserted streets, the sound romantically echoed of the past.  Finally, on the second evening while heading back to the hostel I caught sight of one of them, the driver leaping off the cart to grab bags of garbage and hoist them onto the back of the cart or tie them to the sides.  Even though the site of large plastic bags tied all around and piled high is not the most attractive sight, I could not help but feel a little delighted to find the source of the sounds to be something so every day as the garbage man, in the most un-everyday kind of way.

Viva Mexico City – 2004

Every so often I go back into my way-way back machine and pull up a travelogue from my past.  Back when I traveled on the cheap, I usually sent back travel stories to friends and family.  I am slowly going through them, editing them, and posting them on my blog. 

In early 2004 I was selected to take part in an assistantship through my graduate school.  Each of the participants would be working at a different international organization; I would be heading to an organization in Honolulu.  Beforehand, we all would take part in a three-week pre-departure seminar.  I decided to jet off to Mexico City to feed my travel bug in between the seminar and the assistantship. 

The weird thing though is that this trip is one of my least remembered.  Only a few photos from the trip remain, but they capture so little of my memories.  There are none of Frida Kahlo’s house, the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Palacio Nacional, Xochimilco, the Templo Mayor, and many more major sights, in addition to the Zocalo, the subway, and other every day scenes.  Its unusual for me to take so few photos.  I searched through my old diaries, but I wrote not a single entry during the trip or even any about the trip later.  At least I sent out an email story.

Me and the Pyramids

Me at Teotihuacan

I was a bit hesitant to come to Mexico City.  After years of media reports on the dangers of Mexico, especially the capital, and the floods of job stealing migrants (ha!)  I had been subconsciously developing a latent fear and apathy towards Mexico.  Also, everyone and their brother warned me of the terrible dangers of taking a taxi from the street.  The guidebooks.  My aunt.  The man sitting next to me on the plane.  The hostel driver who picked me up at the airport.  It seemed a constant mantra drummed into me.  I wondered though if there were actually any danger left anymore, with so many people warned off this potentially disastrous act.

Still, I love the taxis, the traditional model of Volkswagen Beetle in bright green with a white top.  I recall hearing a story from a few years ago that although VW was discontinuing its production of the Beetle, it would continue to make the car in Mexico.  I see VW bugs all over the city, so it seems to be true.  Bright new Bugs zipping through traffic with sometimes terrifying velocity.  It might just be a good thing to avoid getting into one for reasons other than crime.

Another fear building up inside me in regards to Mexico City was the pollution.  I was under the impression considering the altitude of the city and the ring of mountains and volcanoes which surround the one-time lake – now Mexico City – trapped the pollution, leaving it hovering over the city.  I imagined asthmatic self, gasping for breath, perhaps falling by the wayside on some heavily polluted street making fish out of water type mouth movements as my lungs fail to suck in enough air for me to go on.  At the very least I expected a smoggy dark overcast sky greeting me each day.  I expected the air pollution to be visible and tangible, heavy, oily.  And yet, for the most part, each day has greeted me with beautiful blue skies with white fluffy clouds.  I have hardly used my asthma medicine, and I have not once been winded.

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The Dance of the Flyers

The city is amazing!  Mexico City is a vibrant, exciting, culturally and historically, rich metropolis.  Its wide boulevards seem to manage the tens of thousands of vehicles traversing the streets daily.  I have hardly seen a traffic jam.  The metro is a wonder; nine lines of clean, orderly and efficient underground trains zipping some five million people a day across and around town.  Considering the city was built on a lake by the Xochimilco people more than a thousand years ago, then built on top by the Aztecs, then on top of those by the Spanish, and is gradually sinking as the lake seeks to reassert itself, that there is an underground metro at all is quite amazing.  On top of the millions of people who daily (yes, millions every day) squeeze themselves into the of often overcrowded cars, yet the stations are kept quite clean and the system is easy and efficient to use.  I am very impressed.

I suppose I could wax on and on about this, but I have done more here than simply breath the air, avoid taxis, and enjoy the fantastic metro!

On my first day in the city I strolled through the huge market which encompasses the Calle Moneda (Coin Street) in front of the hostel and the surrounding streets, with vendors selling just about every possible thing one might need, from socks and CDs to underwear and sodas, to tamales and batteries, and handbags and electronics.  I figured if I were to move to Mexico City, I would not need to bring a thing and could buy everything I need on a long day to this amazing daily market.  Then I headed to the Palacio National, just across from the hostel, but facing the Zocalo, or main square, cattycornered from the imposing, but beautiful, facade of the Cathedral Nacional.  Inside the Palacio Nacional are the unfinished murals of Diego Rivera portraying the history of Mexico.  He planned to paint murals of the entire Mexican history, but due to illness, never completed past the arrival of the Spaniards.  A German girl from the hostel and I managed to procure a free guide who told us the history and symbolism of the amazing murals for a full hour!  I was entranced.

