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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.

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

Beautiful Vitosha…or Not

Upon arrival in Sofia, our friendly hostel workers gave us a map with suggestions of things to do.  Top on the list:  enjoy Vitosha Natural Park.  Similarly, when we went on our walking tour of Sofia, one of the first things the guide said to us is that Vitosha is not to be missed–having a mountain peak that reaches 2290 meters just 30 minutes outside of the city makes Sofia unique to other Eastern European capitals.  So we figured, this is a must do.  A can’t miss.  Today was the day we would hike Vitosha.

In our research, we discovered that Vitosha is a very popular weekend destination for both visitors and locals.  There is actually a chair lift that takes guests part of the way to the top.  There, ambitious visitors can hike to the top, or less adventurous types can connect to another chairlift which takes them to the peak.  There is also a gondola that leaves from a separate town at the base and takes people all the way to the peak without any switching.  We were so excited for all of these options–this way we could ride up and hike down (I know, we’re taking the easy way).  Sadly, we learned that the chairlifts and gondola only run Friday to Sunday.  Our stay in Sofia is Monday-Wednesday, so chairlifts are not an option for us.  Damn.

Okay, we are young.  We are healthy.  We climbed Mt. Fuji, for god’s sake!  We can hike up to the top, right?  Of course.  We set out on Tram #5 to the end of the line where “it’s very clear” how to hike up the mountain.  When we arrived at our stop, we exited the train and were surrounded by a run-down park with stray dogs (of course), some locals hanging around, and a rickety set of steps which led further into the woods.  After stopping for directions in a hotel whose stairs tried to permanently injure Phil, we trekked up the steps to begin our journey.  These led to a set of paths up the mountain.  Awesome.  We were there.  Except, there were at least 4 different paths.  Time for a map.  What?  No maps in English, only Cyrillic, an alphabet we can’t read.  Okay, that wasn’t going to stop us.  Nobody really speaks English, but everyone we spoke to pointed up, smiled and said, “Vitosha”.  So, we looked at each path and decided to follow the one that actually had another person on it.

So, here’s the thing:  it was quiet.  I mean, we didn’t see a single other hiker anywhere.  And, we didn’t have a map.  Though the trails were clearly laid out paths, they weren’t marked so we couldn’t be sure we were headed in the right direction, and more importantly, getting back down the same way might be tricky.  And then there are the bears.  In my reading before arrival in Bulgaria, I read that one of the wonderful things about this country is that its forests are still filled with natural elements like bears, lynxes and rare birds which other European countries are losing.  Rare birds–awesome.  Lynxes–uh, okay.  Bears–no way!  I’ve heard enough horror stories and been warned enough times about these dangerous creatures that I am really scared of bears.  What are the odds we would run into one on this hike?  I don’t honestly know–we weren’t exactly going into this exactly “well-researched”.

Phil’s delicious breakfast to prepare him for our unexpected day. Affordable, too, at only $1.20!

If there had been lots of other hikers around, I would have been fine.  If we would have had a map, I would have been okay.  If there were park rangers hanging about, I’d have felt confident.  But we had none of these things, and pretty soon the random noises in the forest started to freak me out.  So, I bailed.  I told Phil that I really wasn’t comfortable doing this.  For all the reasons I’ve already mentioned, I said I thought we should turn around and try something different.  I felt kind of bad, but being the wonderful partner he is, Phil agreed instantly and understood my concerns.  Great.  Now, for plan B.

Coming up with a plan B required we find a little help either from friendly locals or from the internet.  We spotted a hostel and figured they would be able and willing to help us on our journey.  We climbed the stairs, found the receptionist and asked our usual first question, “Do you speak English?”  She replied, “Deutsch.”  Hmmm, we don’t speak German.  We don’t really know any German at all (except for “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” and we already had an answer for that).  We were really wishing we had our German-speaking friend Drew to help us out at this moment.  Luckily, she was nice enough to give us their WiFi password and let us sit on their steps and do a little research.  After quite a bit of looking, we discovered there is a bus that takes people to the top of Vitosha!  Awesome.  All we had to do was go back into Sofia, catch the bus and the rest was a breeze.

Of course, things are never easy.  We finally worked our way to the spot where the bus terminal was supposed to be only to find it wasn’t a bus terminal at all.  It looked like it maybe used to be a bus terminal, but at this point it was just some bus stops and a turnaround that didn’t look to be in use any longer.  When we asked the proprietor of a nearby pizza stand, he was able to point us in the right direction.  After a little hunting (and asking for a little more help), we were able to find bus #64 heading to Vitosha.  Awesome.  This is the bus 3 different people (plus our online research) told us would take us to the top.  We were on our way now.  Nothing could stop us.  But, just to be sure, when we got on the bus we asked the driver, “Vitosha?”  He looked puzzled and shook his head.  I tried again, but this time I also traced the shape of a mountain in the air with my finger and he said, “Da.”  Great, two tickets please.

At this point, all we had to do was get off once we got to the top.  We started picking up passengers and slowly climbing through the neighborhoods at the base of the forest.  We didn’t really look like we were headed into the forest, more just an outer neighborhood of Sofia, but we figured as long as we were heading uphill, we were good to go.  We passed some movie studios and a monastery.  Soon thereafter, we definitely felt a shift in momentum as the bus started heading downhill.  He was picking up speed by the second and it seemed forever until the next stop.  At that point, we knew.  Almost immediately we knew we weren’t going to make it.  We would not see the top of Vitosha.  Defeated and weary, we rode the bus back down to the last stop, got out in a neighborhood we did not recognize, and ate the lunch we had packed for our hike.  It was over.  It’s important to know when to call it quits.  This was it for us.  It was only 4pm, the day was not completely lost, but we were not going to spend any more time trying to reach the top of the elusive Vitosha.

