Reflections

Enjoying Mar Del Plata

Choosing to come to Mar Del Plata as an end to our trip around the world was a fantastic idea.  We have enjoyed our time relaxing, doing some “re-entry” work, and literally taking long walks along the beach.  No, we aren’t placing a singles ad or anything, but the coastline here stretches for miles and it is wonderful that we have time to simply walk.  Like many other beach towns, there are dozens of runners, roller bladers, power walkers and skaters moving about and enjoying the sunshine and ocean breeze.  The beach is noticeably busier on the weekends and the atmosphere is charged with energy and excitement.

Determined to take advantage of the awesome apartment where we are staying, we wandered half way across town to find a better grocery store in order to make dinner for ourselves.  Though this Toledo store is the same brand as the other, its much more expansive aisles and wider selection made this one far superior.  We could actually identify vegetables through the mud caked on them, unlike our previous Toledo visit.  The floors were also level, allowing us to let go of our cart without it racing to the other end of the store and crashing into a wall.  What a refreshing change!  We bought all the fixins for a truly delicious homemade dinner.  Once preparations began, we found ourselves faced with a challenge.  Now, bear in mind we have cooked using a gas stove and oven for years–this is what we are used to.  Also know that our Air BnB host, Carlos, demonstrated how to use the oven on the first day we arrived.  None of that made any difference.  On this stove, the pilot light for the oven has to bit lit manually using a match.  Simple enough, but we had the hardest time finding the right combination.  Light the match, push in the dial, spin until you hear the gas release, then release and set the temperature.  Each time we tried the last step, the flame disappeared.  In fact, every time I had the stupid thing lit, the flame would die if I made any moves with the dial.  I wasn’t too keen on sitting with my hand on the dial for the entire time and not only did my frustration began to build, but my fear that we were going to blow up this apartment in our efforts.  Phil took over and had similar issues.  Match after match, we lit the flame to see it almost immediately die out.  As soon as we were about to change the menu from oven-roasted carrots to sautéed carrots, Phil saved the day and figured it out.  It took us at least 15 matches and I’m not sure we’ll be able to do it again, but at least we were able to roast those carrots and enjoy a delicious homemade dinner.

After dinner, Phil was excited to check out the casino.  I was feeling much more comfy and cozy inside and managed to talk him into staying home and just hanging on the couch.  As Phil mentioned in his last post, one thing we have been doing is watching a fair amount of television, which we haven’t done much of on the whole trip. Now, almost every channel we get has the shows dubbed over in Spanish, but there are a few reliable channels that merely have Spanish subtitles and we can actually watch the programming.  We don’t really get many typical American networks–no NBC, CBS, or ABC.  We do get FOX, but it is some different version and of course there is AXN, with its endless episodes of CSI: Miami, Criminal Minds and Castle.  However, even with our limited choices, we have managed to discover 2 new shows which we think are part of the new fall schedule (though we aren’t sure, because here they were shown on Cinemax).  These shows are Arrow and Revolution.  Both on in marathon format (though Revolution was only 2 episodes), we watched from pilot to current episode and really enjoyed them both.  Are they high quality shows?  Maybe, but we have been starved for such television, and it was fun to indulge and watch for hours.  There is a 75% chance we won’t ever watch these once we return to the States, but I’m glad we caught them here.

We should have known. It doesn’t even look fun or inviting from the outside.

After much begging, pleading and arm twisting, we finally found ourselves at the Casino Central the following day.  Okay, so maybe Phil and I love casinos and we have found it interesting to see some of the differences between the ones we are used to in Las Vegas and those around the world. Set in an old hotel, this casino was said to be a fun time and the best of a few of these establishments in Mar Del Plata.  It may be the best one, but think our standards might be too high.  As we walked in, I got the distinct feeling that we were in an old hotel convention floor which is hosting a casino night.  All the games were concentrated in one area with the corners and edges of the room largely empty.  There isn’t much different from one slot machine to another, although we did see one of our Vegas favorites called Milked Money that involved racing cows and more fun.  However,  when we played electronic roulette, we couldn’t determine how to cash out our winnings.  We hit all the buttons and read the whole screen (in Spanish), but no ticket printed.  Finally we asked the attendant and he showed us this ridiculously obscure multi-step process of cashing out.  Great, at least it was possible to actually get the money out.  We weren’t ready to leave, so I went to put the ticket back in the machine and keep playing, but unlike most casinos, the tickets can’t be used at cash in this electronic game.  Argh, what a pain.  Finally, we settled in an played for a bit.  The minimum bet was 1 peso, which is a little less than 25 US cents, so we weren’t exactly risking our life savings, just having some fun.  Once we ran out of pesos, we headed for the door.  The only thing this trip to the casino really did was give us the itch to go back to Las Vegas.