In the afternoon, I made my way to the Tower Latin America, what used to be the highest tower in the region.  My plan was to go to the top, but the building seemed so fantastically ugly to me, I felt repelled to even think of going inside.  Instead, I crossed the street to the opposing beauty of the Palacio Bellas Artes.  That evening, I walked further up the avenue to the Plaza Garibaldi, the haunt of the mariachi players.  I knew I was heading in the correct direction as I followed a man in tight black pants with silver down the pantleg sides, tall white socks, a short bolero jacket, and a guitar slung over his shoulder.  The Plaza was full of mariachis biding their time waiting for someone to commission a song from them.  Most were dressed in black, but a small group in magnificent green played to a couple in a small corner.  I imagined couples driving about the city, when the man suddenly decides a song would woo his sweetheart and he furiously heads over to the Plaza and wins the heart of his woman with a paid song by a smartly dressed mariachi band.  There did seem to be classy cars turning into the Plaza like a drive-thru serenade stop.

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Me standing with the stone sentries at Tula

On my second day I joined a tour to the Church of the Virgen of Guadalupe and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon.  The huge church was built on the site where a local named Juan Diego saw a vision of the Virgen of Guadalupe, who told him to build a church in her honor.  Like many buildings in the city, the church is sinking, and one side more than the other, giving it the appearance of almost falling forward.

The Pyramids were amazing.  How to describe them?  They are not like the Pyramids of Egypt, as these have steps to climb up, as they were steps to take the priests to the temple located at the apex of the building for rituals.  They were not tombs, but are solid inside.  The Temple of the Sun is the third largest Pyramid in the world.  They were not actually built by the Aztecs but by a tribe of people who came perhaps 500 years before them, but used by the Aztecs when they arrived to their promised land.  Most of the buildings facing the Avenue of the Dead, the main drag down Pyramid row, were places for the higher personages in the society, though little remains of them.  I wanted to try and imagine the spectacle of this city as living and breathing, but the stark ruins and the dry countryside made that difficult for me.  Besides, the Aztecs were a rather cruel and brutal society, and I am not sure I would want to imagine the trains of people lined up for human sacrifices, their hearts ripped out of them in order to appease the Sun God thus ensuring the sun would rise the next day.  There was apparently one time when in the city of Mexico before the Templo Mayor (Major Temple) some four lines of sacrifices, stretching for three miles, awaited their fate to die for the Gods.  Though the Aztec art and architecture are indeed beautiful, much seems borrowed from earlier groups, whom the Aztecs admired and claimed as their ancestors, particularly the Toltecs.  The German Girl said she did not find the Pyramids impressive because of the lack of scenery surrounding them, but I still found them amazing.

On my third day I headed first to the Templo Mayor, a major Aztec temple now in the center of Mexico City.  In the early seventies, some electricians or city water people, or someone doing some sort of digging, stumbled upon a huge disc, several tons in weight, carved with Coyolxauhqui, the God of the Moon.  And this is how the temple was discovered.  I opted not to tour guide here and soon my head began to hurt attempting to translate the Spanish placards.  Mostly, I just walked the excavated portions and then through the museum.

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The healer shaman

My next stops were Mexican artist Frida Kahlo´s house and the final home of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.  I enjoyed visiting Frida´s lovely blue house in a well-to-do neighborhood in the southern part of the city, but I found it odd there were few of her paintings on display.  I wanted to buy a postcard of a particular painting of hers, but it was not to be had.  In fact, there was not a single postcard of Frida´s paintings on sale at her house.  There were a few of her husband’s, Diego Rivera, and some photographs of Frida and Diego, but none of the paintings.  Leon Trotsky, who found asylum in Mexico at the insistence of Diego Rivera, an ardent socialist (he often painted Marx, Stalin, Mao into his pictures as well as industrial utopias and the famed ideal proletariat), came to Mexico in the late 30s.  He even had an affair with Frida, whose own home was nearby.  He was also assassinated in the house.  The first attempt left bullet holes in the bedroom wall across from the bed, the second, successful assassin employed the use of an ice pick.  I left the two houses with a thirst to know more about Frida, Diego, and Leon and the times and society in which they lived.

On my fourth day, together with a Romanian woman from the hostel, I visited the Museum Antropologica.  We spent more than four and half hours in the museum!  And I did not see it all as we spent so much time in the Toltec, Aztec, Maya and Oaxaca sections of the museum that by the time we got to the Mixtec/Oaxaca section we just blew in and out.  We stepped outside just in time to watch the Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers). While at the Pyramids, the guide had explained a number of favorite Aztec games and this Flyer was one of them.  A long pole is set up, let’s say 100 feet into the air.  At the top perches a man who will play the haunting Aztec flute.  Four other men, dressed as birds, climb to the top of the pole, wind four ropes around the pole, and then tie the end of the ropes to their feet.  A platform at the top rotates and off the platform the four men go, flying around and around the pole, arms outstretched as they are slowly lowered to the ground.  The version we saw seemed harmless enough, but from what I have learned from the Aztecs, I can hardly believe they just flew down and nothing happened to them.  Surely someone had to die?  Surely someone was sacrificed?  The other Aztec “games” do not appear so innocuous.  But this one was fun to watch…

The following day, I headed out to Tula, again with the Romanian woman.  Tula is another Aztec site about 70 kilometers to the north of Mexico City.  It too has a pyramid, though it’s in poor condition, but it’s the six magnificent Atlantes, 4.5-meter-tall carved stone statues of Toltec soldiers, which previously held up the roof of the sacred temple, which people come to see.  But, boy, was it an effort to get there.  First, there were seven metro stops with two changes, then a 15-hour bus ride, followed by a 10-minute mini bus ride, and then a 100-meter walk.  And through it all the Romanian woman regaled me, against my will, with the story of her recent tragic love story.  The weather was cold and a little dreary, having rained in the morning, and with continual dark clouds threatening to do it again.  The setting was lovely, though it would have been more so had the sun been out, but the dark skies and the purple mountain and what seemed like an extinct volcano in the backdrop gave the place atmosphere, though it was all overshadowed by the trials of a failed Romanian romance.

