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Entries about living abroad

First Impressions: Xiamen, China

It was hard, really hard, to pull ourselves away from Luang Prabang, but duty calls, and we were due to report for our English teaching jobs on the 26th. We got there by way of Bangkok where we stopped to pick up the clothes we had left behind. When we first arrived, two hours late, we had some trepidation as to whether our hosts would be there to meet us. But after checking in through customs without any problems (they didn't even notice our mispelled name on the visa), there they were, Bob and Jamie, as promised. The airport itself was small and mostly shut down at 10pm, not unlike the Albany airport. Aside for the occasional policemen and woman standing at rigid attention, there was nothing to indicate that we had entered a more autocratic realm.

They brought us by taxi to our apartment, and we stopped off to buy a few things at the nearby 7-11 store. We are on the third floor of a 14 story building in a vast residential complex. Our apartment is bigger than we imagined, two bedrooms and a living room, but it is sparsely furnished, somewhat dark and shoddy in construction with rock hard beds. We do have a TV, DVD, and internet connection.


View From Our Window

The support staff of WECL, our school, are all Chinese, but a few of them speak English fluently. There are four other teachers. Bob, the head teacher and his wife Marg, both Canadian, in their mid 60's, Morgan, a 22 year old New Yorker , just done with college, but fluent in Chinese, and and Bill, another Canadian single man in his 60's, recently fired from his job at the much bigger Xiamen University, after a fight over his apartment and new age restrictions.

At Olympic Torch Relay
Left Front, Sunny, Deli, Marg, Back, Mars, Morgan


The owner of the school is Chinese, in her mid 30's, and took us all out to lunch the first day. In the Chinese tradition, it was far too much food, with 2 two kinds of soup, pork and chicken dishes and several veggie dishes, but delicious nonetheless. We have had several other great meals at local restaurants for incredibly cheap prices, and have already discovered that it doesn't pay to cook at home.

The classes are much smaller than I expected, as the school has an enrollment of only 38 this semester. However, we have been assigned to work in the evenings with older adults and so our schedule is all over the place. We teach a few classes during the day to the college students, and then have more than 6 hours a week at night and then another 4 on Sunday. The night classes are tiny, too small really, and it is not clear yet whether they will be successful or not. We are trying to get up to speed with the materials they have given us, some of which are okay, and some not. Overall the kids are delightful, but there is a big difference with the group levels. The more advanced can and do speak relatively well, while the beginning students are much worse and therefore harder to teach. Most seem interested in playing ping pong with us or chatting about what our lives are like in the States.

We have not gone to many places on our own, but yesterday attempted to go to Walmart by bus. That was an experience. Hardly anyone speaks English in this non-touristy town that is off the radar screen for most foreigners. The store was very crowded and it was hard to find what we wanted. Turns out they didn't have much of it anyway, and the prices, surprisingly, were higher than they are in the US, especially considering that almost everything is made here. On the way back we couldn't find our bus among the hundreds that seemed to be arriving nearby. Finally I pulled out my talking dictionary and managed to ask, but were told to go in the wrong direction anyway. We finally found the right one on our own, and then got stuck in a half hour traffic jam, even though Walmart is probably only 15 minutes away. I had to dash back to school without lunch in order to be available for "office hours."

Posted by jonshapiro 08:48 Archived in China Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Return to Rangoon

View Burma, Indonesia and Laos on jonshapiro's travel map.

Still suffering from intermittent stomach problems, we returned to Rangoon, hotter than ever, to a coterie of relatives that wanted to see us before we left the country. Based on recommendations from other travelers, we stayed at Motherland 2, an inexpensive backpacker hotel. This was a mistake. We were tortured for most of the night by a leaky aircon, and I don't mean a little. There were big pools of water all over the floor in the morning. The constant drip kept us awake, but when I finally did fall asleep in an Ambien induced half slumber, I dreamt that my bed was submerged and I was drowning. I was sure that our spy, Dr. Myint, had struck again. First it was the POISON FISH, and now BURMESE WATER TORTURE.

Having survived the night, barely, we were met in the late morning by a different niece of one of our U.S. students, since Sue Wei Wei had given birth during our absence. She was accompanied by the young, half Chinese friend, Aung Ko, who we had met earlier, and who continued to act as translator.


