Friday, July 10, 2015

Reverse culture shock

Last month, I was in the US for the first time in 11 months, for the graduation of my students Brian Burg and Kıvanç Muşlu.

When I first landed, my initial reaction was, "How unusual -- everyone is speaking English."  My second reaction was, "Their accents are really good."  Then I interacted with more people and revised my opinion about the accents.

Another surprise was washcloths in the hotel bathroom and water-saving showerheads.

I was also taken aback my the friendly, helpful staff at stores and restaurants.  They were bright, cheery, and solicitous, and I didn't quite know what to make of it by comparison with the slow, sullen service I have become used to.

Walking around the University District near campus, it seemed like a freak show of the mentally ill shouting at the air or other people, many dozens of homeless in the streets, and people trying to hide their bodies under a deluge of piercings and tattoos.  I presume that all this exists in Madrid and Buenos Aires, but I don't know where; it isn't at the university.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Pucón, Chile

We spent a week in February in Pucon, Chile, with friends.  Pucon is a lovely town, very touristy and busy in town in February, but surrounded by awesome national parks, including Volcan Villarica and Parque Nacional Huerquehue.  Miguel, Cecila and family were amazing hosts, putting us up in their home, letting us play with Ray (the dog) and showing us around the region.

Our first day, we went out to a thermal spa.  Our friends recommended a couple and in the end, we went to Termas Huife.  It's a spa on the side of a creek with several warm outdoor pools as well as an indoor pool with jets.  We weren't big fans of the indoor pool as it was too hot, but the outdoor pools were great and there was enough shade for us to eat on lounge chairs outside.  

Our second full day, we took our very small rent-a-car to a trail head for the Rio Turbio in the national park.  We found the road to the trail head and headed up the gravel road for a number of kilometers.  Our maps were less than perfect, and our car had very low clearance.  A few kilometers in, we stopped at a farm and asked a farmer chopping wood for directions.  His directions were a bit unclear, but while we were chatting an Chilean family with two kids and a big pick-up truck came up behind us, looking for the same trail head.   Not far from the farm, the road was too wash-boarded out for our car, and the other family kindly picked us up and took us a couple more kilometers in, until they didn't want to go any farther either.  We parked at a clearing with a sheppard's hut and several burros, and started walking uphill from there.  We walked a couple K along the logging road, past an old logging station, but never got to the lookout, which was supposed to look over the Rio Turbio and have views of Volcan Villarica.  We never had more than peek-a-boo views of the volcano, but we saw tons of old trees, lots of witch's hair lichen, and enjoyed walking with  new-found friends.
Maeve collected quite a bit of witch's hair and made herself a wig once we got home.  Very stylish.

Another day we went up to Volcan Villarica.  You can drive quite a ways up the cinder cone, where there is a ski slope with lots of chairlifts in winter.  In summer it's just lots of pumice.  The mountain was smoking off and on the whole time we were there, so you weren't allowed to climb the summit, which otherwise is a long day's hike.  Two weeks after we left, there was a nice eruption.  Luckily, our friends had already left and nobody in Pucon was hurt.

We spent a lot of time on the cinder cone, a lot of it throwing rocks downhill to see how far they would go.  Silas had a great time.  I'd never been on a cinder cone before.  It's very stark & lovely.  Amazing that the winter ski resort is up there, but I suppose it's easier to maintain above the tree line.

Another day we went to Caburga, which has a lovely beach with tons of amenities.  You could swim, rent all manner of water equipment & boats, and there were plenty of ambulatory salesmen with food, drinks, & toys.  The kids had a great time in the sand and in the water.  Mike and I even got a swim in.

On the way back to Pucon from Caburga, we stopped at Ojos de Caburga, an attraction on the river Caburga.  There were a lot of pools and falls in the river.   The kids, including Martin, enjoyed wading out of the sun.  We had to pay to get in, and then it was a short walk to the first pools and then a little walking around the complex.  It was full of tourists wading around, swimming, cutting illegally through very reinforced safety fences with small children to get to other swimming holes, etc. 

I don't have photos, but there was a pool in the housing development we were staying in.  It was great - almost every late afternoon we went swimming.  The water in the pool was in the sun, but still quite cold. Silas came out shivering every day.

