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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Homeward Bound

As Simon & Garfunkel famously sang - I'm homeward bound. I'm headed to the US for a few weeks and, I'm not gonna lie, I'm pretty excited! I imagine myself now, only hours away from wandering the aisles of Target and Wegmans, overwhelmed by the selection of cereals that come without a sugar-coating. I was out to lunch yesterday with another expat friend and we talked wistfully about the beauty of Target - and how we are quite certain Target would thrive in Bs.As. Honestly, I don't know why this international branch hasn't happened yet. But, I digress....

So the original reason that I planned this trip to the US was because Jon had a 3-week business trip to Houston and Thailand. This all went to the wayside when Thailand, one of the most peaceful countries around, decided to go off the deep end in a wave of political strife, thus canceling Jon's trip to that part of the world. If not that, also the fact that he was going to fly through a volcano's wake to get there. Needless to say, I'm relieved that he's not going. It doesn't change the fact that I am still headed to the US today, our carefully orchestrated trip has gone array.

Speaking of well orchestrated trips, I should shed light to the easiest way we've found to travel between the US and Argentina. United Airlines has an amazing non-stop flight to Washington Dulles Airport that takes off at 9:00pm and goes through the night. This is amazing for a few reasons:
  1. The time zones are only 1 hour apart, so no jet lag.
  2. If you can sleep on the flight (I do with help from wine and Simply Sleep) it's like a regular night's sleep.
  3. It's direct so no layover, no taking your bags through customs in the US and if you buy something from Duty Free, you don't have to stuff it in your luggage for the next flight!
Personally, I think it's easier than a red-eye to California. The flight isn't that much more expensive than a connection flight either. All around, the best way to go.

So that's what's going on in the Gill abode. I'm feeling a little torn on what to actually call home, so for now, it's still the US and coincidentally, still my parent's house. And lucky for me, they're willing to pick me up at 6am.

Bien vuelo!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Buenos Aires Bus Tour

From the day Jon's parents arrived, they were up for any site seeing we had planned. The only thing that they had on their agenda and wanted to do was tour the city on an open air bus. I've seen the bus drive by our apartment for a few months now and was waiting for some riding companions, so this was a perfect opportunity for me. We waited for three long days of rain before we found a day that was suitable for an open air tour, and on that first nice day we consulted the website for ways to buy tickets for the tour. According to the Buenos Aires Bus site, tickets come in one ($70 pesos) or two ($90 pesos) day passes with multiple ways to purchase tickets:

1) On the bus at any of the stops (Bust!)
2) At the main bus terminal
3) At the FlechaBus window at the Retiro Bus Terminal (Didn't attempt)
4) Online, printing the tickets out at home (Bust! It turns out that this is a "coming soon" feature on their website)

During the "high season" the bus starts at 9:00am during the "low season" they start at 9:30am and ends at 5:30pm throughout the year. It is unclear as to what constitutes that high or low season - but we weren't planning on taking the tour that early anyways. So we waited next to the Buenos Aires Bus sign for the 12:30pm scheduled stop across from the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Recoleta. This stop actually happened at 12:45pm. We boarded the bus only to find an unapologetic on-board tour guide that was fresh out of tickets. She recommended that we either go home and print out tickets, wait for the next bus (which, she mentioned, may also be out of tickets) or go to the main bus terminal at the corner of Av. Roque Saenz Peña & Florida Ave. - this sounded like the best option. The main bus terminal is located in Microcentro near the President's House (Casa Rosa or the Pink House) in an area known for it's frequent protests. We were in luck, we had to exit our taxi and walk to the bus terminal because the streets were closed for a protest (seen here on the left). The protest was complete with a riot line of police and loud fireworks making this trip to the bus terminal much more eventful than we had anticipated.
We were able to work our way through the protest to purchase tickets for the tour around 1:15pm, but as we purchased our tickets, the clerk said that the 1:30pm bus was full and we needed to wait for the 2:00pm bus - and our tickets reflected this change. Along came the 1:30 bus, half-empty, so we boarded with our 2:00pm tickets. No sooner did we think that we were actually going to take the tour when the guide came and kicked us off of the bus, we had been ratted out by one of the other patrons for boarding the earlier bus. So we diligently waited for the 2:00pm bus, completing close to 2 hours since we originally left my house for the tour.

Once we actually got on the bus, with correct tickets, and a tour guide that let us stay, the tour was a nice way to see the entire city. Each seat came with a set of headphones for an audio tour that you can plug into any one of 10 available languages. The audio tour offered some information, but to me it stopped just short of being truly informative. For example, this beautiful statue to the right was described as a monument to a shipwreck off the coast of Argentina. While the ship was sinking, a man gave his lifejacket to a pregnant woman, a gesture that lead to his death. Although a beautiful story, the audio tour stopped short of any details of the wreck, the ship, the passengers or why this statue was erected in Puerto Madero.

The bus had 12 scheduled stops, so you can exit the bus and walk any one area then pick up the next bus to stop by, generally 30 minutes later. We did not exercise this option, and coincidentally, we watched as the driver passed a group of riders that had gotten off in the colorful, and mildly shifty neighborhood of Boca. The tour lasted a total of 2 hours 45 minutes, although we got off one stop early to avoid the protest on our trip home. This tour was a good way of seeing areas of Bs.As. that I would otherwise not have visited, and places that you may only want to spend 5 or 10 minutes driving by. It also helps to give a good layout of the city for anyone who takes the tour during one of their first few days here. All in all, I recommend the walking tour for some better information and history about the city. For as difficult as the bus tour company made it to take their tour, I would not recommend this tour to visitors.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Anuva Wine Tasting

We've been looking for interesting things to do with people while they visit, preferably involving food and wine. I've heard about a few people that run services out of their homes, cooking classes, dinners, but we had never booked anything until I heard of a local wine tasting put on by Anuva Wines. Anuva is an interesting concept, Daniel Karlin started a company that finds great wines on their own and then sells them to private buyers through a wine club, private tastings and home shipping. The US$40.00 tasting included all things that I find interesting, 5 wines, 5 food pairings and a chance to meet some new people in Bs.As., so I signed the four of us (Jon's parents, me and Jon) up for a Wednesday evening tasting.