And now we find we have come to our last full day of the trip.  True, we don’t leave until Tuesday, but that we mostly be spent traveling.  So, we will continue to soak up the sun, reflect on this amazing journey and prepare to establish ourselves back into the world of work, family and friends.  It may surprise you to hear that this is actually something we are really looking forward to. But first, we will enjoy Mar Del Plata–the beach, the sun, the seafood–for just a little while longer.

–Brooke

The bigger, better grocery store also has these crazy peanuts we ate at a restaurant. They are battered and fried. And delicious!

During the high season, it is almost impossible to find a spot on the beach. That won’t happen until late December and January.

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Categories: Argentina, At Night, Casino, City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Mar Del Plata, Reflections, Relaxing, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Olives, Wine, Steak and an ill travel partner

So, it happened to me in New Zealand. And now it’s happened to Brooke in Argentina. We knew the odds were slim that we both would make it through a four month trip without getting ill. Yet, after a combination of some lousy empanadas served at a local back patio beer garden and probably a bit too much wine the night before, Brooke was struck down by some sort of stomach bug. Fret not: she made an inspiring recovery by the time dinner rolled around. Besides, there are certainly worse places to feel under the weather than Argentine wine country among the comfy confines of the Tikay Killa hotel. The scenic view from the foothills of the Andes certainly may have some healing powers as well.

With Brooke sitting out this round, I decided to take a solo trip and visit two of the locations that were close by: Entre Olivos and La Rual. Each one was just a short trot down the same street our hotel was on. Entre Olivos quickly won me over. Five dollars paid for a small tour that gave a background on olive production and tasting of everything including olives, olive oils, spreads, marmalades, chocolates, custom liquers and more. Did you know that the only differences between black and green olives is that green olives are picked from the trees sooner? Or that olive trees can produce olives for up to 400 years? Or that olives are only tasty once they undergo a process and are always terrible if eaten right from the tree? I learned so much! After tasting just about everything I could, I had to restrain myself from buying out the store.

Just a bit down the street, I made a visit to La Rural winery (makers of Rutini wine) and El Museo – an excellent wine museum. The tour provided an interesting history and the museum was jam packed with historical wine making elements. Some of which, like the giant ceramic vases that were buried under ground to store wine, dated back several hundred years. Saw the vineyards, saw the vats, saw the giant historic oak barrels. And, of course, I enjoyed the requisite tasting although they only offered some lesser brands. But the best part? My 50 peso admission went to the cost of any bottle of wine I might choose to purchase at the end of the tour. THAT was a nice surprise. I managed to grab a nice bottle that only cost a buck or two beyond my admission. After an afternoon of lounging around the hotel and sampling some more wine, the five of us staying at Tikay Killa all went to dinner at the lone restaurant in town. Even though we were one of the only tables being served, we ended up with delectable dishes of steak, chicken and even grilled veggies. If there is one thing that Argentines know how to do, its grill meat.

Most people we’ve met are making Mendoza a three to four day stop as part of a larger visit. Given how much there is to see in Argentina and combined with how long it takes to get from region to region, it’s not surprising that visits to Argentina are often three weeks or longer. Geographically, this may be the largest country we’ve visited outside of China. Since the amazing glacier you may want to see is incredibly far from that sensational Andes peak you may also want to see, bus rides on luxury coaches that are 14, 18, 22 or even 27 hours in length are common and truly the only practical way to get around.

Costs here in Maipu, and largely across Argentina, have been remarkably reasonable. We’ve found that a vineyard tour in Mendoza would regularly run less than $8 a person and that includes some generous pours during the tasting. Buenos Aires is also unique to any place we’ve visited in the way they handle exchanging currency. First, it’s important to note that Argentina is dealing with crazy inflation to the point that prices on menus are often written in pencil (to allow for easy changing) and some travel brochures don’t even bother to include costs at all. The official government line is that inflation is hovering around 10%, but apparently inflation is topping out more at about 25%. Among other factors, this had led to the rise of the unofficial, illegal “blue market” of exchanging dollars for pesos. This market is comprised primarily of somewhat shady people strolling down busy tourist areas muttering “Cambio, Cambio, Cambio” as you walk by. I may be bold and adventurous, but I still prefer making change at a bank rather than in a dark, back alley. Besides, I couldn’t recognize a counterfeit bill from Monopoly money if needed. Pretty sure the word “sucker” would be tattooed across my forehead in a lovely helvetica font.