Our longest hike of the trip was in national park Huerquehue.  We hiked a version of Los Lagos route which passed by several viewpoints of Volcan Villarica as well as waterfalls and Lakes where we could wade.  The forest there is amazing, it's full of Araucaria trees, the weird indigenous pine-like trees, as well as the native Nothofagus species we'd seen elsewhere in Patagonia.

View of Volcan Villarica from Huerquehue Park.

Baby Arauraria in the foreground.  One of the lakes, Verde, Chico or Toro.   The scenery was all like this - walking in woods around lakes.    This was perhaps our best hike in Patagonia. 

The park was awesome, and we made it in our little low-clearance rent-a car, although we did park in the parking lot and all smush into Cecelia's SUV for the last couple of kilometers track up to the trail head.  Next time note to self - if we're going to go into parks on washed-out dirt roads, we should get a car with higher clearance. 

From Pucon, we took an overnight sleeper bus to Santiago to catch our flight to Buenos Aires.  That bus was great.  We were on the second story, and had seats that reclined all the way back with footrests that popped up so we had a little bed.   We got into Santiago pretty early in the Am to the main bus station, and had about 4 hours before we needed to take the bus to the airport.  It took a while to figure out where we could check our luggage and how & when to buy the tickets to the airport, and then we took off to see a little of the city.

Then we had our worst experience of the trip.  Our taxi driver ripped us off, first by not taking us the direct route where we wanted to go and then by taking too much money and not giving us change.  We didn't actually loose much money, but it was an unfortunate downer.   There wasn't too much to do in the couple of hours we had in Santiago first thing in the morning, but we'd happened to hit the time & day they had the changing of the guard in front of La Moneda palace.  The square was a great place for the kids to run around, and we had a good spot on the barricades to see the mounted units & band marching in and out.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Around Bariloche, Feb. 2015

We spent a week in early February in Bariloche.  As in much of our travels, we rented a house in town and then did day trips.  Our house, from Air BnB, was great.  It was a couple of K outside of town, which complicated grocery shopping, but included a garden with a play house, which was perfect for our family.

Bariloche has a good public transit system, so we used buses half the time and then rented a car for a couple of days.  Those days, we could have taken package tours, but having our own transit gave us more flexibility.  It was our first time renting and car and driving in Argentina, and driving in town was an experience, particularly the uncontrolled intersections.  We also paid more attention to the gas stations, which often had lines for cars lined up waiting for the pump.

Our first day trip was a boat drip on Lago Nahuel Huapi to the National Park of the Arrayanes.  Google translate tells me the arrayan is "myrtle" in English.  This is a microscopic national park within the larger national park that surrounds Bariloche, and includes a stand of Arrayanes.  The boat ride across the lake was lovely, and it dropped us at one end of the Arrayan woods to do a short walk on a boardwalk through the trees.  These are trees that are regularly found alongside creeks, and usually only grow to be large bushes, but here have formed a woods.  They were lovely, their brownish trunks rising off the forest floor.
Another day, we took the city bus out to Lago Gutierrez, one of many in the national park, that had a waterfall, a hike, and the possibility of swimming in the lake.  The kids were determined to swim as much as possible.  The waterfall, the waterfall of the Duendes (fairy folk), was tiny.  From there, we walked up to a lookout over the lake.    Mike and I enjoyed the view while the kids played under a tree in the shade.

 Since it was a nice sunny day, and Lago Gutierrez has a nice beach, on the way back to the bus stop, the kids wanted to play in the water.  In the absence of bathing suits, they stripped down and hopped in.  I think it was a little chilly despite being  warm summer day.

 The next day, we had a car and drove the Llao Llao circuit.   Llao Llao is another name for pan de indio, an edible fungus.  This is a short drive around a peninsula within the national park.  There is a famous old hotel there, which we tried to visit but the security really didn't want us to park.  We did a short hike through lots of cañya colihue, and then a longer hike around to Cerro Llao Llao.  At this point, we didn't understand why all of the caña colihue canes were brown and sere.  We later cornered a park ranger and learned that this plant has a massive bloom cycle every 50 years or so, and had bloomed 10 year ago.  So the head canes were from that bloom cycle, and the rest was new growth.  The canes apparently last a very long time without rotting, again not something we're used to in the Pacific Northwest, where rotting is quick.
This is a view of the Llao Llao peninsula from a chairlift.   It includes some of Lake Nahuel Huapi as well as several other lakes.  These are partially glaciall-fed, but mostly from rainfall and snow melt from the Andes, and not nearly the same blue-green, glacial milk color of Lago Argentina farther south.  