Anuva Wines is located near/in the Las Canitas neighborhood of Palermo, so we immediately decided to go to Morelia afterward. We were at least 20 minutes late to our tasting reservation due to the crazy rush hour traffic when we arrived at a nondescript apartment building and pushed the appropriate buzzer. This was my moment of panic - Did I really just bring my in-laws to a stranger's apartment in a foreign country? I sure did. So I started the "If-it's-not-good-at-least-it-was-an-adventure" excuses. Luckily, we were greeted by a nice young lady that escorted us to the tasting apartment and she quickly put my mind at ease. When we arrived at the apartment, the table was set with 5 food bites that paired with our wines and 3 other people that had arrived on time to the tasting. We dove right in to the first tasting, a unique sparkling white called Hom (pictured), paired with 2 fresh sorbets served in adorable little shot glasses. I was loving the Hom, enough to buy a bottle at the end of the tasting. The wines were quite good (with the exception of one Malbec that I personally didn't like) and the food pairings were spot on to the point of impressive. We left with 4 bottles of take home wine and a case ordered for delivery to Jon's parents when they arrived back in Virginia (that's right, they ship to the States!). Daniel is extremely knowledgeable about wines and does a good job of explaining the wines as you're tasting them. It was a unique and fun night - and I recommend booking your own wine tasting or placing an order. We enjoyed our evening and are still contemplating joining the Anuva Wine Club where you can opt to receive up to 48 bottles per year.

Now for my two cents. Not that I'm any expert, but my years in the restaurant industry have made me cynical of these types of events. I have two recommendations for improvement:
1) Slow it down. It was a relatively rushed presentation that could have allowed for more conversation about the wines and between the customers that didn't. If we diverted from discussion about the wine, Daniel quickly brought us back to the task at hand. I think that slowing down the presentation would help the patrons feel more comfortable and help with the wine sales.
2) Keep everyone on the same level. As wine tasters we were all sitting around a table, tasting the food and wine while our presenter stood above us walking around the table. This gave the tasting a teacher/student feel, which would be better off played as a peer/peer feel. Sit down. Have a glass of wine. It would create a more comfortable and relaxing environment, holding true to the company's theme.

All in all, a great night with delicious food and wine. We enjoyed meeting the other people at the tasting, Daniel was a gracious host and we have a fun, unique evening under our belts. We found out that Daniel will do in-home events, so we're thinking that this may be our next party to host.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Iguazu Falls - Wildlife

When we booked a trip to Iguazu Falls, I expected to see some great waterfalls, what I didn't expect was that abundance of wildlife surrounding the falls. According to the guidebooks, there are over 430 bird and 70 mammal species in the park and I'll bet there is every bit of that. We were only 5 steps into the Sheraton lobby when we saw a flock of toucans fly by the back window. After checking into our room, we looked out over the balcony and got our first glimpse of a coatimundi, this South American cousin to the raccoon. We saw a "herd" of these little scavengers the first day and then Thom ended up face to face with the crew in this photo on our Upper Circuit walk. It turns out that these guys are around almost all of the time. We saw them on the sidewalks, hanging out under tables in the cafe areas and we even saw a really shifty one crawl out of a covered trash can.



My proudest moment came when I got some great pictures of a toucan in the wild. We found this beauty on our way back from visiting the Devil's Throat falls just posing on top of a tree. All afternoon we had seen them fly by, as perfect as if they were carrying Guinness drafts on their little beaks, but to see one sitting stationary was just too perfect. It was much easier than I anticipated to spot them, those beaks stand out like shiny pennies, I just couldn't believe there were so many of them. I'm glad we saw these toucans in the wild first because the next day we spent a couple of hours at the Parque das Aves (Bird Park) in Brazil and came closer than I thought possible to a whole lot of toucans there.



Parque das Aves: This bird park is located just outside the Brazilian Iguazu park entrance. The current entrance fee is US$12.00 per person and in my opinion, worth every penny. The park is a walk through the jungle that has large bird houses for all sorts of birds, focusing on parrots and toucans. There are also 3 or 4 huge walk-through cages that allow you to walk inside with the birds. This was cool. We got so close to the birds that I thought this one was going to take Thom's watch in his beak and fly off. He was reaching for anything shiny.


This video is from a non-zoomed lens, showing just how close you could get to these sweet birds.

video

Aside from the toucans, which are obviously cool, the bird park also has a large walk through area with butterflies and hummingbirds - my favorite! I was thrilled to get these hummingbird shots, I am not exaggerating when I say that I've been waiting to get these types of photos for years.
Thank goodness for digital cameras because I would have probably spent our life savings on film if I was working with an old-school camera. Additionally, there are plenty of other animals to be seen, we saw a few turtles, lizards and some huge scary looking fish. You cannot walk more than 5 steps into any of these paths without being surrounded by butterflies, which adds a mystical feeling to your trip. I've heard that there are also monkeys in the area, but we missed seeing any of them.

To sum up Iguazu, we had an amazing time and I recommend this vacation to anyone that asks. My only words of caution; if you're planning a trip be sure to consider that it is hot in that part of the world so you may try to avoid the summer months (Jan - March) when the mosquitoes are rampant and the heat is unbearable.

Do you have recommendations from your trip to the Falls? Please share!

In other news, Happy Birthday Mom! See you in a few days!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Iguazu Falls - Brazil

Iguazu Falls are situated in a large U-shape, the majority of the waterfalls are located on the Argentina side, making the best panoramic view available on the Brazil side. Some of our friends that had visited Iguazu before us recommended that we spend a day in Brazil, so we jumped through hoops to get our Brazilian Tourist Visas and spent Day 2 of our vacation hoping that we had made a good choice. To ruin the surprise, at the end of the day we left Brazil agreeing that this was a great decision. The best way to describe it is that on the Argentina trails you are standing on top of waterfalls and on the Brazil trails you are looking at the falls from across the Lower Iguazu River.