Apparently, visitors who are in the country for a while arrange a trade with one of these blue market agents through their hotel. They show up in your room, pulling money from a sock or pouch strapped to a leg in exchange for your dollars. What’s the advantage to such a complicated doings? Apparently, there are TWO exchange rates in Argentina. Banks will offer you about 4.7 persos to the dollar while blue market traders will give you closer to 6.0 persos to the dollar. I’m still wrapping my head around that but I’m relatively sure that it means if we could have negotiated with one of these dealers and gotten all the money up front, Argentina would have been on sale at a rate of about 30% off the official rate. Baffling!

Our fun continues tomorrow in Maipu as we plan to hit no less than four wineries on our bikes.  Hopefully we make it back safe and sound after all that wine!

-Phil

Categories: Argentina, Diversions, Mendoza, Reflections, Transportation, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Discovering Maipu

Brooke Vs Malbec (spoiler alert: Brooke wines...er...Wins!)Buenos tardes from the heart and soul of the Mendoza, Argentina – Wine country! We’re continuing to slowly make our way across the country enjoying cafes, wine and seemingly endless amounts of empanadas. In fact, I believe we’ve eaten at least one empanada every day since we arrived. It is with a great reluctance that I have to admit that each individual empanada has been tastier and more satisfying than those found in Empanada Mama– my beloved NYC lunch spot. (Sorry to break the news, former WebMD colleagues.)

Brooke, who most certainly has earned her merit badge in securing wonderful accommodations for us throughout this trip, booked a stay for us at the Tikay Killay Lodge in the Maipu area of Mendoza. When you think about a wine country visit, Maipu may not fit the traditional vision. This area is loaded with beautiful and sensational wineries including a few that date back to the late 19th century, however the region is served by just a single main road. Large trucks stacked with pallets of wine bottles rumble down the road beside modern sedans and beat up 1960s American junkers as they all cruise past a background of expansive vineyards and olive tree groves. Aside from the accommodations, activities and food offered by the wineries and related stores, there is not much else in this quiet part of Argentina. All of that suits me just fine. It’s a nice, easy going, relaxing place with sensational late spring weather. The combination of a dry, arid climate, a dose of steady wind and water supplied by mountain ice melt and delivered in a complex aqueduct system makes for ideal conditions for growing grapes, olives and more. Apparently, everyone here was surprised to discover just how well some grapes perform in this unique climate.

Tikay Killa Lodge!

Unique wine country makes for unique hotels. Tikay Killa Lodge is made up of only four rooms plus a central building. Situated about a mile long walk or bike ride from the main road, it’s a fairly isolated location. A nice outdoor area surrounds the buildings and behind the rooms we found a large back yard that doubles as a refuge for busy gophers. During our stay, each room has been booked by like-minded travelers from Australia and Great Brittain who are just as eager as we area to explore the area. The vibe here it makes it easy to make new friends over afternoon conversations in the courtyard or while splitting the deliciousness of the “day’s catch” of bottle purchases from the local vineyards. Elena, the do-it-all innkeeper, has been a wealth of information and does a fantastic job of taking care of everything. From making breakfast to helping book tours and bikes, someone like her is a mandatory asset since it is really easy to get lost and confused in your plans. Plus, the lodge comes complete with the world’s most friendly dog. I’m pretty sure that Suki is the luckiest dog on earth– he has new strangers petting and playing with him daily.

While there is certainly a visible number of visitors in the area – they are easy to spot riding from winery to winery on rented bikes and helmets – it would be a stretch to call Maipu a top tourist destination. This region is among those where we’ve encountered the least amount of English spoken. Lucky for us, we speak just enough Spanish to order cheese at the grocery stores and ask for directions to the next winery. And for every seven wineries you pass, only one has opened their doors to visitors for tastings and tours. That still leaves plenty of wineries to go around with more and more buildings sprouting up to match the Mendoza wine region’s recent boom of international popularity from Malbec and other varietals of wines. Given our propensity to visit capital and metropolitan areas, Maipu is one of the more rural and remote areas we’ve visited on this trip.