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I may not remember much of my Mexico trip, but this necklace, my one souvenir, reminds me

On my final day I headed to the Xochimilco, the floating gardens, remnants of the original innovative means early settlers employed to create islands and finally the land over the lake, providing the foundations to build this amazing city.  At Xochimilco the gardens and homes are crossed by canals.  I had imagined flowers everywhere, something of what I had seen at Lake Inle in Myanmar, but I was disappointed.  Today Mexico City got to me.  The canals were choked with garbage, and I felt the strangle of poverty.  Though many of the homes were pretty nice, most had dogs, there was something dejected and dilapidated permeating the place.  Maybe it was just my mood.  I took a small launch for one hour.  Mariachis played on another boat; the sellers of sweet potatoes and tamales and roasted corn floated by.  It sounds idyllic, but I felt cold and disappointed, but most of all defeated.  I felt a great weight.

On the way back to the hostel, I saw more and more.  I saw traffic jams.  I noticed the presence of the hawkers on the subway cars.  I had seen them before, but today there appeared legions of them, a never-ending chain of them boarding every car, one at a time.  They would board, hawk their wares, CDs, children’s books, candy, crossword books, maps, tool kits, etc, ride one stop and then off they went to the other side to try another car.  A blind man boarded and sang on his karaoke machine.  Two youths perhaps 13 or 15 dressed in shabby and dirty clothes, who lay on glass shards.

I changed my larger money and began to give out small change to just about everyone I passed.  The pretty young girl in gold earrings selling bubble gum for one peso.  The old man with his fiddle, not playing too well because he is bent over and it seems a strain for him to play.  The old woman in a nondescript brown dress sitting in front of a church, her one leg bent at an odd angle.  The smartly dressed organ grinders.  The mother with two very small children bundled up in a blanket awaiting the night chill.

I headed toward the large market in front of the Zocalo and my hostel.  The crowds choking me.  Before, I had not been too impressed by the crowds, I have been to other countries with crowds to rival, but on Saturday the masses swelled.  The drums on the Zocalo reserved for the evening practice of headbanded people dancing to old Aztec steps had burst to an all-day frenzy of dancing with costumes.  I saw a shaman of sorts.  A bare-chested man with rough cotton trousers belted with a red sash, and a headdress of feathers cascading down his back, was exorcising the bad from people.  With a grey stone cup with a design of some sort, a person or an animal, with steam or smoke rising from it, he passed the stone and the smoke, whispering some words to the devotee.  The line grew to go through this ritual.  I jumped into line as well, and for a donation of five pesos I had my soul, or whatever, purified, receiving a small pink pebble in return.  Afterwards I did indeed feel better.  A placebo perhaps, but my heart felt much lighter for it.

Another great trip already at an end.  But my rusty Spanish improved slightly, I saw some amazing sights, and I have been cleansed.

Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part Six: Circling Savai’I and Completing the South Pacific Sojourn

The sixth and final installment of my short, but amazing trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, and Samoa.  I finally squeezed in some sightseeing in Samoa in spite of my continued transport challenges.  All part of the journey.  

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Robert Louis Stevenson’s house at Vallima

My first true morning in Samoa, I needed to confirm my ticket back to Pago Pago.  This was always a risk, as I had only four days in Samoa (including my arrival day) and a plane to catch back to Honolulu from Pago Pago.  But I thought much of my trip thus far had been relatively “safe” and what was travel without a little risk?  Pale, the Polynesian Airlines guru, worked his wonders.  He booked me on a Polynesian Airlines flight at 7 PM on Wednesday arriving in Pago Pago before 8 PM, giving me a comfortable margin to check-in for the 10:30 PM Aloha Airlines flight back to Hawaii.  The flight was even departing from Faleolo Airport, the large international airport on the Western end of the main island of Upolo, rather than the small airport just minutes from Apia called Fagali’i.  This would make it possible for me to go over to the island of Savai’i and return by boat and encounter less hassle to go to the airport, as Faleolo is just a few minutes down the road from the ferry port.  I should have realized I was taking far too much for granted – but more on that later.