Entering the Brazil side of Iguazu National Park requires a separate park entry fee, as of our visit on April 17, 2010 the entry fee was $37.00 pesos per person. (Again, this fee is cheaper if you are an Argentine, Brailian or Paraguayan citizen) Although this fee is less than half the price it takes to enter the Argentine side, the Brazil side of the park looks to be about 30 years more advanced and 3 times as expensive. After paying the entrance fee, you pass a large, fancy souvenir shop on your way to the double-decker air-conditioned tour bus that hand delivers you to a number of designated stops in the park. Our destination was stop #3, the Waterfalls Path. This path takes you along the river's edge and then up to two different tiers of waterfalls on the Brazil side. The views from this path are unbelievable. There are more amazing waterfalls in every direction. If you have an SLR camera, buy a wide angle lens before you visit and bring it. You'll need it. The Brazil side of the park offered a completely different perspective on the falls, if you're willing to put up with the red tape Brazil throws up for Americans (and Canadians, and Australians and citizens of these other countries) it's worth the trip.

After the trail of amazing views, I had to put my camera away and pull the rain shield over my camera case so that we could complete the trail. When you get close to the waterfalls, the trail divides into two paths, one that takes you right up to a waterfall and another that walks out on a second tier so that you are standing in between the two levels of falls. Both paths are impressive. It doesn't look like much from the pictures, but after completing these trails you will be soaking wet. Don't get me wrong, at this point in the day we welcomed getting cooled off by the mist, it was H.O.T. For Jon's birthday he got a new little digital camera from his parents, an amazing gift that allowed us to get these great videos. This video shows the full impact of the falls from the walkway. You also get a great shot of me looking like a hot mess.

video

I know I've said it before, but I could have spent all day just looking at and listening to the water. It's a sight to be seen and I will gladly go on this trip again with other visitors. My first words to my parents when we got back were "You have to take that trip." It is truly breathtaking, and like Elaine, I don't use that word lightly.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Iguazu Falls - Argentina, Part 2

Ready for the exciting continuation of Iguazu Falls - Argentina? I know I am.

Iguazu Falls is located in the Iguazu National Park which covers land in Argentina and Brazil. As of April 2o10, entry into the Argentina side of the park costs $85 pesos per person for non-Argentine citizens. The charges are less if you can produce a DNI, the national identity card for Argentine citizens. We found this to be the case throughout our visit to Iguazu, it helps to be an Argentine citizen, most fees are cheaper for you. And airline tickets are 50% of the cost. Not that I'm bitter... Anyways...

There are a number of trail circuits that park entry gains you access to, the main ones are the Upper Circuit, the Lower Circuit and the Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat). The trail photos I posted in Iguazu Falls - Argentina, Part 1 were from the Upper Circuit. After the soaking boat ride, our boat docked at the end of the Lower Circuit and we hiked back to the hotel from there. As a side note, if you are not interested in the jungle part of the Iguazu Jungle tour, you can hike down the Lower Circuit to the river and pick up the boat tour from there, this also shaves some money off of the tour price ($100 pesos per person - half price - although the ride only lasts 12 minutes vs our hour long tour). This same dock is where the boats to San Martin Island depart. We did not do the San Martin circuit, mainly because we didn't have time. The walk starts with 172 stairs, so it's not for the faint of heart, but the island looks to be home to an amazing number of birds and situated right in the middle of the main strip of waterfalls so I imagine that it's worth the stairmaster training.


We decided that since we were already wet from the boat tour, a little mist wouldn't hurt. Here are Jon and I at arms length of one of the falls on the Lower Circuit:

The Falls seen from here are a little less frightening for those that fear heights, but no less spectacular.
After finishing the Lower Circuit, we stopped by the hotel to get cleaned up and have some lunch. The last big circuit to complete was the Garganta del Diablo, so we walked over to the small passenger train that transports folks from the park entrance and the Sheraton to the beginning of the Devil's Throat path. The train is pretty hilarious, it's similar to the park-touring train you may see at an amusement park, but much older and slower. As slow and uncomfortable as the train is, it is a welcome sight after all of the walking involved in the day. The train drops off at the start of a 1,100 meter trail that ends at Devil's Throat. Devil's Throat is the name of another waterfall, a huge, 2-tiered waterfall that wraps around from the sidewalk end to Brazil. The trail to Devil's Throat is a serene walk, riddled with animals and butterflies, you would never guess that just a few meters away the water drops almost 270 feet. I think this video describes the view better than any photo could.

video

The trails and scenery throughout the park is remarkable. I could have spent all day just watching and listening to the water. It is unbelievable how much water there is - it just keeps coming. In total, we had a very full day on the Argentina side of the falls and I feel like we accomplished everything that we really needed to, but given another chance, I would spend at least 2 days on this side of the falls. I think it's great to walk the falls with a camera, but given another day I would do all of the trails again but leave the camera at home and just enjoy the view.

More Iguazu Falls coming up next, stay tuned for the Brazil side of the falls!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Iguazu Falls - Argentina Part 1

Iguazu Falls, Wow. This is a must-do trip for anyone that has more than a week in South America. Iguazu Falls are located in the northeast part of Argentina where Argentina meets Brazil and Paraguay. I have broken our trip up into three blog post installments, the Argentina side, the Brazil side and wildlife. I will add that I took over 1,000 photos during our 3 days in Iguazu and I don't feel like any of them really do the waterfalls justice. April was a great time to visit because it's still warm out but not riddled with mosquitoes, the heavy tourism season is over so the park is not crowded and the dry season has not started to the falls have plenty of water to, well, fall.

Let's begin at the beginning. After multiple hours of airport delays discussed in my Jorge Newbery post, we were ready to be at our vacation spot. We arrived at the Argentinian Iguazu Airport in the late afternoon and caught a cab (Andrés Vera, I highly recommend him as a driver and we used him for all of our other travel as well - check the Services page for his information) to our hotel, the Sheraton Iguazu Resort & Spa. There are quite a few hotels to choose from, but if you are able to swing the slightly higher room rate, the Sheraton is worth it. When booking rooms at the Sheraton, there is a choice between a jungle view and falls view room. There is a difference in the price here as well, but the falls view rooms are really spectacular. Even if you don't go for the falls view, the Sheraton is a great location because it is inside Iguazu National Park and the trails surrounding the waterfalls are only a few meters from the hotel doors.
Here is a view of the falls from our hotel room balcony:
The hotel is situated so that you see the falls from the restaurants, bars, reception desk and the pool. It's a pretty awesome backdrop. The park is easy to navigate and it is unnecessary to book anything prior to visiting the falls. I was concerned that we had not booked any tours or activities during our stay, but it turns out that this is completely normal. We were able to book our boat tour through a representative stationed in our hotel and the rest of our sightseeing took place through the amazing walking paths through the park that begin as you walk out of the hotel doors. Lets start with the walking paths.