As we get closer to reaching the end of our trip, people often ask how we’re feeling about that. For me, that answer is mostly sad. There are a lot of elements about this trip I’m going to miss. But I’m also looking forward to basic tasks becoming a bit easier. Our biggest challenge in Maipu has been trying to find a place- any place! – to eat dinner. It wasn’t until about 8:30 PM last night that it dawned on us that finding food might be a real challenge. Our innkeeper was out and there isn’t exactly delivery around here. After a long walk to the main road and discovering exactly one restaruant in walking distance, we decided to hop on a city bus bound for central Maipu and crossed our fingers for success. Before long, we found ourselves at a nice outdoor cafe on a city square enjoying food. On a trip around the world, simply securing a decent dinner can be the hardest part of the day. However, one thing we can be proud of is that even in our darkest moments, we’ve never had to resort to a KFC, Mickey D’s or Pizza Hut.

After dinner, we took a cab back to the hotel where we found the five other hotel guests sitting outside enjoying a drink and recounting the day. We joined them for what ended up being a long evening of conversation, guitar playing and fun spread out over several, several bottles of wine. We talked about everything from United States politics to everyone’s first and favorite concert. Brooke and I explained how citizenship works for residents of Washington, DC and we had our minds blown a bit when learned that everyone in the world calls the mark that ends a sentence a “full stop” and mocks Americans for referring to it as a period. But mostly we talked a lot about what travelers talk to one other about – traveling and our experiences in various places. After two days of stumbling through broken Spanish, exchanging in dept conversations with a group of Aussies and Brits was a pleasure. It was a great way to spend an evening that went long into the night. Good times, indeed. Some days on this trip can be exhausting, but they almost all usually end quite well. As always, we can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!

-Phil

 

How garbage is collected in Mendoza! Nifty!

The view of the front of our relaxing, quality hotel in the middle of wine country.

Hauling Wine down the street of Maipu

Dan playing some tunes for the crowd

Categories: Argentina, Mendoza, Reflections, Relaxing, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Wine, Tango and Futbol Chat

As Phil stated in the previous post, we had quite a full day yesterday.  It seems some days we take it easy and do nothing of any consequence, then there are days where we are constantly on the go.  It actually works out pretty well and makes for some really great days.  After voting for president and navigating our way through the Buenos Aires bus station, we finally took part in what I most looking forward to while in Argentina–wine!

Thanks to Phil’s diligent research, he found Anuva Wines, a small business dedicated to helping people discover small South American wineries with a personal touch.  We found they offer tasting sessions twice daily in English, so we eagerly signed up.  The reviews raved about this experience with several people stating it was the best thing they did while in Buenos Aires.  They also bragged of the generous pours and refills, often rare at such tastings.  The reviews were spot on.  We arrived to the Anuva Wine Loft to be greeted by Cara, our hostess.  Along with four other visitors, she explained to us the process of tasting wine and the importance of using all the senses.  We looked.  We smelled.  But most importantly, we tasted.  Using all Argentinian wines, of course, she started us with a delicious sparkling white called “Hom”. We moved onto a Torrontes (my favorite white wine grape), and then onto the reds.  When I think of Argentinian wines, I always think red.  She introduced me to a new grape called Bonarda which has traditionally been used with blended wines, but has recently become more popular on its own.  She explained to us the importance of sun, temperature, rain and altitude in the wine industry.  With the Andes Mountains, Argentina has a the perfect conditions for certain grapes to grow, most especially Malbec.  This was easily my favorite wine of the tasting, probably because it is what I often choose to drink at home.  We were offered one more red blend, and they all came along with a different food pairing.  With each glass Cara offered insights and information…and refills if we so desired.  Yes and yes!  After we finished, the order forms came out.  Of course, we could buy all the wines we tasted (and then some).  We could choose to take them with us or have them shipped home.  Everyone immediately started filling out the form to have one or more cases sent home. After we had decided which 12 bottles to get, we put the order form away and figured it’s probably best not to make this kind of decision after drinking so much!  We settled for taking two bottles with us and we will order more online if we wish (when we are totally sober).

After the wine tasting, we had a short respite before going to our first tango lesson.  One of the reasons we chose our hotel, The Tango Suites, is because they offer complimentary tango lessons, at all skill levels, to their guests.  Tango is everywhere in Buenos Aires and we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to learn a little bit ourselves.  There were two teachers and six students.  We kicked off our shoes in order to move more fluidly across the floor.  We started merely by walking to the beat of the music, feeling the rhythm.  This wasn’t always easy–tango music changes often and there is not a strong back beat.  It was difficult to keep in time.  After we learned to walk, we paired up and walked with a partner.  No touching, just sensing one another’s movements.  We slowly graduated to touching arms, then embracing, then traditional dance posture.  We took turns leading each other and often changed partners.  There was quite a bit of stumbling, and not a little of stepping on toes, but it was great fun.  I would love to take another lesson, or maybe even a dance class where we learn lots of different dances.  I don’t think Phil had quite the same experience.  He seemed to enjoy the walking and the earlier steps of the lesson.  Once we got to the embrace and traditional dance posture, he got frustrated and I could tell he was ready to be done with it.  If I take future dance lessons, I’m pretty sure I’ll have to find a different partner.

