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Author Archives: Mike
I’m home! Today marks two months back in the good ol’ US of A.
The first day back was definitely a big adjustment. I found myself translating things into Spanish before I said them, then realizing I could just say it in English. Driving a car felt awkward and unfamiliar because I hadn’t done it in 8 months. All of this faded pretty quickly, though, and by the second or third day back, I felt like I had never left.
In this edition of “Pretending I Learned Something” I do a rundown of the gear I packed for my trip. I warn you in advance that this likely won’t be very interesting unless you’re planning to do a similar long-term backpacking trip (and even then, I make no promises). I won’t be including any of this material on the Mike’s blog exam I’ll be administering to everyone when I return.
On Friday night, I was hanging out with my Australian friend Andy and he told me he and a Colombian girl he was dating were going paragliding Sunday and invited me along. It was only 80,000 COP (~$45) and he showed me a video on his phone and it looked too cool to pass up.
As I’m winding down to the end of my time in South America, I thought I’d put together some travel tips based on my time down here. They’re mainly going to be geared toward long-term backpacking-type travel, but some stuff might come in handy for South American travel in general. This is part one of my “Pretending I Learned Something” series and today we learn about: hostels!
When you’re meeting up with someone you know in Colombia, there are a few common smalltalk questions they might ask you. Most are pretty similar to what you’d hear in other South American countries like, “como estás?” [“how are you?”] or, “qué tal?” [“what’s up?”]. One that seems unique to Colombia is “¿qué más?” [literally: ‘”what else?”]. I’ve been told that it’s equivalent to “how’s it going?” and so if that’s the first question I get, it’s easy to just say “bien” [“well”]. I get tripped up if they ask me “¿qué más?” when I’ve already used up my bien. For example, I get this a lot:
Before I came to Colombia, I’d never been stood up for a date. Girls had canceled on me, sometimes at the last minute, but I’d never actually gone to meet up with a girl and stood around waiting, only to have her ultimately never show up. In my first three weeks in Medellin, I was stood up for first dates by four different girls. No cancelation, no apology, usually no contact ever again.
I’ve been in Colombia about two months now and I’ve felt pretty comfortable as far as personal safety. I definitely was a bit skittish when I first arrived, given Colombia’s reputation for violence, but after a couple weeks, everything seemed fairly safe and I relaxed a bit. Then I had a class with my Spanish tutor that scared the crap out of me.
Today marks 6 months of travel in South America! I thought I’d do another high-level check-in of where I’m at in my trip.
I’ve booked my tickets back to the US! I’ll be flying from Medellin, Colombia to New York, America on August 7th, exactly two months from today.
I came to Colombia knowing I wanted to get an apartment for a while in either Cali, Bogotá, or Medellín. Cali was too hot. Bogotá was too cold and rainy. Medellín was just right, so I began the hunt for an apartment. The problem was that after being domesticated in Buenos Aires, I’d lost my natural ability to survive in hostels.
I’ve arrived in Colombia, after a swift overnight flight from Cordoba to Cali. I spent a few nights in Cali, few nights in Bogota, and now I’m in Medellin looking for an apartment. Along the way I’ve noticed some strange things in Colombia.
In Cordoba, I was visiting my friend Juan, whom I’d met a few months ealier in Máncora. Over the course of my three days there, he said a lot that I really enjoyed. I’ve included my favorite quotes below. Keep in mind that he’s learning English and I’m still learning Spanish, so he talks to me in English and I talk to him in Spanish.
Cordoba’s a beautiful city with a rich history and vibrant culture… I assume. Most of these pictures have nothing to do with that and are just of stupid things I found funny in the moment.
I like to talk about movies. Most movies in South America are American imports, so you’d think it’d be pretty easy to talk to people about movies. The trick is that American imports rarely have the same name in Spanish as they do in English, so I can’t just say, “Have you seen Die Hard?” Instead I end up in a little guessing game where I feel like I’m talking to my parents. “Remember? It’s with Bruce Willis? And terrorists are trying to kill him? And there’s a part where he has to walk barefoot on broken glass?” And they say “Oh! You mean Duro de Matar [Hard to Kill]!” (“they” in this case being South Americans, not my parents, in case that was unclear)
Due to some fairly inept food planning on my part, I’ve eaten through all the food in my house four days ahead of my move out. I’ve been kind of lazy about going to the supermarket, so I ordered take-out the last two nights. The issue with ordering take-out is that it requires me to talk on the phone in Spanish, which is much harder than talking to someone in person. I can’t hear as well or guess responses based on the other person’s facial cues. The last time I had to speak Spanish on the phone was a month ago when I booked the hotel Jeet and I stayed at and it ended in humiliating defeat (the person switching to English).