It was hard to capture pictures of each other during the walk because we were all busy taking pictures of the Falls. This picture of Jon perfectly captures the walkways that line the Argentina side of the Falls. The walkways are secure, but terrifying to anyone with a fear of heights (ie - me). If you look closely at the walkway itself, it is made out of that metal see-through grating, and you are literally standing on top of the waterfalls. The photo to the right is not zoomed, that is how close you are to the falls, pretty cool.

Touring the falls was especially easy because the Iguazu Jungle tour company seems to be the only tour company around. We opted for the Great Adventure tour which includes a 25 minute jeep ride through the jungle and a 20 minute boat ride into the falls for $200 pesos per person. The tours leave every hour and include a bilingual tour guide for the jeep ride to talk about trees and wildlife in the area. The tour has quite a few stairs at the end to get back to the hotel, but nothing too strenuous. You want to wear a bathing suit and bring as few items as possible to the tour because the "shower" they promise is more like a "submerge". The company provides waterproof bags, but many of the bags were damp inside so we wrapped our cameras in our extra clothes and then put them in the bags. The captain takes the boat to two different waterfalls, but keeps his distance at first so that you can take pictures like this one. Rest assured that the captain drove the boat directly into the waterfalls. At first it was a little shower, and then it was a holy-crap-are-we-really-this-close-to-the-rocks drenching. There were a few moments when I was not sure we would get out of the boat alive. Once we did, I viewed the boat ride as a really fun time.

In an attempt to keep my blog posts shortened to a manageable level, I will stop here. Stay tuned for Iguazu Falls - Argentina, Part 2!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Ice Bound - Dr. Jerri Nielsen

I love to read and generally I read most while I am traveling or on vacation. Since I am on vacation now, I thought it was a perfect time to introduce my first book review to the blog. I have never claimed to be a writer, but here is my humble opinion on a book that I have recently finished.

I read Ice Bound at the recommendation of my mom, who got the book from my brother Chris as a Christmas gift. You may remember from my Return From Antarctica post, Chris worked as a firefighter in Antarctica for 6 months so I can only assume that is what attracted him to this book. Most people that I have talked to have heard the story of the woman who diagnosed her own breast cancer while living at the South Pole, though very few people know much about the details of this ordeal or how the story ends. This book is the full story, as told by Dr. Jerri Neilsen, the doctor herself.

I found Ice Bound to have an interesting insight into the people and world of Antarctica, which is truly a unique culture all its own. Jerri Neilsen realizes that she's due for a life change when her marriage goes bad, her divorce goes even worse, she looses her children and her sanity. She works as an ER doctor that flutters from nameless patient to nameless patient administering the health care that is expected of her as a doctor, but stops short of the compassionate personal touch she craves as a human being. She is fed up with the red tape that she is forced to work through everyday and when she reads an advertisement for a doctor at the South Pole, the opportunity is too good to pass up. The famous story begins while she is the only doctor among the 40+ "winter-over" individuals at the South Pole and she discovers a lump in one of her breasts. This story follows her personal pain as she suspects/realizes that she has breast cancer, the steps her company follows to help her through the process and the devastation of the only doctor in a closed population not being able to function to the level expected.

The author's pain and fear in this situation were enough to grab anyone. She struggles with the responsibility of being the only medical professional in a closed environment and needing skilled medical attention for herself. At times the author gets unrealistically deep into her love for the continent, the people, the job and the isolation, to the point where I feel she may recall her experiences with rose colored glasses as opposed to how things actually were, but that may just be my cynical side.

I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of time she dedicated to the people in Antarctica; the reasons someone chooses to leave their life behind and the connections that you make with people when put in a daily life-or-death situations. I appreciated the authors candor when describing her personal life, and although I don't totally understand her situation, I can sympathize with her feeling of hopelessness both with her broken family and her medical situation. More than anything, this book hit home for me because the many of the qualities that I see in my brother Chris were highlighted in this story. As with most guys, it is difficult to get a full and clear understanding of the people, relationships, trials, hardships and difficulties they encounter, especially when they are sent to an isolated world where email and an occasional phone conversation are the only connection you have. This is one area that Dr. Nielsen spends a significant amount of time. She describes in detail her reasons for leaving, and the reasons she loved her experience despite its complications. In this I can see the similarity in her feelings to the descriptions that Chris gave me about his experience, with a less emotional voice. I feel like I know a little more about my middle brother and his reasons for going to Antarctica, in addition to understanding his reasons for wanting to return at the end of this year.

I was captivated by the remarkable story of a woman and her battle for survival, and know now that I do NOT want my brother to spend a year isolated at the South Pole, but was surprised at the clarity this book brought to my understanding of the reasons someone chooses such an extreme lifestyle. I recommend this book, knowing full well that my level of personal connection may have skewed my opinion. I recommend it to the general population anyway.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Aeroparque Jorge Newbery

Also known as the "other" Buenos Aires airport, Aeroparque Jorge Newbery (airport code: AEP) is the source of most of the domestic flights in Argentina. This airport also offers flights to Argentina's South American neighbors like Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chili and Peru. We first discovered Jorge Newbery when I was booking my flight from the US to Buenos Aires and my heart momentarily stopped when I realized that there were two airports in Bs. As. and I had no idea which one I was supposed to book. This proved to be an unnecessary panic attack. Jorge Newbery does not have any direct flights from the US, and we always use the amazing United Airlines direct overnight flight from Washington, Dulles to Buenos Aires, Ezeiza Airport. Therefore, if we are flying without a connection, we're not flying to Jorge Newbery.

