South America - Hostels, Car, and the "End of the World"

Eli and I landed in Buenos Aires (or B.A. as we call it) Argentina after an overnight flight from Madrid. We were rested and ready to get started on our next adventure. Upon arriving, our spirits were temporarily shot down as we were ushered to a special line for "US citizens" in order to pay an arrival fee. Turns out, as of Dec 28, 2009, US citizens were reqquired to pay an entry fee of $130 each person! Ouch! We couldn't believe it. $260 gone just like that, just for arriving. Next step, finding a taxi to our hostel. We thought we would only have to pay about $30 but it was more like $40...eww another extra cost. Not fun. We arrived at our little hostel around 8am, tired from our flight, hoping to get a quick shower and a morning nap before exploring the city. To our dismay our hostel told us that there were still people sleeping in our beds from the night before and that we couldn't check in until 2pm. Aghhh! No showers, no nap...but at least they let us eat the free breakfast of bread and cereal. After helping ourselves to extra bread, we managed to muster up some energy to walk the city for the next 6 hrs. B.A. was another typical bustling city. The weather was very nice, especially coming from chilly London. The people were friendly, not many spoke English as Eli warned me about. Most of the people out and about were very good looking, I could tell that appearance was a big deal there. I instantly felt different from much of the women walking around in there fancy clothes and high heels, as I was dressed like a backpacker who just slept on a plane. I realized that this was the first time in a long time where I felt out of place in term of fashion. In SE Asia and Nepal I felt out of place because my skin color stood out, whereas in B.A. many people are light skinned, so it was like I fit in somewhat but was out of touch with style. Who really cares though, my priorities on this trip have not been about my appearance!
Our time in BA consisted alot of walking for many miles a day around the city. Since we had been in cities for the past few weeks, we were a bit worn out from musuems and monuments so we went to 2 movies. It was fun trying our hand at Castillano (Spanish) ordering movie tickets, popcorn, etc. Instead of telling a lady "I don't understand" I accidently told her "she doesn't understand" but didn't realize it until later. In the city, we did the usual search for used books stores. This time we were on the hunt for a South American travel guide. We must have walked to and gone into 30 books stores in the 3 days we were in BA (yes the city has that many). We were not successful at finding a good used book store but instead opted to buy a new guide book that cost more than it would in the States. For us, every city is a challenge for us to find the best book store. By far, Kathmandu, Nepal has been the best place to buy books. Who would have ever thought that?! We kicked ourselves for not buying the South American guidebook there that was only $4!

Our next destination after B.A. was Ushuaia, (in Tierra del Fuego) the southernmost city in the World! It reminded Eli of a little coastal town that he visited in Alaska. It reminded me of Astoria, in Oregon with the cloud coverage and chilly air. In Ushuaia, we went for a short hike up towards Glacier Martial which didn't last long as the wind picked up and the fresh snow made for a not so fun time. We didn't even make it up to the glacier. You'd think we were expert hikers by now after our 12 days trek in Nepal but we knew that we would be seeing more glaciers throughout our time in South America. After a couple of days in Ushuaia, we decided to move onward to Punta Arenas, Chile. We took a bus, 14 hours, crossing over the Straight of Magellan into Chile and arrived at night and made our way to another hostel. We didn't have any plans for treking or for siteseeing in Punta Arenas as our only goal of this destination was to buy a car. The bus scene was getting a bit tiresome and we were itching to have the freedom of a car so we were determined to make it happen. Eli had been doing some research for the past few months about the car buying process and figured out that this town was "tax free" and was supposed to have cheaper cars than other parts of Chile. The only thing standing in our way was finding a car, communicating with someone who doesn't speak English, test driving, getting a mechanic to look at the car, getting a tax ID number, negotiating a price, and of course, doing the massive amounts of paperwork. This was looking impossible.

But miracles do happen. We met an amazing local fellow named Anibal, through couchsurfing, that was a Godsend for us.

So within 2 days of arriving, we met up with Anibal to talk about cars and suddenly we found ourselves driving and negotiating a price for the one and only car we checked out. Anibal found this car for us while translating the classfieds in the paper. He also went with us to testdrive, he translated for us with the owner, he negotiated a price, and he even made us an appointment with a mechanic. In addition to all of that we had to go with the car's owner to the notary 3 times, the bank twice, and the registration office to get the paperwork taken care of (the paperwork is complicated for foreigners). Even with that stress, the whole transaction was unbelievably smooth. We couldn't believe that a guy we met 2 days ago was offering so much help for us. I know he sounds too good to be true but he is for real. He is the most generous stranger we have ever met. And he was not asking for anything but for us to pay it forward someday. Yes! We will remind each other of this kindness and do our best to pass it along.