Brooke with Dan, a freelance futbol writer in Argentina.

After we finished the tango, we hurried out of the hotel to meet up with Dan, a freelance writer who covers Argentinian futbol.  While Phil was attempting to procure tickets to a futbol match, he found Sam and Dan, two futbol writers.  When we couldn’t make the game happen, we opted instead to meet for a drink and talk about life in Buenos Aires.  Due to the crazy amounts of rain, Sam couldn’t make it, but we were able to meet up with Dan at a pub called Gibralter.  We chatted for a couple of hours about life in Argentina, futbol culture and the differences between the UK and South America.  Having lived here for 3 years, it was interesting to hear Dan’s perspective.  We always enjoy talking to locals and getting their take.  We spoke of the overwhelming homeless problem and he explained that compared to other big cities in South America, Buenos Aires is considered wealthy.  It is all relative, I suppose.  He also shared a few stories about attempted muggings on the street.  He was much braver than I would have been, standing up to these would be attackers and refusing to give them anything.  In both cases, they walked away.  This certainly made me look over my shoulder a bit more on our way back to the hotel.

We have had full and interesting days here in Buenos Aires, but I have to say, I am ready to go.  I don’t really like it here.  It is a really big city, very spread out and not very well served by the subway.  It seems to take 45 minutes to get anywhere.  Not only that, part of it just aren’t very nice.  It is dirty, with broken sidewalks, graffiti and trash everywhere.  And homelessness is rampant, even in the nicest areas.  I am very ready to get out of Buenos Aires and head to wine country, which is good because that is exactly what we are doing.  Fourteen-hour, overnight bus ride, here we come!

–Brooke

Just one example of the broken and busted sidewalks. i wish the was the exception, but it is the rule.

Brooke learns the tango…or at least learns to walk rhythmically.

Categories: Argentina, At Night, Bars, City Visits, Customs, Differences, Hotels, Reflections, Safety, Tango, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

¡Buenos Días, Buenos Aires!

After 10 cold, cloudy and often rainy days in Scotland, we were delighted to wake up to the sun beaming brightly through the window in warm Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Still adjusting to the 5 hour time difference, we were up bright and early, ready to see a new city!

One of the reasons we were excited about Argentina is because Phil and I both know a very small amount of Spanish.  Normally, one of the first things we do upon arrival in a new country is ask how to say basic phrases, like “hello”, “please”, and “thank-you”.  However, thanks to a few classes at good ‘ole Miami University (and of course having lived in New York City for six years) we are both able to crudely communicate basic ideas and we can even understand quite a few phases in Español.  I was so proud when I was able to buy subway tickets and not use any English at all.  The ticket agent even asked me a question and I was able to respond.  Wow! What a change from struggling through Eastern Europe.  However, one of the things I find interesting is that there is far less English spoken or on signage here than we have seen in almost every other country.  Luckily, we are able to manage our way through Spanish well-enough to figure out where we are going, but if we didn’t have any knowledge of the language, Buenos Aires would be quite a struggle.

We originally intended to start our day with a hop-on/hop-off bus tour in order to get an overview of the city.  After searching for the bus for a bit, we finally found a line 25 people deep waiting to board.  When the woman who worked for the bus company, clad in bright yellow, informed us the next one would be in about 40 minutes and we’d just have to wait in line until then, we decided this wasn’t going to be the best option.  We didn’t want to waste so much time just waiting around and clearly with lines like this, they don’t have enough buses in operation.  We decided instead to explore some tours suggested by our hotel.  We found the Tangol office at the end of Florida Street and chatted with Enrique.  We lamely tried our Spanish, but we all found English was much easier to communicate with.  Tangol offers all kinds of tours and excursions, from a 6-hour walking tour, to an all day Gaucho expedition.  We inquired about various city tours and their Argentinian Fútbol trip.  We had tons of information swimming in our heads, so for starters we decided to go with a 3-hour city tour on a small bus.  We figured this would be just as good, if not better than the hop-on/hop-off tour because this time we would have a live guide who could answer all of our questions.