Jorge Newbery is actually a much closer airport for us. Located in Palermo, this airport is only a 15 minute cab ride from our apartment versus Ezeiza, which is close to 22 miles away. It's even more convenient because we can hail a cab outside our apartment instead of hiring a Remis in advance, which involved much more organization and advanced notice. The two major airlines that work out of Jorge Newbery are Aerolineas Argentinas and LAN, both government owned. We have found that Aerolineas Argentinas has better flight times, prices and flight frequency so for the two domestic trips that we've booked so far (Bariloche and Iguazu Falls), this is the airline we've used. Apparently, we are not alone, the ticket lines for AA were packed this morning.

Today we are on our way to Iguazu and we have hit our first hiccup in the Aerolineas Argentinas system. A few weeks ago I received an email that our flight time had changed from 11:30am to 9:20am, and that our tickets were automatically confirmed for the earlier flight. Sounds great. Then we arrive at the airport at our earlier designated time only to find that the flight before ours was canceled leading to a domino effect that left us without seats on the 9:20am flight. We then were rebooked on a 1:30pm flight. Not a huge inconvenience for us, but we would have preferred to sleep in and have a leisurely morning versus spending a few extra hours getting to know Jorge Newbery better. The only redeeming factor was that we were given a "light snack" voucher to spend at the airport for our inconvenience. Wish us luck!

The guys are sad over our airport delay. Lornie doesn't seem to mind.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Fervor

Posadas 1519, Recoleta - Tonight we finally tried a restaurant that has been recommended to us for a while now. We were originally going to go to Sottovoce but Jon's parents wanted to try a more traditional place that serves the grilled meats that Argentina is known for. We decided on Fervor, a restaurant that was recommended for it's steak dishes and extensive seafood items, something that is relatively rare here in Bs. As. The irony of it all was when I visited Fervor's website, I realized that the restaurant is run by the same owners of Sottovoce, so we really got the best of both worlds. Just like it's Italian sister, Fervor starts your meal with a great plate of cheese, pickled vegetables and cured meats. They also have a great, seemingly unlimited selection of breads that they bring to the table immediately after you sit down. The differences between Fervor and and Sottovoce really begin when you open the menu and see the long list of meat items that they have to offer. There is a list of beef and pork cuts and types of seafood to choose from, and then a list of salads and sides that you order separately, but you will want to go along with your big plate of meat. We each chose a different beef item, probably better described in pictures, so here goes:

Lornie's "Asado" which looked to me like an enormous rack of beef ribs.
Jon's Dad's "Ojo de Bife" - FYI, it was 450 grams.
Jon's petite filet, the 400 gram "Lomo"
My "Brochette de Lomo", it came on a skewer and the waiter removed the skewer for me, which I appreciated even if it made for a less appetizing picture.

Everyone agreed that the meal was delicious. We also ordered mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, grilled vegetables and french fries, which we clearly did not need. It was nice to have something to cut the meat though, even if we weren't able to finish it all. All in all, Fervor makes the list of places we will now frequent when we're looking for a meat fix. Two thumbs up!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Brazilian Tourist Visas


We have been compiling a list of places to visit while living in Buenos Aires, and the destination that tops that this list is Iguazu Falls. Iguazu Falls are comprised of a strip of 250 falls over a 2 mile strip nestled between the northeastern tip of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. With Jon's parents visiting in April, after the major mosquito season is over, we planned a trip to Iguazu while they are in town. Through recommendations from our friends, we were told that the trip could be maximized by spending time on the Brazilian side of the Falls. As we soon learned, as Americans, we need to obtain a tourist visa to step foot in Brazil, even if it's only for a few hours. This is a direct result of America requiring Brazilians to obtain a visa before coming into the USA, including a fee that matches what the US charges - referred to as a "reciprocity fee". As of today, this fee is listed as $130 for a 90-day visa, yikes! We have been assured that this fee is worth it, I'll update you on whether we feel the same way after we return.

The interesting part of this process was the difference between the steps listed on the Brazil Embassy website versus the actual steps that we were required to take, so if you are in the market for a Brazilian visa - Beware! I read a number of blogs on the subject before we started the process, so we were ready to be surprised, but each person has a slightly different version of the process (us included). We spoke to a Canadian couple standing behind us in line for their visas and they had changed all of their reservations based on what they heard from friends, and in the end, this was an unnecessary inconvenience. So, here is how the process for an American obtaining a Brazilian tourist visa in Argentina panned out for us:
  • Fill out the online visa application form. Jon's parents were prepared enough to do this ahead of time, I filled out some other form that was expired so I filled the forms out when we got to the Brazilian Consulate. The goal is to have an application number, which is part of your form submission confirmation.
  • Go to the Brazilian Consulate building at - Carlos Pellegrini 1363 - Piso 5 from 9:00am to 1:00pm Monday - Friday. We went right at 9:00am and had approximately 6 people ahead of us. Bring with you:
  1. Your US passport that has at least 6 months left before it expires. You also need to have at least 2 empty pages in the back "visa" section.
  2. A 2x2 passport photo on white background. Neutral facial expression is best.
  3. Round trip travel information, they want to make sure that you're not going to stay in Brazil. We are not actually flying into Brazil, but our Iguazu, Argentina flight confirmation did the trick.
  4. Address and phone number of your hotel or overnight accommodations. Again, we are not staying in Brazil, but this was of no issue.
  5. A bank statement with the name of the account holder that proves you have at least US$1,000 in the bank.  The statement must be from the last 90 days, preferably printed that morning.  
  6. Tourist visa application number, if you were smart enough to get this in advance. If not (like me) you are able to get a number on the computers at the consulate, but they are s.l.o.w.
**Note: Some information we read stated that you need proof of a recent yellow fever vaccination,  proof of work in Argentina and various other documents. We did not need any of these items.
  • Bring this information up to the teller window. The teller fills out a paper, asks you a few questions, and has you sign your name on the paper (so each person requesting a visa must be present). This is the part where she takes your passport and photo (and I have a mild heart attack thinking that something will happen and she won't return them).
  • You will get a deposit slip with the address of a bank that you need to pay your reciprocity fee to. The teller told us to pay the fee and come back after 12:00pm the following day to receive our completed visas.
  • We went straight to the bank (approx 4 blocks away) and paid our fee. So far as I can tell, the bank will only accept Argentine pesos. The bank gives you a confirmation of payment slip - guard this with your life.
We returned to the Consulate the following day at noon to turn in our confirmation of payment and collect our passports with shiny new Brazilian visas inside, just like the teller said. We were also pleasantly surprised to find that the visas are good for 5 years, not the 90-days we were expecting. All in all, the process was not nearly as painful as I had expected, save a few extra errands. It was funny to see the same people in line at the Consulate, then the bank, then the Consulate again the following day. We head out to the Falls on Thursday, armed with our entry passes to Brazil!