We suggested going to movies as a way to get out of the heat. Sherlock Homes was playing and we asked if there were English subtitles.

"No, No English subtitles because the movie is in English," Aung Ko said.

When we got to the nearly empty theater, it was cold inside, not unlike the bus ride to Mandalay. As it turned out, there were no Burmese subtitles either.

We asked how anyone local could understand it.

"Oh, they get some of it. The movies are almost always in English."

How or why the Burmese would want to go to a movie without subtitles in their own language is hard to understand. It was an experience to see a Hollywood production, with British English accents, in a place where no one would know what the characters were saying, or for that matter, even know about Sherlock Homes.

The next day, our last in Burma, Yu Yu's mother came to see us again, and brought us to her house where there were still more relatives waiting. This house had been in the family for many years. Of course they fed us more ice-cream than we could possible eat. It is expensive here, and they rarely eat it for that reason.


We were an anomaly in this neighborhood and people openly stared.


There were street vendors, kite makers, and bicycle tuk tuk drivers with flowers and transistor radios.




It was a fitting end to our visit. We left for Bangkok, and after two days and some indecision, for Bali and Indonesia. Stayed tuned for posts from that country and Laos.

As a post-script, we recently got yet another bizarre and somewhat indecipherable email from Dr. Win Myint, who we have been told by Nanda, is not a spy. We still have our doubts. Nanda is the Sayadaw in the Burmese monastery in Bangkok. He is now visiting the States after having received a tourist visa with our sponsorship. Unfortunately Ni Ley, the monk who showed us around Mandalay[i], was denied a visa. We are heart broken about this, as he so much wants to leave the country, and we were hoping to help him do so. We are not giving up. Unfortunately for the Burmese and the other ethnic groups in this country, the military government obviously does not give a damn about them. Right now at least, there is little they can do about it, and I fear that by the time they can, there will be nothing left.

Posted by jonshapiro 12:48 Archived in Myanmar Tagged living_abroad Comments (2)

Buenos Aires Redux

It feels good to be back "home" in our little apartment, though it is strange indeed to contemplate our return to our real home in less than two weeks.

We have continued our explorations of the neighborhoods of Buenos, and spent an enjoyable afternoon at the Modern Art Museum and playing in the nearby greenspace.

Another day was spent in the leather shops of Calle Florida. We must have gone into at least half dozen places and there were many more. Ultimately we settled on one store which seemed to have the softest leather. We blew some bucks, and each ordered a custom jacket to be ready in 48 hours.


We met up (for the third time) with our friends EJ and Michael, who treated us to a lovely meal and at least three bottles of Malbec. They have shipped their Land Cruiser back home to England, full of chocolate from Bariloche, (which we heard melted in the heat of late Spring) and left for home yesterday.

We strolled along the Rio de la Plata eating choripan, a sausage and potato sandwich, which is sold in the many stalls nearby. Not good for you, but very good tasting. La Plata is a river in the sense that that the Saint Lawrence Seaway is one. Estuary is probably a better term. From there we walked to a nearby park and got a view of the city skyline through marsh grasses.


Intrepid Sun Worshippers by the Rio

This Guy was selling donuts, but he seemed not to notice Nanette
Standing Behind Him.


On one of our other wanderings, we took the subte to Recoleta, the cemetery of the rich and famous. It is like a small town with alleyways, ornate mausoleums, and saintly Catholic sculpture. "Saint" Evita is buried here, somewhat ironically, given her dedication to the poor and downtrodden. She is apparently in a crypt that could withstand a bomb attack, and there is good reason for that.

Evita was embalmed at the time of her early death in 1953, and then kept by a Peronist union organization while a special burial place was being prepared for her. When the army overthrew Peron in 1955, General and President Aramburu was concerned that her body would become a rallying point for the outlawed Peronist Party. Hence he had it shipped off to a secret location in Europe, purportedly in Italy. There it remained for many years. In 1970 the Montoneros, a left wing guerrilla group, kidnapped Aramburu, and killed him when he refused to reveal Evita's whereabouts. They tried to arrange a his and hers body exchange, but this never took place. In 1971 the army, apparently in a peace gesture, had it shipped to Peron's residence in Spain, though by this time he was remarried. He returned to Argentina a few years later, but without the body. It was not until after his death that Isabelita, his third wife, had it brought back. Evita was then interred in her final (until now at least) resting place. In another ironic twist, Aramburu is also buried in Recoleta.