In the afternoon of my second day I headed to the home of Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous Scottish author of Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  Incredibly, due to his often-poor health and his doctor’s advice to seek other climes, he and his family left Scotland in 1887, traveled to America, and then onward the following year for many adventures in the South Pacific, eventually buying land and building a home in Samoa.  Ultimately, his mother, wife Fanny, stepchildren Lloyd and Belle, and Belle’s son’s Austin too settled in Samoa.  Stevenson was popular among the Samoans and when he died there some four years later he was accorded rites fitting someone of great stature and is buried not far from his home.  I could not help but think of the incredible travels Stevenson and his family, and other literati of the period like Melville and Twain, undertook.  I did not have the easiest time getting to Samoa, but it was certainly easier than their trips would have been.  I became quite entangled in these thoughts while enjoying the Stevenson house and photographs on display.  I think I was most impressed by Robert’s dourly dressed mother making the long journey.

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View of Apia Harbor on my flight to Savai’i

Again, in writing it appears I did very little, but I felt the day quite full and pleasant.  I had lovely meals in waterfront restaurants, wrote some email, and arranged my tickets back to Pago Pago and onwards to Savai’i.  I also arranged for my bag to take a tour of Upolo Island and meet me at the ferry port to go to the airport, as I was notified my six-seater plane to Savai’i would take only five kilos.  At first the thought of abandoning much of my belongings for a day and a half threw me, and then I felt oddly liberated to have only the small pack with me.  In fact, I found I had no need for anything I left behind.

Early in the morning of the third day, I boarded the small jet for the 20-minute flight to Savai’i.  I checked in at 6:30 for the 7 AM flight.  About five minutes before 7 an airline official approached me and asked if I was going to Savai’i.  When I said yes, he told me it was time to board.  He stepped over to an open door and then proceeded to take my boarding pass.  It turned out I was the only passenger.  Yes, it was just myself and the pilot on this flight.  And my five kilos of luggage.

The view was beautiful; I cannot begin to describe it.  Like the other islands of the Pacific, Samoa is the product of volcanic action.  Though smaller than the Hawaiian Islands, it was most certainly larger than Rarotonga.  There was the low flat area along the coast, a wide lagoon encircling much of the island, and then sudden sharp peaks in the interior.  And although I heard deforestation is a major problem in Samoa, the islands of Upolo and Savai’i seemed very, very green.  We flew across the channel and saw the two small islands there and the ferry steaming across to land in Savai’i port.  The airport was a very small wooden building with a single airstrip surrounded by a jungle of palms.  I felt very much I was flying somewhere far from civilization, but there was indeed a road, and soon my tourist van picked me (and my five kilos of luggage) up to begin our tour.

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At the Taga Blowholes

We picked up a passenger at the seaport, but deposited her soon at her accommodation and the Savai’i Circle Island Tour became T—-‘s personal Savai’i tour.  Much of the Circle Island tour was simply driving around the island.  It took quite some time as Savai’i is the largest island in Polynesia outside of Hawaii & New Zealand.  Yet despite its size it is sparsely populated, only a two-lane road circling the island.  No roads in the interior except those that lead to plantations.  Very small villages hug the road at intervals.  But there are stretches absent of population, often around lava flows where the land is simply hard solidified lava.  I waded with sea turtles and viewed the rainforest from a 30-foot high suspended forest walkway.

The best stop was at the Taga Blowholes, the largest blowholes in the world.  That day the waves were hard and high, and the blowholes then shot water high into the air, maybe as high as 50 feet.  There was a tremendous “Whoosh” sound as the pressure in the holes would build and the sea water was forced into the air.  Standing some 50-feet away, I was still dusted with a salty spray.

Though the tour was to also include a visit to the only waterfall on the island and a historical site, those were off the itinerary because, as my tour guide told me, there was an active court case involving the land.  This was disappointing as these are supposed to be two of the best sites on the island, but there was little I could do about it.  The weather was turning, the sky darkening, and some rain falling; I was tired and happy to go to my guesthouse.

I stayed at the Lagoon Chalets; a place that had come well-recommended.  I paid nearly US$25 to stay in a two-mattress shack.  This shack came with four walls, a roof, a floor, a shelf, and a bare light bulb.  I was told the light was a special touch not often found in such places.  The $25 also included two meals, though there was a limited menu to choose from.  Actually, there was no menu–you just ate what the manager and the assistant were having.  And it consisted of rice, taro root with coconut sauce, shredded cabbage, carrot, and beet salad, and fish of the day or noodle soup.  It was okay for one night; I could not imagine having taro root with coconut sauce day in and day out.  I had an early night in my room, reading by my bare light bulb, then falling asleep to the lapping waves.

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Wading with sea turtles (they like mango)

I tried some more lazing about the next day.  I was to be on the 2 PM ferry back to Upolo and the ferry terminal was a 20-minute walk down the road.  I woke up and lazed in my chalet/shack.  I had a simple breakfast of eggs, tea, and toast.  I went down to the mini dock, and read a book while sitting on a picnic bench.  Then I simply lay on the deck in the sun.  I moved back to my chalet/shack.  Back to the dining area.  Back to the dock.  And so on.  I could never laze in one place for too long and there were only so many lazing places in the guesthouse area.  The hours until 1:30 dragged.  Then suddenly it was time to go.

