part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4
day -3 - february 29: SEA to JFK to GRU
so this trip was really about antarctica; however, flights to the meeting point in ushuaia, at the southern tip of argentina, were ass, plus i had to pay a $160 "reciprocity fee" to get into argentina in the first place, so i said fuck it & decided to spend a few days tooling around buenos aires before the antarctic bit began. the three separate legs PLUS three nights at a hotel in buenos aires PLUS an extra overnight in ushuaia STILL cost less than going from seattle to ushuaia, & gave me a nice break from flying. but this day was all about flying.
i had a lovely sendoff dinner the night before with james, packed my bag perfectly, took a nap, then caught a ride to the airport. the 4am ride was surreal - it felt very "favorite sitcom's mid-season break" as i was driven past homey seattle landmarks i wouldn't be seeing for three weeks. due to spending nearly all of leap day traveling, it was decided that i thus earned my time lord badge. the seattle to new york leg was pretty nominal; i was through security quickly & ended up falling back asleep even before takeoff. at JFK airport, i snagged a surprisingly good corned beef sandwich at the brooklyn deli & didn't even try to resist buying a boston kreme dunkin donut. ah, nostalgia. my arrival & departure gates were two doors apart.
after successfully battling an old woman for my window seat (i think she was speaking portuguese, but she was gonna speak broken mouth if she didn't get outta my window), the flight to brazil started with a safety briefing that i'm pretty sure featured elastigirl. dinner was atrocious & i was glad to have half of my corned beef sandwich left. (hey, here's what you don't serve when your entire captive audience has to share three tiny toilets over nine hours: asparagus.) i dozed, watched some in-seat movies, & enjoyed the cheshire grin of a half moon out my well-earned window. as we crossed the equator, we hit some REALLY lumpy air & it felt like we descended a thousand feet in the space of a few minutes trying to avoid it. thankfully most people were asleep at that time, & no one was freaking out, so i sucked it up & put enjoyment of spontaneous rollercoaster ride above any potential fear. (i'm good at that.)
i tucked my down coat against the window & managed to sleep not terribly for the overnight flight to brazil.
day -2 - march 1: GRU to AEP
breakfast was some kind of ...steamed cheese sandwich? truly terrible, & i felt fortunate to've saved my donut. we landed safely in são paulo, where it was pouring rain. i rode their tram over to the terminal, went through additional international security (brazil is SUPER picky about letting people into their country unless you've set it all up in advance), & easily found my next gate - with a seat wired for power. (glad i always travel with outlet adapters - needed the C type.) google wouldn't translate & my portuguese sucks, but i was still able to get on the wifi (one hour limit), & gleefully caught up a bit. i did almost murderize the two unrestrained brats who kept trying to sit with/on my items; their parents 100% missed every dirty look i gave the four of them, & also completely missed when i got fed up enough of the ~8yo brat bouncing on the chair next to mine & actually told her to knock it off & go away. A+ parenting, folks.
i wandered off & bought four brazilian candies for 27.20BRL, or about seven bucks, including mentos choco (?!) & a chocolate bar with brazil nuts (i passed up the hazelnut one, my favorite, to eat brazil nuts in brazil; wouldn't you?). the woman manning the counter taught me that "obrigado" means thank you in portuguese, which i immediately misremembered into "pobre gato" ("poor cat" in spanish) until i looked it up just now. i wanted to stop at the gelato place too, but it was ten am & i couldn't fathom it.
like every other leg, i had to show my argentina reciprocity fee paperwork to get on the plane. i had a window seat again, but in the very last row of the plane, & seated right next to... the bad father whose kids i loathed. bluh. fortunately, he was sitting only with his wife, & both noisy kids were across the aisle. i again passed out pretty immediately & the trip went quickly... despite again being bumpy as fuck. is it just the air in this hemisphere, or is TAM airlines employing daredevils? no matter, i arrived safely.