At one point we thought we saw him, but it was hard to tell for sure.


Juan Peron's body is in another location, and there have been issues with that too. In the 80's thieves broke into the crypt and sawed off his hands. They have never been found. (Sources for the above info include, Moon Travel Guide to Argentina, Washington Post, January 1, 1997, Scandalous Women, A Blog, October 17, 2008, by Laurel Thatcher Ullrich, as well as NY Times cited below).

According to psychologist Alberto Parkes, as quoted in the NY Times, October 13, 1996, the Argentine obsession with the dead is because of their inability to come to terms with their troubled past. Possible I admit, but also understandable is why there are more shrinks per capita in Buenos Aires than anywhere else in the world, including New York. In Argentina the (dead) body politic takes on a whole new meaning.

While we were in Buenos it seemed positively sacrilegious not to attend a tango performance. The Tango, by the way, was very much a lower class thing for years. It was a long time before it was seen as respectable, and became the national symbol that it is today. We had hoped to go to a Milonga, which are authentic public dances, often with lessons, and attended mostly by locals. The problem was they all seemed to start at midnight, and we old fogies just couldn't wait up. Instead we went to Cafe Tortoni and saw a more touristy production. Okay, but hokey.

The Author in Cafe Tortoni with Wax Sculptures of Borjes and Guardel

Another picture of Guardel, the Most Famous Tango Singer in Argentina,
though he was born in France.

On a different walk, we happened to pass a small downtown concert hall and saw that there was a tango concert that evening. That was the real deal. It was great, but unfortunately no dancing. We had seen some street dancing in San Telmo and LaBoca, and so didn't feel deprived.

Deserted Downtown on the Weekend


On our final excursion, we crossed over the Rio Plata into Uruguay to Colonia. This is easy to do and takes anywhere from one to three hours, depending on the type of boat you take. Colonia is a charming, and yes, colonial city, that is fun to walk around. It is full of old stone houses, cobblestone streets and byways; a very relaxing place to spend the afternoon.





El Ultima Dia:

Strange indeed. We leave tonight, and as the trip is drawing to a close my experience of it, as with any period of time in the past, is becoming condensed. A little like an accordion being played at the last tango concert, some of the air is being pushed out. Is this the nature of all past experience? Does it all tend to run together over time with certain obvious exceptions? Does it all occupy the same psychological space?

Obviously some things we remember while others we don't. Is it the specific memory of something which gives it meaning? Is what we remember significant, and what we forget unimportant. It's not that simple. Sometimes I remember a detail or a sight that when I reflect upon it seems trivial. For example, I have been known to remember the name of a restaurant years later, and while I concede that food is of the utmost importance to me, I think the name is not. So the memory per se doesn't always confer meaning or imply importance. And besides, as I get older my memory is not as good as it was, and it was never that great.

So where is the meaning to be found? Is it in the sheer number or variety of experience? We all tend to limit the kinds and amount of experience we allow ourselves, and it is also limited by circumstances beyond our control. Should we all become peak baggers, ( like Adirondack Mountain Club 46ers), climbing as many peaks of experience as possible so that we can tally them up and keep track of them. Is travel like that too; like so many stickers on a suitcase, on the back of a car, or patches on a backpack?

I have to admit that I feel a certain amount of "pride" when I look through my passport and see all those country stamps in there. A little like "this car climbed Mount Washington, or Pike's Peak." How ridiculous. Who really gives a f...... (okay if the New Yorker can say it I can too), fuck. Alright, maybe I consider myself a kind of experience junkie. That's pretty silly too when I think about it. Really just a variation of been there, done that.

So what am I really trying to say here? The experiences that seems to matter are those that push us. These can be what we usually think of as bad, such as my prostate cancer for example, or they can be good, like a particular ski run down a steep mountain bowl, where every motion feels like flying. Either way, they challenge us physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

How does travel fit in? Travel pushes you. I want to be clear about this. Travel is not the only way to be pushed. There are obviously many ways, some planned, some not. Travel is one way. It is full of surprises. You don't really know what a place will be like until you get there, guidebooks notwithstanding. It is often challenging; dealing with poverty in Peru or illness in Bolivia. Sometimes just communicating in Spanish, and finding your way around a new place can be challenging. The point is that you are exposed to new things that are literally extra-ordinary.