UPDATE: The Brazilian Consulate has begun requiring appointments for all visa requests. This was only a mild issue for us, who did not have an appointment. The teller gave us a frustrated look and a sign when we told her that we did not have an appointment but she let us process our request that day regardless. I would recommend making an appointment, the next teller may not be so nice: Brazilian Tourist Visa appointment directions.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Recoleta Market

Buenos Aires is known for its outdoor fairs and markets, and the weekend really brings these markets to life. Recoleta has a great outdoor artisan market called Plaza Francia that runs each weekend, most commonly referred to as the "Hippie Fair". The early vendors start setting up on Friday afternoons between 3:00 and 4:00pm but the main event is really on Saturday and Sundays from around 1:00pm until 7:30pm or so, depending on how long it stays light outside. Vendors set up all around the Recoleta Cemetery (approximately at Av. Alvear and Posadas) selling everything from jewelry to clothing to musical instruments all for extremely reasonable prices. Later in the afternoon there are acts that set up live entertainment, during daylight hours this will be some sort of acrobatic or slapstick comedy act and at night there will be a live band. This may be my favorite of the outdoor markets that we've been to because it's huge and there is a large variety of items to choose from. I am slightly biased since we live so close to it, we can walk there any weekend we want. Everyone that we have brought to this fair has had good luck when it comes to finding gifts or souvenirs for themselves. Here are some of my favorite finds:
  • Turquoise necklace and earring set - I bought this set a few weeks ago on a Friday afternoon when the vendors were just getting set up. I really liked the set, but the necklace was really long at first so the woman who makes them shortened it for me while I stood there and waited. The vendor I went to gave me the English equivalent of the "early bird special" which included $20pesos off of the price. All in all I walked away with this beautiful set for around US$25.



  • Wood flower and mirror key holder - This was one of our first purchases when we discovered this market. The woman who sells these has all sorts of coat racks and key holders with and without mirrors. I really like the inlaid flowers and leaves and it looks great in our front hallway. We have some crazy dungeon-master keys to get into our apartment so this is really handy for keeping them straight. The only downside is that you have to use two huge screws to get it into the wall, and our walls are different than normal drywall, they tend to crumble when you nail or screw anything into them. We had a large pile of wall on our floors after we were satisfied that the mirror was secure.

  • Green and Blue pendant - This necklace was a gift from my mom when she was here visiting and I love it! It combines my two favorite jewelry colors and has a beautiful silver setting. The man who owns this jewelry stand had so many nice things, we loved almost everything that he made. Technically, this was purchased at the San Telmo market because we couldn't make up our minds when we first say the stand in Recoleta. We wanted to get back to his stand, but forgot to get back to him so we followed him to San Telmo, where he said that he works on Sundays. He was set up at the corner of Defensa and Mexico Streets and we basically cleaned him out when we found his Sunday stand.

Typically, there is not a whole lot of negotiating room in the prices, different than my experience in Mexico or the Caribbean. The exception is when you purchase more than one item from the same seller, there is more room to haggle at that point. I have noticed that the prices do change from week to week, so if you are interested in something - buy it when you're there.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Un Altra Volta

Quintana 456, Recoleta - Un Altra Volta is an ice cream/coffee/chocolates place. As part of Argentina's history, at one time there was an enormous Italian immigration that resulted in plenty of great Italian restaurants and a large number of gelato-style ice cream shops. Out of the numerous places to stop for ice cream (helados), Volta is by far our favorite. We have not tried them all, but I can say that it's the best ice cream I have ever had. If you're a caramel fan, the dulce de leche flavor is heaven. There are many variations of dulce de leche as well, some with cookies, chocolate pieces or bon bons mixed in with the creamy delight. We are both partial to their flavors that start with "Caramel and..." Jon prefers peanuts, I like the cappuccino. In your cuarto-kilo (my size in the picture) you can get up to 3 flavors (strawberry, dulce de leche and cappuccino caramel pictured). That day, Jon got a cone cup with dulce de leche and mango. I think he regretted the mango part. There is a short list of "Light" flavors that taste virtually as good as the originals. I have never asked to see the nutritional information so I couldn't tell you how light they really are. The best part here is that they are on every corner (almost) near us. Nix that. The best part is that they deliver.

Now that we have a small amount of Spanish and can hold a phone conversation without breaking into a sweat, we have become more reliant on the delivery option. From Capital Federal, you can call 4783-4048 and have delicious Volta delivered to you within the hour. Here is super-smiles Jon standing with our most recent home delivery of Volta, you'll notice the adorable little containers that come packed with plastic, dry ice and tape to keep the lids on. You may wonder why there are 3 containers for 2 people - for some reason when we called this time they asked us if we wanted to take advantage of an extra quarto-kilo for $10 pesos more. My answer was "Absolutely!". Delivery is free and the driver is happy for any tip you are willing to give them. This is a great option if you are ordering a larger amount of ice cream because they pack it extremely well in Styrofoam and dry ice and it keeps well in the freezer.

Un Altra Volta also offers sit down service in most of their many locations. All locations also sell small chocolate pieces and the larger locations also have a full service coffee bar. I know that we generally go there with a plan; get in, get ice cream, enjoy, so we have not taken advantage of their other offerings.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Christmas in April

It's true! Santa has arrived, in the form of Jon's parents coming to bring us goodies from the US. To follow up on yesterday's post, here are the items that Thom and Lornie graciously added to their luggage.

It's been like Christmas in April for us. So far as we know, as long as the food is not perishable, no one at the airport cares about bringing food items into the country. In addition to the items shown, Jon has a birthday coming up at the end of this month so I had some of his birthday gifts sent to his parents in advance.