AEP airport was easy to navigate & i blew through customs & baggage quicker than expected. i was able to say hi to friends on the wifi, then paid just 260ARS (about $16USD) for a private remis (black car taxi) to drive me forty minutes to my hotel. it was so cheap that i thought i was buying a shuttle ticket, but nope, it was mine alone. the driver was playing argentine punk on the radio, & i loved it. driving is funny - like most places i've been, the roads & drivers are WAY CRAZIER than the US... but they have way more skill & no rage, so even though cars are literally an inch or two apart at times & breaking with no room to spare, you don't have that clenched-jaw fear as in the states. lanes are basically suggestions, changing them in an intersection is fine, sharing a lane side-by-side is fine, pedestrians don't matter... & yet horn usage is rare & i barely saw any cars with scratches.
i checked in at two hotel, which is in san telmo, the city's historic district. the room was plenty nice - more than serviceable, & quite clean. i had a couple hours until my tattoo appointment, & at 2km from the hotel, i figured i'd walk it. i turned a lot of heads in buenos aires, & only a few with sour looks on their faces; good to know i could pull here, i guess? there were lots of visible tattoos around, & a decent number of piercings on people i presumed to be locals. i passed a "VGN SXE" graffiti, a couple cool english tshirts on hispanic ladies that read "no thanks" & "never mind", then a really confusing sign for "fuckup buenos aires"?!? they even have a confusing website. okay guys!
i made it to the tattoo shop about twenty minutes early. my artist, ezequiel at experience tattoo, was super awesome. despite my spanish being lousy & his speaking almost no english, we made it work & the Grammy Memorial Tattoo addition came out beautiful. the process was pretty typical for any american shop, including bad musical selections... hey, remember when silverchair was a thing? "tomorrow" was playing in the shop when i got there. ergh.
in response to my request for food (& after making sure i wasn't looking for mcdonalds - ugh!), they sent me to niño bonito, where i had an absurdly good chorizo sausage sandwich, grilled over hot coals, with a garlic-heavy chimichurri & a grapefruit/water beverage. yesss helo argentina; my favorite way to order is basically "hi, what's your favorite food here? yes please", which i can say competently in spanish. before i paid my bill, the older man behind the counter gave me his number, & said i should call him if i need anything & that we could be amigos. i'm still not sure if he wanted to look out for me & my bad spanish or was hitting on me... they needed to see my driver's license when i handed over my visa (for some reason, argentine credit card receipts require my driver's license or passport number on them, but they don't usually look at said ID? eventually i started faking it, no one seemed to care...), & the younger guy blew me a kiss when he saw the picture. okay, i'm getting the idea i could really pull in argentina, haha.
i started back to the hotel, again almost stopping for gelato, but couldn't manage it for a different reason this time. soooo much chorizo, mmm. i happened into the geekiest store ever on sarmiento street, with a billion actual retro toys & records & comic books & holy crap it was amazing - on par with that crazy pawn shop i found in ireland. i took some specific shots for specific friends, then i photographed the, uh, argentine washington monument? the sign said it's the "combis Obelisco". & i snapped a few of the enormous highway i crossed, av. 9 de julio, that has eighteen lanes. neither way could i cross all in one go - both times i had to stop on one of the far-end islands & wait for another turn.
the whole walk was rough on my hooves, as the streets & sidewalks are both trashed - every step was on uneven, broken pavement with potholes & insanity everywhere. on the upside, there were plenty of people around & lots of lighting, so i wasn't worried about being mugged despite being out past dark. it's also odd to note how much english there is though argentina's official language is spanish - i passed a lot of it, & notably an irish pub & a beer museum a few blocks from my hotel. (san telmo is fairly touristy, though, so that may be a mistaken impression.)
i relaxed in bed, wrote, then soaked - tomorrow is a day where i'm doing a questionable thing. :D
day -1 - march 2: luján, argentina
breakfast reminded me of egypt because it was all breadfast. they must've had twenty kinds of white dough with some kind of sugar on offer, bleh. i mixed a couple fibery cereals, drank some kind of fruit juice (orange & pineapple & maybe some guava in there?), & had a couple bites of a raspberry & nut turnover-ish thing. i wasn't full, but i wouldn't need as many calories for this day as tomorrow, so that's fine.