After killing some time walking up and down Florida Street, the pedestrian only shopping street, we boarded the bus.  We discovered that we were the only 2 of 16 passengers who spoke English; the rest spoke Spanish and Portuguese.  Once again reminding us how inferior we feel in the language department, our guide Fakundo, gave the tour in all 3 languages.  However, we often felt his translations into English were a bit of an after thought.  We could pick up a few words in Spanish here and there–enough to know that he wasn’t giving us all of the information in the English translation.  Still, we managed to glean some new information and see some new neighborhoods.  We drove down the avenue Nuevo de Julio, the widest avenue in the world at 140 meters across. (Correction: we’ve since found out that Argentians just like to SAY it is the widest avenue in the world. Turns out that there is a much larger one in Brazil. Don’t tell the Argentians.)  In the center of this avenue we saw the Public Works building with an iron likeness of Eva Peron on either side.  One side looks in anger and seems to be speaking with vehemence toward the wealthy area of Buenos Aires.  The other side is a friendly iron portrait, smiling down on the lower class sections of the city.  Images of Eva Peron can be seen everywhere, and the people still speak of her as a true Argentinian hero.

As we continued our drive, we saw the elegant and sophisticated neighborhoods of Palermo and Recoleta. We then drove toward an older futbol stadium which is home to the Boca Juniors.  Driving through this area immediately reminded us of Wrigleyville in Chicago. Every shop and storefront had jerseys, team colors, flags and mascots hanging from the windows.  This area is clearly centered on their love of this team.  It is situated right alongside the colorful neighborhood, La Boca.  This used to be one of the poorest neighborhood in Buenos Aires.  The materials for the tenements were leftovers from other buildings and the paint used was whatever leftovers would be handed over to the people.  Because of this, the whole neighborhood is a mish-mash of colors and textures.  It has become a center for bohemian and art culture; streets are lined with paintings, cafes and tango dancers.  Although perfectly safe, our guide warned us that you wouldn’t want to stray too far from this neighborhood at night.  There is still quite a bit of poverty in Buenos Aires and in fact they have 3 shanty towns inside the city.  Apparently outside the city there are many more.  The largest one in Buenos Aires lies very close to the wealthy area and holds 60,000

One set of protesters wanting acknowledgement and benefits for their part in the Falklands War.

squatters.  Our guide explained that they have been there for decades and it is almost more like a neighborhood than a shanty-town.

This overview of Buenos Aires was certainly interesting.  Phil thinks this city has one of the biggest dichotomies between rich and poor that we’ve seen.  To be honest, I’m not really seeing the wealth.  I see poverty everywhere, buildings covered in spray paint and protesters in at least 2 spots in the city.  There seems to be struggle and unhappiness.  At the same time, there is also great pride in their heritage–signs for tango shows, classes and clubs are everywhere.  We have only just arrived, but I am interested to dive a little deeper and see how my impressions of Buenos Aires evolve throughout our visit here.

–Brooke

Categories: Argentina, City Visits, Differences, Landmarks, Reflections, Surprises, Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Goodbye Highlands

Sadly, today was our third and final day in the Highlands of Scotland with Rabbie’s Tour.  It seems like twice an hour we turn to each other and say, “I’m so glad we decided to do this tour!”  We have learned so much and had an overall more rich experience because we did this with an expert.  Rabbie’s (or another tour of its kind) is definitely the way to go for anyone out there thinking of taking trip to the Highlands.

Our guide, Doug, telling us the legend of how the Cuillin Hills were formed.

The day greeted us with clear blue skies and loads of sunshine, something we aren’t terribly used to here in Scotland.  We began with a drive down from Portree into the heart of the Cuillin Hills.  There are two major parts of these, one is called the Red Cuillins and the other is the Black Cuillins.  Like everything in Scotland, there is a legend about why these hills look the way they do presently.  It is a bit too long and involved to share here, and I really couldn’t do it justice by trying to write it out anyway.  Suffice it to say, it had everything to do with a battle between an arrogant giant and an Amazonian woman, both too prideful to admit defeat to one another.  Of course they ultimately fell in love, but that is neither here nor there.  The rigidity of the top of the hills is said to be made from their hacking away at one another in battle.