I feel a bit off in Buenos Aires at this point. I’m still enjoying it, but I’ve realized I’m having fewer adventures than I was having earlier my trip. I guess a side effect of having a consistent place to live and is that I explore less as part of my daily routine. On the upside, I’m getting a lot done. I finished my first software pet project, started my next one, got a lot of Spanish studying in, and I’ve been going to the gym a lot.
In the US, I see a lot of live comedy. I’ve been in comedy withdrawal the past few months, as I never hear of any comedy shows in South America. That was why I was so excited last weekend when I was having dinner with my friend Agustina and she told me that Buenos Aires has a comedy scene. Not only is there a lot of stand-up, there’s improv too! No sketch, sadly. I was really curious to see what Argentinian improv would look like, so last night I went to check out Misión: Improvisación in Capital Federal.
Coming home is still many months away, but I was recently talking to Al about the stuff I’m looking forward to doing when I come home. He told me that listening to me talk about my coming home fantasies made him understand how people feel when they listen to him talk about what he’s going to eat when his fasts end. So let’s start with food.
I’ve been living in a studio apartment in Buenos Aires for the past week and I’m loving it. I’m definitely planning to find apartments from here on out in cities I stay in for more than a couple weeks in. Let me give you the tour.
Every year for the past 4 years, my friend Jeet and I have done a Spring Break vacation together where we fly someplace far away and mostly drink and nap a lot. I was worried we’d break the streak this year, but luckily Jeet flew down to meet me in Buenos Aires to keep the tradition alive.
I don’t understand operating hours in Argentina at all. Businesses seem to open and close at random times throughout the day. I’m convinced that the supermarket next to my first hostel in Buenos Aires was somehow toying with me and closed up shop every time they could sense I wanted to buy food. Here were my passes by in a single day:
“The cheapest way for an American to visit Europe is to go to Argentina.”
I left the US on Dec. 16th, 2010 and arrived in Quito, Ecuador on Dec. 17th so, depending on how you count, today I’ve hit the 3 month mark of my travels or the 3 month and 1 day mark. Let’s do an assessment of where I’m at and what I’ve got planned for the rest of my travels.
About two weeks ago, I was walking back to my hostel in Arequipa when I saw a group of little boys with water balloons fleeing in my direction from down the street. I continued on and as I got to the corner, I saw a group of three 6-8 year old girls with a bucket of water balloons smiling mischievously at me. I interpreted the smile as “we’re going to ambush those little boys with water balloons,” so I smiled back and continued walking by them. It turned out that in Spanish, that smile actually translates to, “we’re going to completely soak you with water balloons.” When I got back to the hostel still dripping wet, they told me, “Oh yeah. The kids are playing Carnivale. They love to get foreigners.”
I took a trip to Puno, Peru to see Lake Titicaca, the world’s largest high-altitude lake (a superlative which, in itself, has the distinction of being the world’s most arbitrary superlative). I did a day tour and the first stop was the Uros. They’re these little man-made floating islands constructed of reeds. The houses are made of dried reeds. All the furniture is made of reeds. For food, they eat fish… and reeds.
I was walking back to my hostel from the Arequipa city center and I suddenly noticed that almost every business on the street was a driving school. It seemed like more driving schools than you’d need for a city of only a million people and a LOT more driving schools than you’d need on a single 3 block stretch of road in any city. I broke out my camera and I turned on the “driving school count overlay” feature so I could get a full count of the number of schools.
I’m currently in Arequipa, Peru. It’s Peru’s second largest city, which apparently doesn’t change the fact that it’s incredibly small. Conveniently, it’s also incredibly cheap. The first gym I found cost S/1 (~$0.35) for a day pass, but it turned out that pretty much all the machines were broken, so I had to splurge for a fancier gym at S/3 (~$1) for a day pass. Prices are so low here that people often refer to the city as “Arecheapa” although by “people” I mean me and only in my head because I would get made fun of if I said that out loud.
Moray is one of the stranger tourist attractions I’ve seen. I constantly saw pictures of it on travel agency signs, including this one:
While I was in Cusco, I decided to take a day trip to Machu Picchu. It’s an ancient Incan city that was built in the 15th century and abandoned about a hundred years later. It was rediscovered in 1911 by an American guy (go America!), who kind of stole everything and gave it to Yale and Yale now refuses to give it back to Peru (go America?).