so the questionable thing i was booked for was to go touch & feed big cats at the luján zoo. i'd debated pretty heavily about this when i first found it available a few months ago; most of the places that offer this sort of thing are reported as drugging their animals, & i'm not the kind of human that accepts that as reasonable treatment... but i read extensive reviews for this place, & the worst i could find was a few articles that could only suppose that they may be doing the bad thing. all the firsthand accounts from other american tourists said the animals were alert & seemed totally normal, just very domesticated through interaction. a few days before my trip, i finally decided to go ahead & see for myself.
the tour included hotel pickup & the hour drive out to luján. i was the only english-speaking person, though the guide knew enough to fill me in on the basics of what she was telling everyone else. she was wearing a shirt that read, in english, "BREAK THEM - rules were meant to be broken". lulz, coincidence or job uniform? on the drive, i got to see a lot of weird argentine city life, including a poster for the last hunger games movie with a totally different title, & ads for mcdonalds advertising almuerzos... which means lunch, but since "muerte" means death, i kept reading it as an anti-mcd vegan agenda. ^_^
we pulled in at the gate & i was glad to see it was largely open-air, similar to the zoo i visited in ireland. ducks & chickens & goats (one of which i recorded doing hilarious goat things) & llamas & alpacas were roaming freely about, & a lot of the other pens were pasture-like. our guide took us around to all the touchy exhibits first, starting with holding a twenty-day-old lion cub that put his paw in my hand & nearly killed me of cute. (it was later noted that i interacted with a "danger floof"; indeed!) there were other young lion cubs there, kept in the same area as dogs, & all getting along just fine. the cubs were playing & wandering & really seemed normal.
the next enclosure had three tigers in it, & we were each allowed (in pairs) to pet them (on their backs only) & then feed one of them. i took a moment to quietly ask our guide if they really used no drugs, & she nodded, noting that the big cats are really just cats - lazy & slow so long as they're fed & content. when i entered the enclosure, one walked directly up to me & nuzzled his face against my outer thigh in exactly the way a housecat would your calf. seeing as that's a way cats mark you with their scent, i considered myself immediately accepted by them & was pretty damned happy. i petted them each lovingly - their fur felt more like horsehair than cat hair - & then sat down to feed natalia, a very pregnant tiger, who was laying in a bed of straw. they handed me a soda bottle full of milk with a small hole in the top, which i squirted into my cupped hand for natalia to drink. it was amazing. she was so cool with people, but had bright, quick eyes, & she didn't miss a drop with her 40-grit tongue.
i fed an elephant a chunk of banana, & then went on to a reptile & bird house with some parrots & a few snakes, including a beautiful big argentine boa. a cute dreadlocked guy was working there, & noticed my interest - he practiced his english on me as we talked about reptiles. he took me around to the back of the area & pulled a beautiful 50kg burmese python out of its hide for me - i love snakes that weigh more than me. i showed him pics of my snakes at home & we discussed localities. (they wouldn't let us take any pictures in the reptile enclosure, though.)
after seeing the camels (which they were all insistent that i hug), the next stop was to pet a big male lion. the guy running that area had a shirt on that said, in english, "i don't know why i fight for you this way." yeesh... most people i've encountered here so far don't speak any english at all, so i have to wonder if he just liked the font, or if he's of the "big bad tattooed muscley brokenhearted" variety. that aside, lion fur also feels like horse or camel hair, & they're WAY BIGGER BY FAR than i realized. & it was here that i noticed i wasn't in need of the visine allergy drops i'd brought; though spending five minutes with a tiny tabby kitten would make my eyes melt out of my head, i'm apparently just fine to go buy a tiger tomorrow.
we then went on to the brown bears, but we didn't get to touch them. we could, however, feed them fruit on a long skewer for ten pesos. i didn't have any argentine money & didn't want to be the douche handing them a dollar, so i skipped that bit. but again, they seemed perfectly normal, running about & doing bear things when they weren't sitting at the front of the gate waiting for fruit.