If you are near central Virginia, there is a little town about 20 minutes off of highway 81 called Stuarts Draft. If you didn't know it was there, you probably would pass right by it without thinking twice, but it is the home of one of the greatest food stores I have ever been to. This great little place is called The Cheese Shop that has a wonderful variety of homemade items, baking ingredients, dried fruits and, of course, cheeses. This amazing spot was first introduced to me when my in-laws moved to Lexington, and they raved about this store that was ideal for folks that like to cook (just like me!). We went there to pick up a few items and I started with holding my findings in my arms, then I decided to get a shopping basket, then I broke down and got a cart. The shop has unique items like wasabi peas, chocolate covered espresso beans, trail mixes and all sorts of dried fruits. They also have every spice you could imagine and a variety of mixes for angel food cake, pizza dough, cookies, dips, soups and cakes.

Everything in this box has come from The Cheese Shop. Delish!
Thank you for all of our wonderful gifts! We want lots and lots of visitors while we're here, but beware, we will probably ask you to bring presents too!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Made in the USA

Jon's parents are coming to visit us tomorrow and in addition to being really excited about seeing them and showing off the area, there is another reason that we anxiously await their arrival. Visitors = Supplies. It's like adult-Christmas morning for us when people visit. We patiently pick them up from the airport, let them get settled in their rooms for a minute or two and then stare at their suitcases waiting to see what goodies lie within. So far, we have had parents visiting, so we have been shameless when it comes to asking them to smuggle items into the country. I got an email from Jon's mom the other day that proudly stated "We just finished packing two suitcases with the things you asked us to bring and they both weigh exactly 50 pounds! How perfect is that?" That's right. We have asked for 100 pounds of miscellaneous supplies to be brought to us from the good old US of A. What is it that we want? Here are some of our requested supplies -
  • Ziploc Bags - They sell them here, but only in packs of six.
  • Large Trash Bags - The trash cans here use bags the size of grocery bags. For us, that would last for approximately 20 minutes worth of trash.
  • Splenda Packets - I have recently seen this in the store, so we can now cross it off of the list.
  • Bath Towels - We have more bathrooms in this apartment than we had in the US, so we needed to bulk up on our towel supply. Unfortunately, the only towels that I have found here that don't feel like sandpaper cost US$50.00 each, so this made the list.
  • Angel Food Cake Mix - I'm not a big baker, and this is one of my go-to desserts. For some reason, this delicious cake has not made it to Argentina yet.
  • Frank's Hot Sauce - This is one of those items that you just can't substitute. I've tried, and the result was inferior.
  • Salad Dressing Packets - Salad dressing is just not a big thing here, generally people just use oil and vinegar. I love my cruet with one of those All Seasons dressing packets and with just the two of us, one packet lasts for a few nights worth of salad.
  • Reynold's Tin Foil - It's just better.
  • 100 Calorie Packs, especially Mr. Saltys - Our friends in the US used to make fun of us because our pantry was stocked full of 100 calorie packs of all varieties. They are perfect for a snack and made packing lunch many times easier. Unfortunately, this luxury has not yet made it down to our neck of the woods.
Some of our friends have other regular requests, the most popular being peanut butter. Luckily, we don't eat much peanut butter even when it is readily available so this isn't an issue for us. All in all, we can find most of what we need at the grocery stores here. It is a nice treat to have some goodies brought in from home, even if it means putting our visitors to work. We promise it's still worth the trip.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Getting Around

Jon and I have never been the type of people that specifically wanted to live downtown in a city. We never even entertained the "what if" scenarios to know what would happen if we were ever to live in a city so when we decided to get an apartment in Capital Federal Buenos Aires, we had a lot of decisions to make. One of the easiest decisions we came to was that after we sold our cars in the US, we would not look to buy a car in Argentina. The only tough part of this decision was made for us, we had no choice but to sell our cars as we left Virginia. An ode to my car, I loved my beautiful 2007 Honda Accord, and I'd be willing to say that my love was shared by most people who rode in it. That car was the preferred ride to many a football game, with it's roomy 4-person seating area and satellite radio, and the trunk fit the absurd amount of luggage that we inevitably pack for every trip we took. I take comfort in knowing that she went to a good home.