So, we are now holding the keys to our '98 Nissan Pathfinder. The first thing we did with the car was drive 30 minutes north to a penguin colony. There we saw about 20 penguins that remained, most have already migrated for the winter. So cute!

The car drove wonderfully! It is newer and probably nicer than any car Eli and I ever owned :). And we can sleep in it! Eli, being the craftsman that he is, is building a platform for us to sleep on that will allow for storage underneath. How cool is that. No more hostels! Oh and we won't miss the buses either. Good thing we got this car, our last few experiences in hostels have not been so pleasant. Lack of sleep from roudy shared rooms and inconsiderate roomates have gotten under or skin. I guess we don't really fit in with many of the travelers that are only staying for a few weeks and are looking to party. I will add a postive note about the hostel we are currently staying in. There aren't many guest and the ones that arrive have been very pleasant. It's the fellow who manages the place that makes it special.
He took an interest in Eli's carpentry and even helped out with the sawing and nailing of the platform. He doesn't speak any English but he has managed to use lots of charaddes to communicate with us. He is totally hilarious. Last night we were invited to have dinner (in the hostel dining room) with him and 3 other local friends of his.
We were blessed with an amazing meal of chicken, sausage, king crab soup, mussels, and wine. After dinner we polished off the wine and were offered a taste of "Pico Sour". Pico Sour is a Chilean mixed drink consisting of lemons, powdered sugar, Pico (grape liquor), and a raw eggs. I was hesitant about it, thinking to myself about all the seafood I ate for dinner and about that raw egg I saw mixed in, but then the wine told me...When in Rome. Turns out it was sooo delicious! A few hours later and 3 batches of this yummy drink, Eli and I were laughing in hysterics along with our new friends. The charades got more intense and the jokes got better...who needs to speak the same language when there are drinks involved.

Tomorrow we are packing up the car and heading to Torres Del Paine to start some camping and trekking!


Istanbul to London - Kebabs, Mosques, and Couchsurfing

When buying our plance tickets from Kathmandu, Nepal to Buenos Aires, Argentina, we discovered the best bang for our buck would be to stop over in Istanbul and London for a few days each. Although not on our original itenerary, we were excited to see some unexpected places. We have also eliminated South Africa from this trip in order to spend more time in South America.

While we were dreading the travel week ahead of us, we were excited to head to Istanbul, Turkey for a quick 2 days. Jodie and I have been in countless airports now and by far the craziest one has been the Kathmandu International Airport. I will never complain about security checks in the US again. When we arrived at the airport, there was a line outside to actually get IN to the airport. After 10 min of waiting in that line, we were denied entry because we did not have printed boarding passes (as we were travelling via electronic tickets). The police officer/security guard made us wait outside while an airline rep was being fetched to help us. 20 min later the police let us inside but not through security and told us to sit and wait. After about another 15 min, no rep yet so the police guy suddenly had a change of heart, and let us go through the metal detector to get into the airport. Once inside, with tickets freshly printed, we proceded to go through 3 more full pat-down security checks before we could get on the plane. After an uneventful layover in Dubai, we were off to Istanbul. We bought tickets through a discount airline which we have learned that they always fly to the farthest airport away from any city center. This wouldn't normally be an issue but we arrived at 1am on a plane full of boisterous and impatients Turks and we were pretty tired. As soon as the plane touched down in Istanbul, while it was still speeding down the runway, one man jumped up to get his things from the overhead compartment because he was in such a hurry. This triggered about half of the plane to also stand up which sent the flight attendents into a frenzy. We thought it was hilarious.

Luckily at 1am we found the last airport shuttle for the night that was about half the price of a taxi. It would take us about an hour to get to the city center where our hostel was located. We stumbled into our hostel around 2am and were very happy to get some rest after 17 hrs of traveling.

Istanbul proved to be a whirlwind of site-seeing, kebabs, and tons of walking. We managed to spend 20 hours seeing the sites in 2 days. As you may remember from history class, Istanbul was the capital of 3 different empires and, therefore, has a ploethera of historic sites and musuems. It's name has changed with each of the ruling empires from Byzantium to Constantanople to Istanbul. You know that song is going through your head right now....you know the one.
Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus, which is the channel that links the Black Sea with the Mediteranian and also seperates Asia from Europe. The historical regime changes has led to a diversity of religions from early Christianity to Muslim.
One of our favorite sites was the church of Hagia Sophia, a church built around 500 AD, the largest for 100 yrs until St Peter's Basilica was built in Rome. We were amazed walking through the caverness building knowing that it's been around for 15 centuries. When the Ottoman Empire took over Constantinople, the church was converted to a Mosque and the all of the Biblical mosaics decorating the church were plastered over and only recently have they started restoring them.
We also had our first experience inside of a working Mosque, the Blue Mosque, which is nearly as large and spectacular as Hagia Sophia. We toured Topkaie Palace, an old Ottoman palace, which was where the Sultans used to live. There were endless rooms filled with all sorts of relics encrusted with precious stones like diamonds, emeralds, and rubies on display. It was hard to imagine the luxurious lives these rulers lived.