I caught a ride with two other guys heading for the ferry.  I bought a water and a Baby Ruth bar before jumping on the ferry.  I did not want to have too much in my stomach on this boat.  I embarked, took my motion sickness tablet, some water, plus a fruit leather and half a small bag of walnuts.  In less than ten minutes after the boat was underway, I regretted having eaten anything at all.  The boat was listing heavily from side to side.  It seemed we were moving more back and forth than we could possibly be moving forward.  There was a great heave and a creak as we listed left and then a pause before we rushed back to the right.  Despite being next to the overworked air conditioner, I began to sweat.  I needed to make a decision:  either remain immobile the entire journey, laying prone on the front bench by the air conditioner, breathing heavily, and trying to keep my stomach down – or find a restroom quickly and be rid of anything that was sloshing about my stomach.  But I knew once I stood up, the time frame to find the restroom was going to be limited.

I bolted upright, scanning the room.  The cold sweat beading on my upper lip.  I saw nothing but seats.  The act of moving my head to look around was extremely unpleasant.  I felt a rise in my throat; I took a deep breath.  I stood and began to walk to the stairs down into the car area.  My balance was off terribly.  I stumbled around like a drunk.  Nothing appeared to be downstairs.  I could see several people laying as still as possible, eyes rolling into their heads, most certainly feeling much the same as I did.  I continued my search for a restroom, groping at benches as I was thrown from one to the other.  I tried to keep the panic down.  I found the restroom.  It was pitch-black, the only light coming from when the door would rapidly swing open on a list.  Inside the restroom was like a boiler room.  The air was humid and stagnant.  I was sweating profusely.  It was as if I were in the height of a malarial fever.  In the dark I found the stall, and well, you know.  I felt weary and slightly disoriented.  After maybe ten minutes I clumsily made my way back to the front bench in front of the blessed air conditioner, the television was screening the movie “Free Willy 3;” I lay down.  I rest quietly immobile for the rest of the hour and 20-minute journey.  Disembarking made me very happy.

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Rainforest walkway

Then came yet more of the Samoan transport waiting game.  My bag, having completed its tour of Upolo, joined me at the ferry terminal.  Once reunited, the driver dropped my bag and I off at the Faleolo Airport three hours before the 7 PM flight.  Despite being the Samoa International Airport, there was almost nothing there.  There was a bank and a restaurant, but locked up tight.  There were also terribly uncomfortable plastic chairs, an ATM, and a restroom.  Luckily, I still had a book to read.  I chatted with a Spanish couple.  I tried various positions to comfortably read my book in those plastic chairs.  Eventually time moved forward and the check-in officials arrived 30 minutes before the flight.  By 7:30 PM we were all waiting for immigration to open.  Once through immigration (in record time), an announcement comes on informing us the flight had been cancelled due to a broken plane.  No one moved.  The announcer tried again.  This certainly elicited reactions.  Lots of swearing and declarations of “no way” and “you have got to be kidding” from the Westerners.  The Samoans and the family from Tonga weren’t happy, but they had more resigned reactions.  We all filed back through immigration, received our departure tax money again, and then went to wait at the check in counter.  There would be no more flights until the next day.  I would miss my connecting flight to Honolulu.

I accepted hotel accommodation in Apia offered by the airline.  The next day I had to return to the Apia airline office.  Despite having been told all flights to Pago Pago were full, an agent managed to get me on a 2:25 PM flight and rebooked me on an 11:30 PM flight to Honolulu.  After five and a half pointless hours at Faleolo airport the day before, I also had the grand opportunity to spend a further eight hours in the equally thrilling Pago Pago airport.

Looking back, I did not see as much of Samoa as I would have liked, but in the visit, I was happy and busy, even considering the long and frustrating transport waiting times.  Overall, I accepted that things just move on their own flexible schedules in Samoa and the people are very kind.

 

Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part Five: Samoan Hospitality and Making the Most of the Journey

More on my three-week trip to three Polynesian islands – I arrive at my final destination, Samoa, and proceed to…get nowhere fast.  Another gentle reminder that in the South Pacific you cannot do anything but slow down, take your time, and smell the flowers.

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Quite possibly the best part about American Samoa

I dislike arriving in a new country at night.  There is the confusion associated with trying to find your way around a new place when the landmarks and signs are cloaked in dusk or darkness.  There is also the very real possibility of being ripped off.  In my experience it is far easier to be taken advantage of in a new place in the dark than when I arrive in the day.  The banks, information booths, transport stations and the like are closed or running on far more limited schedules.  I have more confidence I can thwart would-be advantage takers when the sun is shining.  Whether it is truly the case or I have simply psyched myself up to believe this as truth I cannot say.  But on this trip, I could hardly avoid arriving after dark.  I suppose the Polynesian Islands are less frequently visited and therefore airlines can place those routes on the backburner, or rather on the less popular times.  If you want to go to Fiji or Rarotonga or Samoa, you will have to be satisfied with arriving at 2 am or 12:30 am or 9 pm or simply not go at all.

Despite Rarotonga being such a small island with a small airport, the late night (or early morning, depending on your perspective) arrival was very pleasant.  The terminal seemed to suddenly light up, a beacon to the weary travelers.  The light joke regarding the single baggage claim area brightened everyone.  The cheery ukulele music struck up as soon as the first person set foot in the terminal was welcoming.  There was even a small board with traveler information – from resorts to backpacker – available to the late arrivals.  And someone from the hostel was waiting for me in the arrival area to sweep me into a van and off to the hostel with no fuss and no worries.