Now that we are car-less, we have become reliant on the public transportation system to get around the city. Lucky for us, there are quite a few options and they are all pretty easy to navigate.
  • The Bus (aka - El Colectivo) - This is Jon's ride to and from work each day. It works like a charm and picks up directly in front of our building. The key to the buses is this little book called a Guia"T", don't leave home without it. The book has two sections, one with maps where you look up where you are and where you're going and see which buses overlap and a second part that lists all of the buses and their routes. The other tip is that if you're planning on taking the bus, be sure to have coin change in your pockets - the buses only take coins. The cost ranges from $1.10 - $1.25 pesos per trip.
  • The Subway (aka - El Subte) - There are six subway lines in the city, each line having it's own color and letter that you can clearly see from this little map. The lines are referred to by their letters, but having ridden the Metro for so long, it's hard for me to break the habit of referring to the lines by color. Each stop is very clearly marked from the street and a 1-trip ticket will cost you $1.10 pesos. The closest subway stop to us is about a 15 minute walk, so we tend to use other forms of transportation, but it is a really convenient way to get around the city quickly if you have a stop nearby. The trains themselves are pretty different depending on what line you're using, back in December we were touring around the city with Juan and Sole and we got on an antique A-line train where you have to open and close the doors yourself. A little nerve-wracking for me since people tend to open the doors before the train stops. Security is a bit of an issue here so you want to be extra careful in crowded places like the subway. I would also advise that you should not ride alone at night - just to be on the safe side.
Here are Jon, Juan and Sole going into the subte station. They're laughing at the number of photos I'm taking.
  • The Train (aka - El Tren) - The train is best used when going longer distances in and around the city. The cost is roughly the same, $1.10 - $1.35 pesos per ride, and it's best to buy your return ticket at the departing station, there is no assurance that the ticket windows will be open at the smaller stations that you're traveling to. The trains leave much less frequently than other forms of transportation and you need to be a bit cautious about which lines you ride. This map shows all of the city's train stops, but you want to do a little research before you just hop on. The Linea Mitre (light blue on the map) and Tren de la Costa (in green) are the only two lines that it has been recommended that we ride. Many of the other lines go through a large shantytown (with approx 1 million inhabitants) and there is a significant amount of crime on and around the train stations there. That is not to deter you though, as with most large cities you travel to, there are regions to steer clear of. We have used the Linea Mitre many times, to go to Tigre, to visit friends in the northern suburbs of the city and to take a more scenic route to areas north of us within the city. I feel comfortable riding this train alone, but only during daylight hours. The starting train station for this line is Retiro Station, and though the station itself is fine, don't wander the areas around the station, there is a shanty town that starts pretty close behind the station building.
  • Taxis (aka - Taxis) - This is the easiest, but most expensive public transportation option. We feel comfortable hailing a taxi off of the street, just use discretion before getting into a car. If the driver or the car look especially dirty or unkempt, or if you get a bad feeling from a driver, let the car go by and hail the next one. Generally, taxi drivers do not speak English so you want to know where you're going (in Spanish) or have the streets or address written down when you get into the car. We typically look at the general route before getting into a cab, just to make sure the driver is headed in the right direction. If you feel like they're running up your fare, or taking a roundabout route, you can certainly call them out on it. Also, by law, all taxis are non-smoking but some drivers have a tendency to forget this. It is your right to ask them to stop if they're smoking, but I have yet to exercise this right. It doesn't happen all that often, and if I get into a really smoky car, I can always just get out. Currently (as of 4/8/2010) the taxi fares are $4.60 to start and $0.46 per 1/8 mile (approx). A 10-15 minute ride will cost you between $15 - $20 pesos (~US$4.00 - $6.00) depending on the distance, and all taxis use meters. In general, drivers to not expect a tip, if you choose to leave a tip you can just round up to the next peso to leave the change. Radio Taxis are regarded as the safest, most reliable cabs out there, but we have only had one issue here (written about in my Concert post) and we've use a LOT of taxis. If you are using a taxi, be sure to have small bills. Taxis have been known to not have change for a $100 note and that leaves you in a very uncomfortable situation.
**Update 4/15/10- We have now had a couple of run-ins with dishonest taxi drivers. The general scheme is that the meters in these taxis run faster than in normal, honest cars. This was especially obvious when we took 2 cabs from the local airport and one ride was double the cost of the other. Grrrrr.
  • Private Cars (aka - Remis) - Many people hire unmarked, private cars for getting around the city. In general, we only use a Remis if we need to go to the airport, or a longer distance outside of the city where a taxi would be impractical. There are plenty of Remis companies, we tend to use Universal Remis, the company that Jon's work recommends. To use a remis, you call ahead and reserve a car for a specific date and time (this can be done same day if necessary). You can also reserve a specific sized car, which we do for trips to the airport. This is by far the most expensive option, but the most reliable. The round trip fee from our place to the international airport (EZE) with waiting time is approx $270 pesos (US $65) plus tip if they assist with luggage.
A great resource that was recommended to me is this website that allows you to input your starting and ending destinations and the site recommends the buses and subways that best fit your route. You can also specify the type of transportation you prefer. All in all, we have not missed our cars much. I have logged a LOT of miles on my feet too, since there are so many places within walking distance.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Benihana

Through reasons that I can only blame on my few years in the restaurant business, I became a bit of a restaurant snob. If a friend suggested going out to an American food restaurant chain I would either urge them to reconsider or suggest a more original place. I still think that if you travel to another place in the country, or the world for that matter, you should venture outside the Senior Frogs-style restaurants and into a more local place, but if you are staying somewhere for any length of time, I have drastically changed my feelings on the subject. I would say that this revolution in my restaurant-snobbery happened in the first week of March, when I insisted on eating at the Hard Rock Café and I took down a plate of potato skins in record-setting time. I went back a week later to devour nachos and a Caesar salad. So when the BAIN notice came out that this month's lunch would take place at Benihana, my previous desires to be an original restaurant connoisseur went right out the window.

Oh, Benihana, you are so good. I have come to appreciate the consistency of these chain restaurants in a way that I never thought that I would. I know that Benihana is no hot-dog-and-apple-pie kind of place, but the flavors are familiar and for the meal, I feel like I could be located in any Benihana in the world - they are all exactly the same. I have to confess, this is not my first time to the Benihana here in Buenos Aires, in fact, it's my third. Our first trip was back in December on their opening weekend and they had more than a few kinks to work out. I have to say that since then, they have transformed into the lovable Japanese-style-steakhouse that we have all grown to adore. Benihana is located in the Alto Palermo mall, otherwise known as mini-America. As you'll notice from the picture, there is an enormous Starbucks on the right-hand side and if you could see the neighboring restaurant on the left-hand side, you would be looking at a T.G.I.Fridays. In a hilarious twist on reality, the Friday's is ALWAYS busier than any other restaurant that I've seen. We're talking line out the door and around the corner on a Saturday night, nice work Fridays.

In general, I would go to Benihana for dinner, but my expat group had a lunch planned so I headed in for the midday meal. For the amazing price of $50pesos, we were given a starter salad, fried rice, a choice from 9 different meat options (I chose Filet Mignon), grilled vegetables, ice cream for dessert and your choice of either a soft drink or a full-sized bottle of wine (1 bottle for every 2 people). According to today's exchange rate, 50 pesos = $12.75 USD. Can you say great deal?! It was fun, we had close to 40 people from BAIN show up, a mix of the downtown and suburbs groups.

The only potentially negative thing that I'll say about Bs.As. Benihana is that the chefs are clearly new to the game. There isn't a whole lot of shrimp-flinging or fancy onion-train tricks going on - but I actually see that as a positive thing. I really dislike the possibility of a grease stain on my shirt when I inevitably miss catching the shrimp in my mouth. Some people really dig the fancy chef-tricks, so be aware that they are muted at this location. The restaurant also offers some great looking sushi and traditional Japanese dishes for folks that would rather sit at a normal table and not the griddle-topped table that we always go for.