The rest of the afternoon shaped up nicely with a few drinks to help ease our frustration, lots of productive planning and a lovely dinner of traditional Bulgarian food at Divaka.  We felt a little better when we overheard a girl who is staying at our hostel tell someone on the phone that she, too, tried to get to the top of Vitosha today but after hours of walking, gave up.  That’s something, I guess. As you can see, sometimes the attempt at a destination makes for a pretty good story alone. Besides, we win more than we lose, so days like these don’t really bother us when we have a comfortable bed, a delicious meal and an exciting tomorrow planned.

-Brooke

Categories: Bulgaria, City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Eating, Hiking, Reflections, Safety, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 12 Comments

It’s Weird when the Ground Steams

Hot Lava undergroundIt is not everyday that I find myself walking down the street and the ground is steaming.  Yes, here in Rotorua, New Zealand, steam shoots out of the ground in almost every direction you look.  If I were back home in the States, I would see this and think something is on fire or a factory is at work, but here it is just another one of nature’s wonders.

Phil's almost as tallWe began our second day in Rotorua doing what we couldn’t do yesterday due the rain:  go for a hike through the Redwoods.  We visited The Redwoods  Whakarewarewa Forest where there are groves of impressive California Redwoods.  Apparently they pale in comparison with the ones in the western U.S., but these are quite a bit younger.  They were actually planted from the trees native to the United States.  After looking at the map, we decided the 34 kilometer hike might be a bit much, but the 2.5k hike was not enough.  Like Goldilocks, we settled for the 7.5k walk which was just right.  It was well-marked and not too steep, though the climb to some of the look-out points definitely got our heart rate up!  The huffing and puffing were totally worth it to see the views from above the city.  We could see beautiful Lake Rotorua, but more impressive was the way the earth steamed as though it was about to burst!  The geothermal preserve below showcased an abundance of steam rising from the surface, but even farther away from that, off in the distance, steam clouds rise from the middle of the forest.

No 30k for you!After completing our hike, we went to Te Puia, a Maori village set on the geothermal reserve.  Here we witnessed some traditional Maori dances, including a Welcome Ceremony and a War Song.  It was interesting and impressive, though it seemed strange to me to clap after a song/dance done by warriors meant to intimidate their enemies.  I am always torn in these circumstances between exploitation and appreciation of another culture.  I did find it interesting, though I’d love a more authentic experience.  Such is the battle of the tourist, I suppose.  One of the best things about visiting Te Puia is that we were able to get up close to this amazing geyser, Pohutu (meaning “big splash”) which spews water 90 feet high at a temperature of 90 degrees Celsius!  Luckily by the time the mist reached us, it cooled significantly.  The sight of this water being under so much pressure that it springs from the earth is amazing.  Phil and I keep imagining what it must have been like for the very first person to discover this natural wonder–terrifying, I imagine!

Big Splash

Yummy!

Tonight, we are happy to be warm, dry and inside making our first home-cooked meal on the road (well, at least the first one we cooked ourselves).  We have found one of the major benefits of staying at hostels is the availability of the kitchen.  It is nice not eating out every night, plus a trip to the grocery store in another country is always interesting.  Lessons learned:  zucchinis are crazy expensive, but brussell sprouts are super cheap.  Also, a sweet potato is called a kumira.  I love it!  For dessert, we try two new candy bars:  Kit Kat Chunky and Moro Gold.

Tomorrow we head out of Rotorua toward Wellington.  We will make a brief stop in Napier, which isn’t too far from Mt. Tongariro which is an active volcano that began erupting today.  Yikes, as if we weren’t scared enough of volcanoes already!  Don’t worry, we promise to stay far away from any hot lava flows!

–Brooke

Categories: Diversions, Eating, Exploring, Hotels, New Zealand, Safety, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Bling!

I have been married for about a year (actually, tomorrow, July 10, will be a year exactly–Happy Anniversary!) Anyway, Phil went through a painstaking process of choosing the exact perfect ring for me–he took our friends Stacy and Robin to help him choose, he inspected several different diamonds to get the one he really wanted and he ended up choosing a magnificent ring. The kind a girl dreams about. I love it!

It is important to note, I am a middle school teacher whose is constantly telling my students before our big end of year field trip to Washington, D.C., “Don’t bring anything that you don’t want to lose.” Now, when you think about it, this is a pretty good philosophy, especially for 13 year-olds. However, I’ve decided the same is true for me.

Travel Engagement Ring

I would be absolutely devastated if anything happened to my rings–if I lost them, or if they got stolen, I would be totally heart-broken. Yes they are insured, but that really isn’t the point. This is the ring Phil chose for me–I certainly don’t want to risk losing it. Also, I’m pretty sure it will be clear to most people that we are American tourists and I don’t want to give anyone more reason to try to rob us. I have some visions of someone just cutting off my entire left hand to get my rings. (Don’t they know those extreme measures are unneccesary?)

The solution, of course, is to leave my rings safely at home. However, I still want to have a wedding band so I still look respectable traveling with this married man. I decided to get a fairly inexpensive, very plain wedding band for the trip. I went to my friendly neighborhood Zales at 79th and Broadway and bought the band you see below. With taxes, it was about $185.00. I have worn it quite a bit since I bought it as it is perfect for playing softball, cleaning the apartment or going for a run (all things I would have just done without my rings on before). It is really comfortable and I kind of love the simplicity of it. Also, it is nice that even in those small moments when I am sweaty from working out or up to my ears in dust and grime, I have this ring on my finger. It makes me smile.

-Brooke

Categories: Clothes, Safety, Trip Prep | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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