Maeve and Silas passed a lot of the day carrying around caña colihue canes.  The also did a lot of Army marching.  This was particularly helpful around Cerro Llao Llao, where we somehow got off on a side trail, as usual, before backtracking to find the main trail that would lead to our car.

Afterwards, we went swimming.  The first swimming hole we walked to was off a dock, not a beach, so we walked another K or 2 to a nice bay.  We all got in - Mike and I wading and the kids got wet.  It was cold. 

The next day, we went to Villa la Angostura, a town on the north side of Lake Nahuel Huapi. It's another cute tourist town, and has the shortest river in the world (they say) the 100 M or so Rio Correntoso, that flows from the Lago Correntoso to Lago Nahuel Huapi.  There's a trail alongside the river, and we walked the whole thing, from source to mouth.  Here's a photo of the kids on the footbridge crossing the river, with the new highway bridge, part of the improvements to interstate 40, the famous highway that runs the length of the Argentinean Andes. 

 Here's us at the source of the river, Lago Correntoso.  The lovely green plants in this photo are scottish broom.  This incredible plant in high summer has brown seed pods that dry out and pop in the sun, exploding seeds everywhere.  We found it throughout our walks around Bariloche, and had great fun pulling off the pods and exploding seeds at each other.  It is, like the pine tree, a horribly invasive species that crowds out the slower-growing native bushes.

What is a day in Nahuel Huapi park in summer without a stop at the beach?  This is the beach at Lago Correntoso.  The kids played in the water a bit, played a lot in the sand, and came out frozen.

The next day, bright and early to beat the tourist buses and hit the time points for the one-way roads, we headed out to the Cerro Tronador part of the park.  Tronador (thunderer) is the biggest mountain in the Bariloche part to the Andes and is on the border with Chile.   We took our little rental car, heading out of town going south on highway 40, a newly paved blacktop road, and quickly got to the turnoff for Tronador.  From there it was a slow ride over gravel roads.  Going in was good. No traffic, no dust, just us and a waterfall.

Our first stop was Casacada los Alerces (Waterfall of the Larches).  This lovely little waterfall, reached from a short walk on trail and boardwalks (there are lots and lots of boardwalks in the Argentinean national parks), is where the Rio Manso (Sluggish River, huh?) drops from the highlands near el Tronador down to it's meandering park (lower Rio Manso that gives it its name) until is meanders over the Andes to its outlet in the Pacific.  The water was an amazing color.

We had some issues with understanding the westward flow of an Argentinean river - how is a river that has an outlet in the Pacific in Argentina?  Where is the Continental Divide?    It turns out this is a rather contentious issue.  Perrito Moreno, he of the name of the famous El Califate glacier, was an Argentian explorer and government official.  He was charged, among other things, with exploring the Andes region and getting more Argentinians to settle there to substantiate their claim to the un-explored territory.  He negotiated a complicated treaty with Chile which ultimately gave all of the land until the tallest mountains to Argentina, even though this territory had originally been explored and settled from over the Andes in Chile, not from the Argentinian plains.  This was true of the native Americans - the Mapuche went over the mountains into Argentina in response to pressure from Spanish conquistadores radiating out from Peru.  They were later followed by Spanish missionaries from Chile who crossed the Andes to evangelize and calm tensions with the Native Americans on the east side of the mountains that were raiding Spanish settlements on the west side. Moreno helped devise Argentina's strategy for claiming all the land east of the Andes by creating land-grant incentives to settlers and creating Argentina's first national park, Nahuel Huapi, in the disputed area around Bariloche. 