In Ecuador and Peru, you can find “cuy” [“guinea pig”] at certain restaurants that serve traditional Ecuadorean / Peruvian food. I’d found one or two of these restaurants before, but they were always closed when I tried to go. In Cusco, they’re well aware that eating guinea pigs is a tourist curiosity and, like everything else in Cusco they’ve figured out that tourists like, there are 9 billion places to find it.
I’ve been in Cusco, Peru for about a day now and the main thing I’m excited to do in Cusco is leave Cusco.
I was dutifully doing exercises in my Spanish workbook a few days ago when I came across this “True or False” exercise:
Because my name is Mike and I’m American, people in Peru have joked that I’m a character on the Peruvian soap opera, “Al Fondo Hay Sitio” [“There’s Room in the Back”], which features an American character named Mike. It’s apparently one of the most popular shows in Peru. My friend Ingrid was kind enough to send me a link to an episode and, while I don’t understand a lot of the words, I’ll walk you through my understanding of the episode.
I woke up after my nap Friday afternoon and saw a sign that had been posted on my door that read, “Anything But Clothes Party! January 29th.” I was excited. That was the next day. If there’s one thing I love, it’s parties where I can wear something that makes people wonder whether they’re amused or uncomfortable. This is exactly what I had been trained for.
At my current hostel, you need to leave your key at reception whenever you leave and pick it up when you get back. It’s kind of a hassle, but it’s pretty routine at this point and I don’t much notice it. I came back to my hostel after lunch yesterday and there was a guy working reception who was probably about 20. I asked, “¿Podría tener mi llave? [Can I have my key?]” He looked a little worried and stood up and started searching around the desk. I heard him mutter to himself, “Okay… okay.” Peruvians use the word “okay” but I don’t hear it much, so I was wondering if this guy was Peruvian. He definitely looked South American. Or maybe like a tan Asian person. I’ve been surprised at how hard it is to distinguish between the two.
I spent this afternoon walking around Barranco, a Bohemian neighborhood in Lima. I was with a Canadian girl from my hostel and we’d been wandering hopelessly for about 2 hours looking for a crafts market we’d heard from hostel staff existed, but for which we declined detailed directions. As we were walking by a park, a taxi pulled up next to us and the driver asked me if I had change for a 20.
After much searching around Lima and finding only super expensive white-people gyms, my friend Javo showed me a tiny rundown gym a few blocks from the main town center. As soon as I saw it, I knew immediately I’d found my gym. It’s basically just a small room with a few very old machines, a lot of freeweights, and deserted save for 1 or 2 serious looking strong guys.
My first stop in Peru was Máncora, which is a surfing / beach party town in the North. I’d heard about it from lots of people in my hostel in Quito and decided to check it out for myself. While there, I spent most of my time with this group of Argentinians I’d met at my hostel (seen here playing an epic game of gigantic Jenga):
The boardwalk is called the malecón and not the maricón which means “faggot.” I was lost on the second day and I’m glad that I found the boardwalk before I found a person, because otherwise I would have asked them where I could find the “maricón.”
After spending New Year’s in the Galápagos, I’ve realized New Year’s in the US is missing several key things that Ecuadoreans have:
My favorite part about Quicentro, the mall in Quito, is how easy it is to maim your child. If you’re lucky, you can also pretty easily injure fellow mall-goers at the same time. To do this, you’ll have to go to the arcade. At first glance, it’s an arcade pretty much like an American arcade: fancy, high-end arcade games toward the front, older, junky games in the back, as well as skill games that award you tickets you can exchange for SO-not-worth it prizes. And then you get to the ropes course.
We left Quito for a few days to hang out in Baños, which is a small town known for its hot springs and a bunch of outdoorsy stuff like biking, hiking, ziplining. Here are some pictures.
For my first lunch on my own in Quito, I decided to just head into Old Town and wander around until I found something that looked good and cheap. The first restaurant I came across was Menestras del Negro:
My trip has begun! I’m at LAX on an 11 hour layover (broken up by a dinner with Liz when she gets off work and comes to rescue me) before I continue on to Costa Rica to catch my final connection to Quito, Ecuador.
In two months, I’ll be leaving Seattle to go backpacking through South America. While I travel, I’ll be keeping a blog so friends at home can follow along with my wanderings. I’ve never kept a blog before, so I decided I’d need a bit of practice for the many demands of keeping a travel blog: pretending to have self-indulgent epiphanies that I discover by leaving my comfort zone, making broad generalizations about entire cultures based on very limited exposure to them, and of course, making pretentious observations about the human condition while desperately trying to sound profound.