The history of Scotland is steeped in legends of this kind, but occasionally there are true stories to go along with them.  In this case, Doug told us of a young gurkha from Nepal who visited the Highlands.  When he stopped in for an orange juice at a local pub he was ridiculed for not drinking whiskey.  He explained to the man that he was not in Scotland to drink, he was there to visit their beautiful hills.  The man replied with disbelief, “Hills?  Those are no hills, those are mountains.  It would take me all day to climb to the top and back down again.”  The man from India was amused and replied, “That is no mountain.  I could make it to the top and back in less than an hour.”  The Highlander believed this man to be a liar, trying to make a fool out of him, so the gurkha decided to show him.  He took off his shoes and socks and began running up the hill.  He made it up and back in 59 minutes.  Amazed the Highlander insisted they share a whiskey together.  As they sipped, a man from another clan walked in and when he was told about this amazing feat, he didn’t believe it for a minute.  The two Scots began to argue and it looked as though a fight was going to break out.  The gurkha, wanting to avoid a fight, jumped between them and said he would prove it.  Again, he took off his socks and shoes and ran up the hill and back down.  This time, it only took him 58 minutes!  This all took place in 1902, but years later the story inspired the locals to begin a race up this same hill.  The Glamaig Hill Race draws hundreds of runners each summer.  Of course, they run with shoes and socks, but the record time for this 4.5 mile, 2500 foot run is 44 minutes and 27 seconds.  We failed to get a picture of the hill.  To see what it looks like, click here. Pretty impressive!

There are tons of stories centered upon the Highlands, both truth and legend.  We were also told the story of the Sisters of Kintail.  To make a very long story short, these 5 sisters were waiting for 5 brothers who were supposed to come for them from Ireland.  They waited so long, their father was worried they would lose their beauty.  He enlisted the help of a seer, who turned them into mountains so they would be beautiful for all eternity.  And they really are spectacular.  In fact, this may be the most beautiful part we saw in the Highlands.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that the fall colors are in full effect, the sun was shining bright and the weather was wonderfully mild.  We have taken some amazing photos here in Scotland, but the ones looking out on the 5 Sisters of Kintail are my favorite.

The 5 Sisters of Kintail showing their eternal beauty.

We continued to wind our way down toward Edinburgh.  We made a quick stop to see some “Hairy Coos”.  These long-haired cows are everywhere, and they look so much different from the ones most of us are used to seeing at home that we decided it was worth a short photo stop.  We then made the obligatory stop in Loch Ness, where we were told of some strange and unusual happenings, but none of us was inspired enough to swim in the loch or even go on a boat ride trying to find Nessie.  Instead, we had a leisurely lunch with some new friends.  As I have already said, one of the best parts of Rabbie’s tours is the small group size.  We only had 14 people in our group, plus our guide, Doug.  This allowed for some great time with everyone and we met some really great people.  We found ourselves spending much of our time with Melissa and Crystal, two women from Minneapolis (though Crystal now lives in London).  We had tons in common and are all excited to have made new friends.  We are already toying with the idea of another trip together, or at least a meet-up in our respective home cities.

Melissa, Crystal, Phil and Brooke after dipping our heads under Bride’s Veil falls.

Alas, we had to say goodbye to the Highlands, goodbye to Crystal and Melissa, and goodbye to Doug and his myriad stories which lasted to the moment we arrived in Edinburgh.  We absolutely loved this tour and we are now considering finding something similar on our next stop in Argentina.  We have one more day in Scotland and we will be sad to leave it.  This 10 day country stop has certainly met and even exceeded our expectations.   We can certainly see ourselves coming back here someday.  Until then, slàinte mhath!

–Brooke

The “hairy coos” of the Highlands.

New friends enjoying drinks together in Portree.

These gorgeous views are everywhere across the Highlands.

Brooke tries Irn Bru, Scotland’s most popular soft drink. Tastes like cream soda with a splash of bubble gum. Very sugary!

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Exploring, Friends, Landmarks, Reflections, Scotland, Tours, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rabbie’s Highland’s Tour- Day 2

Living it up on the Isle of SkyeI would be lying if I told you that all days on this trip were created equal. Some days are just simply better -more enjoyable, more interesting – than others. Today was one of those fantastic gems of a day. Brooke and I are on our second day of a three day tour of the Scottish Highlands through the impeccable Rabbie’s tour company. It was an extensive, full day of tramping around the Isle of Skye in our comfortable tour van. Traveling among the company of a small, but enthusiastic group of fellow explorers, we managed to hit all of the highlights of Skye by crisscrossing the island over the course of the day. We accomplished it all while enjoying a soundtrack provided by an animated guide (and top notch storyteller) who delivered memorable, captivating stories on topics ranging from Scottish folklore, sports, history, clan chieftains and more. The accompaniment for the ride was a solid playlist of tunes by Scottish artists and beyond which played between the commentary. And that’s all of the good stuff before we get into the amazing landscapes and dazzling vistas. Not too mention dinner, drinks and live music at the pub. And then evening pub hopping in the sleepy town of Portree. It was the perfect way to spend any Sunday. The sights here are largely made up of the natural beauty of glens, lochs, hills and rolling valleys. All combined, they make up some of the most beautiful views we’ve seen on the trip. And we don’t toss out such accolades lightly; beneath clouds or under bright sunshine, it is friggin’ gorgeous here. The Isle of Skye is remote and sparsely populated but has a more diverse topography than you might find over three states back home. Thankfully, our venerable guide Doug made plenty of stops so we could enjoy every photo opportunity that ranged from an old brock to a waterfall stepped in superstition.