As I think about this trip, I realize that this is what gives it meaning. It has pushed me in a variety of ways, many of which I can't even articulate or categorize now. I do know that I have certainly been very uncomfortable at times, really joyful at others, and sometimes amazed in a kind of WOW, LOOK AT THAT, way. So yes I have been pushed by much of the last 8+ months, and even before, just getting ready to leave. This has made me grow and expand to incorporate it all and I suspect that process will continue for a while now. In the end, it has made me feel more ALIVE, and GRATEFUL, as I've said before, for the opportunity to undertake this journey.

CODA: Well not really. In the immortal words of Daffy Duck, THAT'S NOT ALL FOLKS. By the time most of you read this we will be on our way to Burma to travel and visit U Kumala, one of the monks that we have taught English to over the past year or so. Now I know that all of you, my faithful readers, have been waiting with baited breath for me to answer the question, WHAT MONKS HAVE TO DO WITH IT? Now you know the answer, sort of. At any rate, I was hoping to blog this trip live as it were, but given the political situation over there, this does not seem advisable. And besides, I have to tell you all about last years trip to teach English in China, and travel to Southeast Asia, as well as trekking in the Indian Himalaya. So you can look forward to more postings from Vagabonding at 60. Actually, though I hate to admit it, I am now 61, but that's okay. I've decided that 59, and definitely 60, is OLD ENOUGH. However, as my late father used to say, consider the alternative.







Posted by jonshapiro 22:21 Archived in Argentina Tagged living_abroad Comments (9)

Buenos Aires And the Crazy Politics of Argentina

The Sexy Couple in LaBoca

We took the overnight bus/cama or sleeping bus (I wish) to the Big Apple of Argentina,and then stayed for a couple of nights in a bad hotel room. After two days of running around like crazy, we rented a small apartment in a nice section of town, Palermo, and set up home here for the next few weeks, until our return.


Our Corner

Our Street

There are a number of on-line sites if you want to rent in BA, but it is not easy to tell what the place is really like, and how quiet it is, unless you see it in person. For that reason we waited until we got here. It is apparently unusual to to shop around in person for a short term rental, but we persevered and they accommodated us. The rental agent did not have the authority to do the paperwork, and so we had to meet with an elderly Jewish couple who were renting the place for their daughter. They had us sign off on an itemized list of every piece of furniture, including the number of forks, spoons, glasses and cooking utensils, just to make sure they we didn't break or run off with anything. A bit on the paranoid side.

Buenos Aires is a big, busy city, a bit like New York, but without the same ethnic diversity. Up to 1/3rd of the entire population of 40 million, lives in the greater district. The comparison between NYC and BA works on another level as well, in that some of people from Buenos tend to be more cosmopolitan and better educated, and hence, like New Yorkers, look down at the rest of the country and see other people as hicks. There's that famous New Yorker cartoon with Manhattan and then California, with little in between. While I am originally from The City, I'm a confirmed up stater now after almost 35 years, and I must say it does get tiring to hear how terrible Albany is, when all everyone from downstate knows about is the train or bus station.

Within a few days of our arrival, Nanette has already visited the local Zara and bought some new clothes for the first time in eight months. I have developed a fondness for the blue shirt I have worn for the entire trip, and have no interest in changing it now. We have settled into a very nice, relaxing, pattern. Each day we choose a different part of town to explore, which is easy to do on the subte, (or subway), located just two blocks away.


Shots of Downtown

On Sunday we went to the antiques market in San Telmo, and began our search for leather jackets which are relatively cheap here, what with all the beef they eat.


Tango on the Streets

Yesterday we spent in typical Buenos fashion. We lazed around until 3PM, and then went to the Belles Artes Museum for a couple of hours in the afternoon. We went back later in the evening for a piano for four hands concert. The thing we didn't do, which is also typical, is stay up most of the night.

There are foreign restaurants of course, but for the most part parrilla, the barbecued meat that is served all over the country, is also very prominent here. We are enjoying cooking in our own kitchen again, and have discovered a shop around the corner which sells homemade pasta, uncooked, along with pesto and red sauce. All we have to do is boil for about two minutes and we have a delicious dinner. We have found many fresh vegetables and can, at long last, make a really good salad, something that for inexplicable reasons doesn't tend to be served in restaurants.