After the waterfall, it was another drive on a dirt/gravel road through the park to the Ventisquero Negro, or Black Glacier.  This glaciEr falls off of snow & glaciers on top of El Tronador, and in the process gets lots of dirt mixed in, therefore the name.  So it's a glacier formed from snow and glacial droppings from another glacier farther up El Tronador, which gets its name from the thundering sound of falling snow and ice.  This glacier is rapidly retreating.  It's the start of Rio Manso, and there is a new (in the last couple of decades) lake that has formed as the glacier retreats.  There's an awesome lookout, and we, in our little rentacar, got there right before the hoards of tourist buses, so we had it to ourselves for lunch.

After Tronador we drove to the end of the road where there was a cafe (a truism in Argentina) and a short walk up a creek to a waterfall called Garganta del Diablo (devil's throat).  It was a nice little waterfall but not to be confused with the Garganta del Diablo at Iguazu..  We saw lizards and played a lot in the rocks on the side of the creek.  We saw a lot of lizards in Patagonia.  Jumping on rocks in water, throwing rocks in water, and generally playing in water keeps the kids happy. 

Farther down the mountain at Pampa Linda, we took a hike to another waterfall, Saltillo de las Nalcas.  This is another tiny little waterfall, reached through a short hike through lots of caña colihue, crossing the Rio Manso, and with several excellent views of El Tronador.

There was a multi-day partner race through the mountains that was spending the night after one long leg from Bariloche to Pampa Linda, to cross over to another mountain hut the next day.  On the way out, we were behind a nice line of cars with exhausted runners & walkers slogging uphill in the car dust.  They were amazing, keeping moving in horrible dusty conditions, and provided entertainment to the kids on our slow way out of the park.

Our last full day in Bariloche, we went rafting on the Rio Manso.  It was called rafting, but it was more like floating.  Several companies from Bariloche will take you rafting for similar prices on similar stretches of the Rio Manso for a similar duration, and we picked the company that had space on the warmest day and provided wet suits.   Just because summer in Bariloche isn't really all that warm.  

It turned out to be a lovely day, maybe 70 degrees in the sun, so on an even slower than usual stretch of the river, we got out for a swim.

The float/swim was another great way to look at the mixed Cedar/Notofagus forest and enjoy meandering through the park.   The kids quickly learned how to identify the cedars (pointy) and the lenga (round) trees.  The Rio Manso here really is manso (placid), nothing like the Cascada los Alerces in the upper part of the river.    The water here is very clear, which we'd noticed at the waterfall.  There is a big change in water quality from the upper river, which has a lot of glacial milk (see the milky lake in the Ventisquero Negro photo above), to the lower river, which is crystal clear.  Most of the glacial milk sediments in Lago Mascardi which leaves the vibrant but clear colors we saw. The river drops very little from the Cascada (also lovely blue-green) where we'd been the day before, to the border with Chile where it flows over the Andes and into the Pacific. 

The kids were pretty cold after the swim and didn't paddle much the whole trip, but there wasn't much need.  A couple times Mike and I had to pull our weight for all of 15 strokes or so, but it was mostly the guide. At the end, we met the van with dry clothes and had a snack with hot cocoa and bread with yummy dulce de leche in a cafe next to the river, conveniently situated for all those rafting and fishing tourists.  What is a day in nature without a nearby cafe!

From Bariloche, we were heading across the Andes again to meet friends (Miguel - Mike's former officemate, Ceclia, Jose Miguel, Martin, and Ray the dog) in Pucón.  We had a lot of trouble figuring out the international bus connections from abroad, since we don't have either Chilean or Argentinian national identity numbers,  but eventually worked with a travel agent based out of San Martin de los Andes to get us a transfer to San Martin de los Andes and then an international bus to Pucón.  The route over the border went past the Volcano Lanin, and through steppe with lots of Araucania trees, as shown in the foreground of the photo taken near the border crossing.  These trees are very interesting conifers and an emblematic tree in Chile, giving their name to the region around Pucón.

This was our 3rd time crossing the Argentina-Chile border. We got out of the bus in Argentina, threw out all our organic trash, had our visas processed out with the other 50 passengers.  Wandered around outside where they are building a new toll booth.  Got back in the bus and drove a kilometer, where we did the same thing in Chile in a much nicer building with more serious customs check, we took off our luggage which was sniffed for money, drugs and agricultural products.  Then on though highway construction on the Chilean side, widening and paving the road all the way from Pucón to the border.