Glen of the Faeries!

Our first stop today was at a 2,000 year old brock (an old stone tower) just off the side of the road. I’m sure everyone has their own benchmark, but I know I’m in middle of a good day when I’m conquering ancient castle remains all before 10:00 AM. After dodging both loose rocks and sheep droppings, we climbed our way to the top to soak in the first of several stunning views of the day. A short drive down the road took us to the seaside cliffs of the Neist Point Lighthouse on the Western Coast of the island. We all shrugged off the winds and clouds to meander down the walkway and up a steep hill. Again, amazing view. Woooo.... After another quick stop, we enjoyed a quick rest and tasty lunch in Uig. Before long, the sun was out and we were off to my favorite stop of the day: The Faeries Glen. Doug gave us three strict rules when visiting the fabled land of the mythical Scottish faeries: We were warned not to whistle, not to leave any gifts made of iron and not to remove anything from the glen or else we might risk a curse. I was just afraid that Brooke might fall somewhere through time after entering a stone circle. Legends and fairies aside, the place was relatively magical in its setting alone. Green as far as they eye can see and steep, sloping grassy hills punctuated with a towering stone formation. Amazing landscapes are tricky because short of an IMAX camera, words and a few photos really fall short. Serene, beautiful and solitary (aside from the loud group of student tourists), I could have spent another hour there. By the by, this is like the third bridal veil falls we've seen in this tripThe day only got better from there. Our van made it’s next stop at an overlook with an astounding view of the east coast of Skye. Looking down into the valley and beyond, we where able to catch a glimpse of the mainland. The steep cliffs als would have doubled for a terrific golf driving range or hang gliding starting point. From there, it was on to see Kilt Rock, The Old Man Of Storr (complete with its own amazing story) and then Bride’s Veil Falls. It was there that Doug convinced a handful of us that an old legend states that dipping your head into the falls is certain to gaurantee…hmm…satisfying romantic encounters for seven years for every second you can stand the cold water. Not wanting to take any changes, Brooke and I both drenched our heads in the water. We ended our tour day with live music and drinks in a neighboring pub.A great day from start to finish. We really can’t say enough great stuff about Doug and Rabbies. It’s safe to say that I’ve absorbed more quality, wonderful information about Scotland in the last few days than I learned in some college courses. Next time we meet up, ask me to tell you the tale of the shirtless clan battle or the Archie Gemmel’s legendary 3rd goal against Holland during the 1978 World Cup. I can know speak in depth to the Scottish origin of the phrases “To tie the knot” and “armed to the teeth.” Under pressure, I could even draw a realistic looking dirk and tell you why it’s best not to hit on the girl at the bar whom your Scottish friend are calling a Minger. I’m loving this exposure to every single ounce of trivia and new vocabulary. Odds are strong that I’m going to bursting with Scotitsh pride by the time we blow town on Tuesday evening. Just like New Zealand, we’re back to seeing sheep every time we turn our head. We’ve been told that the sheep outnumber the human residents eight to in Skye. Contented, slow moving sheep certainly have the run of the place and, thanks to Scottish law, the right of way in the roads. There is no shortage of gentle honking to prod them to move on but since all of the other wildlife (bears, wolfs and more) are long gone from this area, the sheep don’t have a lot to sweat. Thier only threat is blank stares from the occasional neighboring cow. To top it off, this visit has had a bit of special significance because I’ve wanted to visit the Scottish Highlands for as long as I can remember. After all of the photos I’ve seen and all the stories I’ve heard from those who had visited, it’s been a wish of min to see this part of the world in person. Today, I’m able to write about it from a table in a hostel in the middle of Portree. Pretty dang cool. It doesn’t hurt that we’ve met some awesome people during our trip to the Highlands. I look forward to tomorrow: another day in the tour van and a chance to see Loch Ness up close and personal. As we wind down our time in Sottland, I think it’s time to start downing some prime Scotch Whisky and sample the Hagis, but we’ll cross that particular bridge tomorrow. -Phil

Categories: Exploring, Hiking, Music, Reflections, Scotland, Self Guided Tours, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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