We also had a grand tour of the city with a woman we first met in Huaraz, Peru. Celeste, who is a personal trainer, told us to be sure to look her up when we got here. She and her younger boyfriend Mariano, a lawyer, drove up from LaPlata, two hours south, to take us around in their car and point out the highlights. Among other places we visited Casa Rosada, The Pink House, akin to our White House, and we saw the parliament buildings as well, where the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo still march to protest the desaparacidos.


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This seems like a good place to insert a short discussion about Argentine politics. I want to preface this by saying that Argentinians are some of the warmest and most hospitable people we met. They love to talk to foreigners, and are very open about sharing their emotions, probably because so many have an Italian background. We loved them, but, to put it mildly, Argentina is a crazy place.

As Feitlowitz indicates in A Lexicon of Terror, it has a history of self-destruction. Many authors describe the country as enigmatic, paradoxical, etc., because since 1930 it has lurched from one economic and political crisis to another. From 1930 there have been at least 9 military coups, several rigged elections, and other presidents have been openly appointed by the army. And yet, the population is the most educated in South America with the highest literacy rate. The country is rich in natural resources, and in the 1920's and later, it was the 8th largest economy in the world. Buenos Aires was often considered the Paris of South America.

So why should they have so many problems? There has been no lack of speculation. Feitlowitz says that the basic structures of Argentina have remained feudal. The strongest elites have continued to be the landowning oligarchy, the Catholic Church, and the military.

Jonathan Brown says in A Short History of Argentina, that there has been a problem with social discrimination since the indigenous culture was destroyed in 1879. Hard manual labor and poverty were always equated with dark skin, and whites lost status if they worked with their hands. The oligarchy favored immigrant gringos over creole workers, and the upwardly mobile immigrants, most of whom settled in Buenos Aires, were quick to adopt the same attitudes toward race and color. Resentment simmered in the working class and, as Brown puts it, every landowner, employer, shopkeeper, and patrona monitored the behavior of their poorly paid employees because they feared a revolt. Authoritarianism which began with the elites, was later embraced by the middle-class and by the army, a largely middle-class institution.

Colin MacLachlan points out in his book, Argentina: What Went Wrong, that by 1880, the oligarchy had created a democratic illusion which continued well into the concordancia and the decada infama (1930-43). During this period which started with the overthrow of Yrigoyen by General Uriburu, three major political parties got together to create a government which controlled the political process for the benefit of the wealthy. Fraud and corruption were rampant. In 1943 there was another army coup in which Juan Peron participated. Three years later he won a reasonably democratic election by margin that only increased as time went on.

If anyone is representative of the conflicted Argentine society it is Peron. On the one hand he advocated for the lower class, the shirtless ones, by promoting social justice. He nationalized certain industries, increased basic wages, and improved working conditions for the poor. For that reason he became the darling of the workers. At the same time he was an admirer of Mussolini and Hitler, and sheltered many Nazis. After the election, he further consolidated his power by ousting anyone, including union leaders and other politicians, who dared to disagree with him. Although he was initially successful economically, things later spun out of control. He was despised by the elite, and to some extent by the upper-middle class intelligentsia, who saw him as a populist demagogue. His wife Evita was also beloved by the poor, almost to the point of sainthood. She gave away millions, advocated universal suffrage, and behaved in an autocratic fashion that brooked no dissent. Despite being a voice for the common people, she reveled in a trip to Franco's Spain, where she was treated like royalty. Other Argentinians considered her a lower-class whore. She died young of cancer, and is still idolized by much of the country.