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This was long among my favorite pictures from Samoa

Not so arriving in American Samoa.  At 9 PM in the evening there were plenty of people inhabiting the waiting chairs, and standing in check-in lines, but there was very little else to do.  The vending machines were on, but no banks were open, no changing money facilities – not even an ATM that I could see – no restaurants, no tourist information booth, or even an information kiosk were available to the evening arriver.  This to me only heightens the confusion and immediately sets the traveler ill at ease.   There hadn’t been a shred of food available on the two-and-a-half-hour flight from Rarotonga; I was ravenous.  There was no one to ask about a good hotel or hotel rates.  I simply asked a security guard, and he told me the closest hotel was the Pago Pago Airport Hotel.  As my greatest ambition in American Samoa was to find the quickest way out and on to Western Samoa, I thought closest would be best – even at US$85 a night.  Though that may sound high, it is actually in the low range of accommodation costs in American Samoa.  Welcome to America.

My brief stay in American Samoa seemed as typically American as one can imagine.  I stayed in a relatively expensive hotel, watched CNN and Jay Leno and several other shows I cannot remember, I could not walk anywhere and thus had to be transported to the hotel in a taxi (in fact without a car you are pretty much stuck in American Samoa) and I had McDonald’s for dinner – the only restaurant still open when I found myself getting settled at the hotel at almost 11.  The proprietor of the Pago Pago Airport Hotel was a large, friendly Samoan woman who drove me to McDs, and arranged for my taxi back to the airport the next day (and even paid for it) – but this was about as Samoan as the experience got.

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Friendly Samoan cops

The next day I headed to the airport around 10:30 as the first flight to Apia in Western Samoa left at 11 am.  I had no ticket.  As there were no airport staff around except for one check-in agent, and a few other random people who flanked the agent whose role was unclear, the only way to find out information was to stand in line.  This was the first time I have ever tried to check in to a flight on which I do not have a ticket.  But I gather that although this might be odd for me, it is not too terribly unusual in Samoa.  Quite a number of activities seem very flexible.

At the counter the agent told me to wait, someone would be along to help.  The agent would be right back; there was another foreigner also waiting to do the same.  And so, we waited.  Some friendly Samoans hanging around the counter engaged me in conversation.  A ticket agent arrived, told us to meet him in the Polynesian Air office, then immediately disappeared.  It took myself and the other foreigner some 30 minutes to find the office.  Tickets were sorted out; however, only outbound flights could be guaranteed; we would have to set the return in Apia the following day.  At least I had a ticket to Apia for 1:45 PM.

Back in the line, my new Samoan friends said they would take care of my bags while another woman took me to the local Cost-u-less store for some lunch.  One might think this an odd decision on my part.  My bags were out of sight with perfect strangers while I drove away with another one.  But really all they said they would do happened.  My bags were untouched where I left them and the woman drove me to the store.  Later, as I sat in the airport snack lounge (Cost-u-less was closed) the ticket agent asked for my ticket.  He trotted off and had me checked in and my bag taken care of within five minutes.  Samoan hospitality!

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Downtown Apia

The hospitality did not end, but it turned out I was everyone’s new friend and thus needed to reciprocate.  An airport security officer thrust an open can of Mountain Dew in my hand, telling me to deliver it to my friend.  My “friend” being my new check-in helper and bag watcher I had only set eyes on an hour before.  I found myself wandering around the airport gingerly carrying his open Mountain Dew in search of him.  I must have looked terribly lost because another airport official approached me to ask me if I needed help.  I explained what was surely a bizarre story about searching for the owner of the Mountain Dew, but the man did not blink an eye and joined me in my search.  We found Mr. Mountain Dew at the immigration counter, where I handed over the can.

Now I had Mr. Customs to help me.  Noting that I still need to pick-up an order at the snack bar, he tells me he can take my passport and complete all the immigration paperwork for me while I am in the restaurant.  This seems one step too far on my trust-o-meter so I decline.  He decides instead to join me at the restaurant.  He sits at my table, orders a beer (despite being on duty), pays for my lunch, then takes my passport and completes my immigration departure forms.  HE waits for me as I eat, accompanies me back to immigration, then stamps me through.  There he tells me to wait, he will give me a letter to give to his friend in Apia.  I can hardly believe this is happening.  I look around, I am dying to share this bizarre situation with someone, but this must be completely normal in Samoa.  He returns with a letter I am to give to Gary at Polynesian Airlines in Apia, then gives me his telephone number in case I ever need help again in American Samoa.  Then he walked away, and I headed for the plane.

One would think this could not get stranger, but it does.  As I sit down in my seat, 1A, the pilot suddenly turns around and says “T—-, your friend Brian told me to tell you not to forget the letter for Gary.”  How did I get on a first name basis with the pilot and who the hell is Brian?  Brian told me he was the Prime Minister of Anu’u.  The pilot asks me if Brian explained how I was to know Gary when I saw him.  I said no.  The pilot tells me it won’t be a problem as Gary will most likely be the biggest guy I have ever seen.  And off we go to Apia.

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Sunset in Apia Harbor – worth it!