Being the Kebab lovers that we are, we managed to eat 4 of them each in 2 days. Although they were very tasty, our best kebab award still goes to New Zealand where we could get lamb with any kind of sauce. In Turkey we could not find lamb and they were sauceless.
We also sampled some fresh fish sandwiches which were literally served straight off the boats in the peir. The sandwiches were ok but the atmosphere was terrific with lots of Turks quickly grabbing the sandwiches to devour while sitting in groups at small stools and tables.

It was strange going from the impovereshed streets of Kathmandu to the European feel of Istanbul. I think we are getting a little numb to all the culture shock we've experienced throughout our trip. We would like to return to Turkey someday to see more of what it has to offer as we really enjoyed the history and vibrant culture there. Everyplace has been so different from the last and our next stop, London, was not an exception to this.

Heading to London, it was a nice relief to have a short, non-stop flight that arrived at a reasonable hour of the day. After navigating our way through the "Tube" (underground subway system) with our large packs we arrived at our couchsurfing hosts flat on the Northside of the city. This was our first couchsurfing experience eventhough we attempted to find hosts in a few cities before. We had no luck with it until now. Couchsurfing.org is a website where travellers who need a place to stay are linked up with people who are willing to host them. Our host just, Jakob, moved to London 6 weeks ago from Germany. He is staying rent free in the 4 story loft as a caretaker for this property that had previously been occupied by 6 squatters. London has a unique law that allows people to legally inhabit vacant properties if they find them open. Jakob had recently cleaned the place out and was starting to repair some of the damage made by the disgruntled squatters that the landlord wanted out. Among other things, the central heating was not working which made the place very chilly with the freezing nights. Luckily we had recently been in Nepal where we were used to the cold temperatures and lack of heating. Jodie says that London is way colder than Nepal. Jakob proved to be a gracious host. Our first night there, he invited some friends over (some Germans, Japanese, and a Londoner) and fed us a traditional British dish of mashed potatoes and meat pie. We returned the favor by buying him a couple of pints at the local pub and also helping him with his English wording on his resumes. We got along with him quite well and we seemed to have alot in common including his love for cheap and free things. He is frugile just like us as displayed by his collection of chairs, dishes, and mirrors all found on the streets. Although this was my first time to London, this was Jodie's third time so she got to play tour guide for me. In London, we spent another 2 days of busy site-seeing to soak up what we could in such a short time.
We were eager to see the wonderful musuems that London offered including the British Musuem, the National Art Gallery, and the National History Musuem. Some of the highlights of these musuems were the Rosetta Stone, mummies, Mexican Revolutionary art, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet, and dinosaurs. We walked until our feet got tired and we mastered the Tube seeing such sites as Big Ben, Parliment, the Tower Bridge, and Buckingham Palace. Jodie bragged that the last time she was at Buckingham, she got to see the Queen and Princes waving from the balcony. Not this time. We ate fish and chips and once again, some kebabs for good measure. We definatley got our fill of musuems to last us for a long time. We have not yet got our fill of kebabs. I am hungry right now, that is why I keep talking about kebabs.

By the time we post this blog we will be in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We are currently typing this in the airport in Madrid, Spain waiting 8 hrs on layover about to board our 20th flight segmant since leaving Hawaii last November. We have navigated 24 airports and we've lost track of how many hours we have spent in transit. It will be nice to finally arrive in South America, our last continent before heading back to the states, with the majority of our flights behind us. We have been surprised at the widespread use of English in most of the places we have been but now we will have to brush up on our Spanish as most South Americans know little English, as I learned while travelling there 4 years ago. We are very excited to get there!

Nepal - Happy Holi, Water and Paint

In Nepal, Holi proved to be our new favorite holiday. Anyone who dared to walk the streets that day was bombarded with water balloons and attacked by teenagers with handfuls of powdered paint. Jodie and I spent most of the day up on the rooftop of our hotel where we took full participation in the festivities by having an hour 8 water balloon fight with the neighboring buildings and people on the street below. We managed to stay relatively free of paint until we ventured out for lunch when we were swarmed by the teenagers and quickly smothered in red and yello paint. Everyone involved seemed to be having a wonderful time and we felt very lucky to be here during this unique Nepali holiday. Enjoy these embarrassing pics! Jodie thinks the picture with the four serious gentlemen is especially funny because of how comical we look. We laugh when we think about how not serious they were before snapping this picture. They were all smiles when they asked Jodie and me to take a picture with them!