In 1955, after he antagonized the Catholic Church, originally an ally, the army once again moved in and threw Peron out of office, It also outlawed the Peronist party, fearing it had tilted too far to the left. Peron was exiled to Spain, not to return for 18 years. During this time the army largely ran the country through a series of puppet presidents. The economy was stagnant, or worse, and the workers and labor unions, angry that their party was illegal, protested the rolling back of previous economic benefits through a series of riots and strikes. As in other parts of the world, the 60's were a time of of protest and social upheaval. A small radical left wing group, the Montoneros, and a few others, staged some high profile assassinations and kidnappings. As the 70's began, the number of armed attacks increased in number, as did the retaliations by right wing paramilitary groups. The army became concerned that the country was sliding into chaos, and legalized the Peronista Party once again, hoping this would provide an outlet. The Peronists swept the elections of 1973, but Peron himself was forbidden to run for president. He came back into the country shortly thereafter in what was supposed to be a triumphal return, but instead his right wing supporters opened fire and massacred his left wing supporters. He then denounced the left, after he had spent years encouraging them abroad. Another election was held shortly thereafter, which he won with 61% of the vote. About a year later with the economy still in trouble,, he died of a heart attack, and his third wife took over.

Isabelita, as she was called, unleashed the Triple A goon squad to try and finish off the Montoneros, and was generally seen as a completely incompetent and inept president. The army again intervened in 1976, with the vast support of the middle and upper classes. Even such liberal papers as La Opinion supported what was initially called, The Gentlemen's Coup. Ironically the editor of the paper, Jacobo Timerman, a Jew, initially wrote in support of the generals. Barely a year later, they imprisoned and tortured him for two years. He wrote about his experience in Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.

General Videla took charge along with other members of the armed forces, and implemented El Proceso. It later became known as The Dirty War, in which upwards of 30,000 people, depending on whose figures you use, were tortured and disappeared. Many of these people had nothing to do with radical left wing politics, but no matter. The generals used the excuse of national security, (sound familiar) and fighting communism, to wipe out students and professors, social workers and psychologists, labor union organizers, and virtually anyone who might be friends with them. Jews were overly represented in the disappeared. Most of the country looked the other way. They wanted a return to STABILITY and ORDER. I won't say law and order because that was clearly not the case.

The US congress gave money to the generals " to fight communism," and some members of the Argentine military were trained in torture in the SOA, School of the Americas in Fort Benning Georgia, as were other prominent Latin American dictators. They were also initially advised by the French military, according to Feitlowitz. Although Jimmy Carter, the US president in the late 70's, cut off financial aide, it was quickly re instituted by Reagan, who openly supported the regime in 1980.

Finally, in 1983 after the disastrous Falklands War with Britain, the military was disgraced, and allowed general elections to be held. Alfonsin was elected, and although there were a few prominent trials, he was afraid to prosecute too many from the unrepentant and still powerful military. Menem, supposedly a Peronist, though he instituted a neo-liberal economic policy supported by the IMF, later pardoned all of them. He linked the Argentine peso to the US dollar and initially brought the rampant hyperinflation under control. After being re elected he declined to run again, perhaps knowing what was come, leaving the way clear for Kirschner to become president. In 2001 the country defaulted on its IMF loans, the currency was devalued, and as much as 50% of the population was thrust into poverty. Menem eventually fled to Chile to avoid being convicted of fraud and embezzlement.

Economically things have improved somewhat under Kirchners 1, and now 2, Christina. However Transparency International ranks Argentina 109 out of 180 countries on its corruption index. This is worse than its score of 92 in 2003, when it ranked the same as Ethiopia, Pakistan and Zambia. As Maclachlan points out (Argentina:What Went Wrong, page 198) "even those that do not engage in corruption are assumed to do so. Laws are perceived to be obstacles that can be suspended by the powerful when approached properly... Individuals feel that they are victimized by those with better contacts or manipulative skills and thus feel exploited by their fellows."

This certainly fits with what I heard from Samantha, our Spanish teacher in Bariloche. It was no surprise to her that the judge released a thief because they knew each other from high school. She would have been surprised if he hadn't done that.

On a lighter note, Paul Samuelson, the economist, has been quoted as saying that there are four economic systems, capitalism, communism, Japan without resources but everything works, and Argentina with resources but nothing works.

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We continued our tour with Celeste and Mariano to LaBoca, the working class and somewhat seedy, port section of town. It proved to be a very interesting place, full of street art.




We later made dinner at our apartment for our tour guides.