Landing in Apia some 40 minutes later, the pilot reminds me again to give the letter to Gary.  After clearing immigration (which took all of about one minute) I find Gary quite easily.   He is a short but extremely stout man, perhaps as wide around as he is tall.  I say “Gary, I have a message for you,” and hand over the envelope.  Gary shuttles me and the pilot to an office with combination locks on the door.  I am told to sit in the chair by his desk.  I feel I have done something wrong.  He opens the letter, reads it, then barks at me “Who is this woman?”  There is obviously a woman mentioned in the letter.  I say “I don’t know.”  The pilot asks me “Didn’t Brian tell you about this letter?”  I say “No, I just met Brian 20 minutes before the flight.”  They decide the letter has nothing to do with me and I am free to go.  Welcome to Samoa.

Given all the work I put in just to arrive in country and settle in to the guesthouse, it is no wonder I spent the rest of the day doing very little.  I went only on a short self-guided walk around Apia town, the country’s capital and main port.  But I felt very accomplished and happy.

Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part Three: Arrival in Rarotonga

The continuation of my three-week Pacific Island travels in the summer of 2004, just after completing a research assistantship in Honolulu.  From the Big Island of Hawaii, I would head 3,000 miles due south to the small 15-island nation known as the Cook Islands.  Named after British navigator Captain James Cook who “discovered” the islands in 1773, the islanders are now considering changing their name to one that better reflects their Polynesian nature. 

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Kia Orana or “hello” in Cook Islands Maori – how lucky to find the #1 license plate

The regional jet departed Honolulu full to the gills.  Many of the passengers were Samoans who would disembark at Pago Pago in American Samoa.  I would continue on to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.  Most of my second leg fellow passengers appeared to be locals, and they all seemed to know one another.  At landing at 12:30 in the morning, the flight attendant announced, “Checked luggage can be found at Carousel 3… Mind you, we have only one carousel.”  This made everyone on the flight laugh.  We needed something to wake us up.  As we stumbled toward the terminal, it suddenly came to life.  The lights were made brighter, a ukulele player began to play and sing, and the two immigration officers opened for business. To get the 22 of us through took only ten minutes.

I had reservations at the Tiare Village Hostel, located just behind the airport.  I made these reservations frantically by phone from the Honolulu Airport when I realized that very morning that booked accommodation was a requirement for entry into the Cook Islands.  Although no one actually checked, I was happy to have someone picking me up at the airport at nearly 1 AM.

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Cooks Corner — downtown Avarua

The following morning, a Saturday, I woke up early as I was told the hostel manager would drive newcomers into town on the first day for “orientation.”  It turned out to be quite informal with the orientation only consisting of the manager just pointing out the market, the banks, the information center (closed weekends), and the center of town.  The tour took just a few minutes.  Taking advantage of the lift into town, I ate lunch at a busy cafe/pizza/ice cream joint in the center of town near the roundabout (the only one on the island), then wandered about town for a bit, bought groceries, and walked back the 30 minutes to the hostel.  As I was quite tired from the flight and early morning arrival, I spent the rest of the day lazing about.

The Cook Islands are a group of 15 islands in the South Pacific.  They are divided into two groups, the Southern and the Northern.  The Northern Group is quite isolated and made up of smaller islands, generally accessible only by yachties.  The Southern Group is the more populated.  The total population of the island nation is about 15,000 with around 8,000 living on the main administrative island of Rarotonga.  The Cook Islands are a self-governing nation in free association with New Zealand.  It has its own government, parliament, and prime minister as well as traditional government districts.  There are eight traditional tribes on Rarotonga, seven of them are led by females.  But more Cook Islanders live outside of the nation than in, mostly in New Zealand and Australia.  The islands use New Zealand money, though they also mint their own, including the very collectible three-dollar bill.

cook islands 10On Sunday morning I attended church at the Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC).  The service was mostly in Maori, the traditional language of the Cooks.  The local patrons were dressed in their finest – with women in colorful flower-patterned dresses and traditional straw hats; the men in flowered shirts.   The pews and beams and pulpit are made of a warm reddish medium wood, while the walls are a white stucco and the ceiling painted an aquamarine green – the kind popular in the sixties.  Though it seemed an odd color in and of itself, it worked in this church with its simple stained-glass windows.  Those sitting in the center section were clearly the most serious of church goers.  They stood up first for songs, sang the loudest, and sat down last.  They were also the best dressed.  Those on the lower section’s outer seats seemed the second tier of church goers.  Maybe they had not arrived quite in time to claim the middle seats for the day, but they were still dressed in their colorful finest and sang the hymns with vigor.

I sat in the upper section, which just might be the area for those who treat church more as a social occasion than a religious one.  There were many children up here, in bare feet, fidgeting.  Many simply ran around.  One boy scooted his way across a pew on his stomach.  We moved our feet to let him scoot by.  The boys on the opposite side seemed intent on poking each other as much as possible and looking at some cards they had brought with them to pass the time.  Two young, mischievous girls sitting in front of me played with their rubber bracelets, each other’s hair, and whispered things to each other and giggled.  A young teenage girl to their right sat with her mother or aunt – a very serious churchgoer who seemed to choose the upper section as a perfect vantage point to carefully watch the congregation, maybe so she could gossip later about those she felt were not properly pious.  Her daughter too gave the giggling girls a hard stare, though it was more for her mother’s benefit I think, as she looked as if she longed to join them.