the group broke up at that point for two hours free time. i watched the tigers i'd been petting run around their enclosure, chasing each other in fun, & i felt better still about the zoo. i went back to the reptile house for a longer look at the argentine boa, & my new friend draped a ball python around my neck when i wasn't looking. we chatted a bit more about his studies & my upcoming jaunt to antarctica, & then he took out a big albino burmese for us that i could barely hold even with his help. he smooched the snake on its head & said he took it out because he could see from my face how much i love snakes. yeah, i'm not exactly subtle about that - a snake was my first pet & i've kept them my entire life. i swapped cards with him & i look forward to having more weirdos on my facebook.
i stopped at the zoo restaurant for a surprisingly good lomo (beef loin) with a fried egg on it & a... deconstructed salad? the plate came with a pile each of shredded lettuce, diced tomato, & shaved carrot. i don't know if i ate it the proper way, but it was much tastier & cheaper (200ARS - about $13USD with a beverage) than i'd expect for a zoo. they were very tolerant of my terrible spanish in asking questions & trying to order, haha. oh, & for some reason the hand soap in the bathroom smelled of vanilla sugar & it was amazing.
i waited the last ten minutes for my group at a picnic table, & ducks & geese came up to beg like dogs, which i found very odd but amusing as hell. on the way back, we went to an enormous catholic church, the basilica of our lady of luján, dedicated to the patron saint of argentina. we had an hour there, & i spent half the time photographing the beautiful stained glass, & half just sitting in a back pew, listening to an audiobook & being quiet. i initially thought it was odd to tack this on to the zoo tour, but it was kind of perfect after all those insane animal encounters. on the way out, i was very amused by the sign that basically said "no coming in here with underwear", & by the... t-rex graffiti nearby? okay.
i fell asleep a few times on the way back, & was a bit self-conscious until i noticed everyone else was asleep too, haha. i returned to the hotel around 6pm, but didn't go back out - while i always feel a little guilty about not taking advantage of every minute i'm in a foreign country, i also have to comply with my emotional needs, & i'd accomplished enough for the day. so i chatted with some friends via viber (a free international texting app i like), dorked around online, ate my dark chocolate brazilian candy thing full of dulce de leche (amazing) & went to bed.
day 0 - march 3: zárate, argentina
today's breadfast choice was a little bun with a bunch of what i'm pretty sure was piloncillo on top, & it was pretty tasty. right on time at 9am, my driver, santiago, showed up to collect me for today's adventure: a full day horseback riding at los dos hermanos estancia near zárate, argentina. santiago was a very sweet older man. we talked about buenos aires & how terrible trump is; he thinks clinton will win. his english is great, & he told me that he lived in miami for two years "on sabbatical" while working at a little pizza place. when we stopped for "natural gasoline", as he called it, he bought me a croissant & the gas station attendant asked about my dreads.
it took about an hour & a half to get to the ranch, & it was beautiful - so much countryside. we met our guide, dimas, who spoke decent english & was gorgeous. my group included me & three girls from austria; they also spoke great english & were kind & friendly. dimas & santiago put us in calf-high chaps, to protect our jeans, & english riding helmets, & off we went.
all the horses were mixed breed criollo, which is the main argentine breed. my horse was a beautiful tannish gray, & generally listened. though he walked slower than all the others, he had a very nice trot that he'd step into as soon as he was asked to catch up. he also had an interesting gallop with short strides; i found it fairly easy to ride. the difficult part was when he couldn't decide between trotting & cantering, & he'd do this enunciated speedy trot that just destroyed my back. fortunately, dimas gave me a switch he cut from a tree, & tapping him (the horse, not dimas) with that got him out of the quicktrot bullshit & back into a rocking gallop.
the morning ride was around the pastures & farmland owned by our ranch & their neighbors. we saw a ton of birds i'd like to've identified, many that looked like mockingbirds, & passed through a bunch of ground owl nests. they're so arrogant, i love ground owls. :) there was thistle everywhere & the countryside stretched out forever.