You guessed it, pasta. They brought us a huge bag of Dulce de Leche, a popular candy in Argentina, but a bit too sweet for us. We got to practice our Spanish all day long. Celeste made us promise to call her when we got back from Iguazu Cataratas, so that we could visit her and her family and have parilla with them. We did call, but couldn't arrange a time to get down there. Almost everyone we met has been like this. They all want to hear that you love them and their country, but I guess most Norteamericanos want to hear the same things.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:11 Archived in Argentina Tagged living_abroad Comments (5)

Chilean Lake District and the Meaning of Long Term Travel

We then crossed over into Puerto Varas, Chile, a resort town on a large lake with a big German influence. I took few photos here because it was pouring almost the entire time. In general, there is more rain on the western side of the mountains, and this was certainly the case when we were there. If you go to the following site you can see what it looks like on a nice day: http://www.trekearth.com/gallery/South_America/Chile/Lakes_Region/Los_Lagos/Puerto_Varas/photo110165.htm

We had big plans to go other places when we arrived, but the continuous damp, chilly, weather dissuaded us. The hostel we stayed in was cold and drafty, which didn't help my disgruntled mood. At one point our friends, who were traveling just two weeks, decided to spring for a night at a much more upscale and warmer place. Chile was more expensive than Argentina, and, despite the atrocities of Pinochet, the economy was in better shape. They had avoided the Argentinian economic "crisis" in 2001, and yet many buildings, like our hostel for example, were old and needed work. It was obvious that the Chilean economy had not lifted all boats.

We did take a few wet walks along the lake and to some nearby towns. We also went by bus to nearby Vulcan Osorno, though it was covered in cloud much of the time.


The weather did not improve and we all began to go a bit stir crazy. Perhaps having too much time on my hands, I began musing about "bad travel days," and the overall meaning of long term travel. Certainly dealing with the frustration of these wet days in Chile is a part of the process. You learn to cope with circumstances beyond your control, and to surrender to them. There are obviously many positive days, as you can tell from my writing, but the meaning of travel is also contained in the bad times as well. You have to learn to let go and roll with what comes your way. Before we left, everyone wanted to know what our itinerary was, and although we had a rough idea which countries we were planning to visit, the schedule was very loose. This involved another type of letting go. There is simply no way to plan a trip of nine months in advance without driving yourself crazy, and locking yourself into a plan that you will want to change later on. Not that this is easy, and it is different than the way I usually live my life.

Another challenging thing is learning to live with a small backpack of clothes, though this proved easier than deciding what to pack. It's amazing how few THINGS you really need, but how often do you realize this in your daily life. Travel is about divesting your attachments.... to things, to people you know, and to control.

Who would really want to do this? As with so many things, it is a trade-off. What you get in return is a kind of freedom that is hard to obtain in other ways. You also get to meet a lot of very interesting people of various ages, and you experience a kind of intimacy with them that might otherwise take much longer to develop, or wouldn't happen at all because you wouldn't meet them in the first place. You get exposed to amazing new experiences and cultures that you would otherwise never know, except vicariously. You learn to tolerate and deal with things that you never thought you could put up with, and yes, you do learn what your limits are since you keep bumping up against them.

In our culture, North American or Western European, it is easy to assume that we are in control of most everything in our day to day lives. This is not necessarily the case in other places or other cultures. On a trip to India, the same one I alluded to in another posting, my buddy and I stopped in a small shop in Dharamsala. It had been raining for days, and we needed to get some plastic bags to keep our stuff dry, as we were about to embark on another trek. In the States we would just go into a supermarket and buy them. Here it wasn't so easy.

This particular shop was a tiny variety store, and we asked the proprietor if he had any plastic bags.

" No," he said, "but not to worry."

He then pulled out a roll of thick plastic and proceeded to sew, by hand, the number of bags we needed. While he was doing so, we got started talking, and of course the weather came up since we had to change our plans because of the extended monsoon season. We told him about getting caught in a blizzard at 17,000 feet, and having to retrace our steps after a week of hard hiking.

"Well," he said," when you come to India, you have to put yourself in God's hands."

How true, and its not just because of the weather. Anything and everything can happen in India, and in so many other places. It more or less forces you to give up the illusion of control that we Westerners have in our nice ordered lives. Scary perhaps, but it is also liberating.

This type of travel is easier in your 20's or 30's, as opposed to your 50's or 60's, but maybe it is even more important for us old farts to challenge ourselves so that we do not go gently into that goodnight. After all, most of us know some things about loss of control, things we didn't know when we were younger and thought life went on forever.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:11 Archived in Chile Tagged living_abroad Comments (3)

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