The primary reason I attended the service was to hear the congregation sing, as they are famous for their harmonies.  Indeed, it was lovely.  Maybe, in part, because they sang in Maori?  But also, the men and women sing different verses almost the fashion of a round.  Most of the time the singing was pretty much in tune.  At times, it did seem the words and tune were getting away from the singers and the reverend seemed to stare at the ceiling, on to heaven, willing his flock to find their way back to the harmony.  It was a very enjoyable hour.  Afterwards, the reverend invited myself and the two other hostellers to tea and we might have joined if we were not scheduled to attend something else in the afternoon – Piri Puruto III’s great show!

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Piri Puruto III lecturing us

Piri Puruto III is a 60-something-year-old man who performs his show most days of the week.  On Sundays he includes a traditional Cook Island lunch and dinner prepared in the umu – the underground oven.  We picked leaves for our plates, large leaves for the lunch, and then we weaved our plates for the dinner.  Piri believes everyone should participate in the cooking to truly appreciate the food.  I had to fetch a whole chicken from a bucket of saltwater, stuff it with local spinach, wrap it in noni leaves, then wrap the whole package with larger leaves, tying it together with the spine of the leaf.  After all the food was prepared, we placed it in the umu, and covered with many leaves, with Piri yelling orders at us like children with short attention spans.  He asked us to call him teacher.  He would yell at us, “students, get the leaves!  Get them!  Hurry.  Why are you moving so slow?  Teacher tells you do something, you do it!”

Then the show began.  Piri Puruto III climbs coconut trees.  We all sat in a circle while Piri prepared.  He had changed from his tank top and sport shorts to a tanned leaf skirt, bare chest, and coconut husk helmet.  He chanted in Maori as he entered the circle and began to tell his life story.  Born on one of the other islands, as a child he witnessed the last inter-tribal war.  He moved to Rarotonga as a teen, and then went on to Auckland to participate in boxing tournaments – winning his first title in 1959, and holding on to that title until 1964.  And now he boxes coconut trees.  We all follow him down the rocks in his backyard to the beach, and across to the beach to a magnificent palm, I don’t know how high – maybe 50 feet or more.  He makes some speeches.  Tells us that when he climbs, we must be ready to take pictures.  When he tells us “Students, prepare your cameras!” Then we are to do so immediately, or else miss the picture.  The guy was a complete ham.  But climb the tree he did.  With a rope binding his feet together, he spit into his palms, wet his toes, and scurried up the trunk, high into the air.  At the top he made his way into the fronds, stood atop the palm, picked a coconut, yelled at us to get our camera’s ready, and threw the coconut into the air.  Then he checked we indeed had taken a picture.  On the way down he did some acrobatics, skirting the trunk of the tree, holding the trunk and throwing his feet out to the left and to the right.  He all clapped as we were certainly expected to!  It was all shameless attention, but good fun to watch for sure.  He made his way back down and we headed back to the house for dinner.

Before we could eat though, we had to make fire!  The traditional way.  From the coconut tree, Piri had brought back a coconut, as we needed coconut fiber #1, coconut fiber #2 and coconut fiber #3 to do this properly.  I was a lucky one to help with the fire making, as my spit was used to roll together coconut fiber #2.   Then the men were to help with the logs, and we all had to chant following Piri’s example.  He told us the making of fire was like the act of making love.  The whole circle had a good laugh at this, and he said, “no don’t laugh, I’m serious.”  He said he would translate our chant in English.  It went something like Bang 1.  Bang 2.  Bang 3.  Bang 4.  Bang 5.  Bang 6.  I am man.  You are woman.  Fire!  And he furiously rubbed some bark against the log.  And a spark started.  Coconut fiber #1 is used to catch the spark.  It is then burrowed into coconut fiber #2.  Then the whole thing flamed with coconut fiber #3 and we had a big flame!   The dinner of baked chicken, potatoes, fish, and lamb, with local spinach, coconut and bananas was ready for the eating.  It was all in very good fun.

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One phase of sunset in Avarua harbor

It is fascinating to go back to my diary and stories from this visit.  I remember little of the things I wrote about, but I recall other details.  For instance, standing in Avarua harbor to watch the most incredible sunset I had ever seen.  With the quiet pace of island life, a 30-minute walk to town is not only exercise but an enjoyable activity.  So, one afternoon I strolled from the hostel to the center of Avarua, the Cook Islands’ capital and administrative center of the island of Rarotonga.  I stood marveling at the late afternoon light bathing the green volcanic hills rising behind the Avarua fishing harbor.  Then I turned to face the other direction and my breath caught in my throat.  Even to this day, I have not seen a sunset that equaled the extraordinary beauty of that one.  The sky changed from daylight blue to yellow, then orange, pink, purple, and finally to blue.  Standing alone in the shallow, rocky waters of Avarua bay at low tide just waiting and watching the sun and its light slowly sink below the horizon might be one of the most magical moments of my life.