after two hours, we came back to the ranch for lunch. they gave us fresh, hot empanadas & juice, then four types of beef - colita, lomo, rib, & some amazing sausage, all grilled & smoky for us. this was served with a few salads: shaved carrot & hard boiled egg, lettuce & tomato, & shredded purple cabbage. it was wonderful, though the meat was too salty for me - & then i saw the guys putting a heap MORE salt on theirs! ranch-hands must get awfully sweaty to need that much salt. after the meal, they brought us coffees & dessert - they called it a bread pudding but it seemed more like a pudding cake with flan on top, & served with dulce de leche. YUM.
yeah, only a siesta could follow that meal. we all chatted for a bit, then all four of us guests made our way to the four hammocks hanging near the pastures, & i had a lovely hour-long nap in the fresh argentine air. i lingered in my hammock after i awoke, & noticed the ground cover looked like tiny lily pads.
the afternoon ride was ten kilometers & included a lot of galloping down little country roads, again surrounded by huge, flat plains of grasses & farmlands. we went through several enormous soy fields, & i saw baby edamame everywhere. ^_^ i also learned that spanish-speaking horses respond to "shhhh" instead of "whoa". no wonder i was having trouble bringing my horse out of his gallop; he's not ESL!
i talked a lot with dimas on this ride, mostly about bodyart - tattoos in argentina, the tattoo he might someday get, general judgment of same, how he knows one guy with a tongue piercing (& yes he almost fell off his horse when i flashed him my four), & how he wanted to know what my braille tattoo read. i wouldn't tell him, & he said i was cheating by putting it in a language meant for people who can't see it to know it's there. i replied, "that's exactly the point!" X) once the others got ahead of us, we also talked about his ex-girlfriends for some reason - he told me he was recently dumped for being "too slow", & explained how he likes to get to know someone first. i agreed & understand that, but he said it was six dates with the last girl & he'd only touched her hair. i didn't say this, but... okay, yeah, i can see her point. he sure is a cutie though.
i was about ready to collapse from all the riding - four or five hours all told, & that's about two hours longer than i've ever ridden before. even my arms were fatigued. we made it back to the ranch though, & i met ana, the woman who'd set me up in email. she fed us tangerine juice & lemony homemade donut holes. we hung out a bit, i signed the guest book, & then santiago was ready to drive me back to my hotel. dimas did what i'm finding to be the traditional argentine goodbye - he pressed his cheek to mine & made a loud kiss sound, but without actually kissing my cheek. they did the same thing when i left the tattoo studio a couple days ago, so i was ready & smoothly made my own smooch sound at him.
the drive back was quiet. santiago gave me some tips about getting to the airport, & even offered to give some of my money back if i needed it for transportation. i was touched & of course declined, but man, who does that? so sweet. & anyhow, the total i spent WITH santiago's services was still only about half of what i expected to pay for a full day of riding & lunch.
i hobbled back to the hotel & ordered some food. the menu had a new animal for me to eat: merluza, or argentine hake (a fish similar to cod). YAY. it arrived fried with mashed potatoes, but it was quite good once i peeled off the breading. (what is it with argentina & all the bread?!) i also ordered a licuado de durazno, which turned out to be a lovely peach smoothie. i had to overpay the delivery guy with a $20 for a $15 order because neither of us had change, but that's still a pretty great deal for what was effectively room service.
my flight out was at 4:45am. i showered approximately forever, charged my electronics, packed up, checked out of two hotel (where the kind overnight desk guy exchanged $20USD into 300ARS for me from his own wallet so i wouldn't have to overpay my driver too), caught a cab to the airport (he ran ALL the red lights, but it was 2am & there was really no one around; with no traffic, the ride was just 185ARS), & stood in line near a woman definitely old enough to be a grandmother who was wearing a tshirt that read "basically i'm glad i'm not basic". i had to wonder if she had any idea what that even meant.
i had some minor conversations with airport strangers (friendly people in general, & they seem to appreciate my efforts at producing decidedly lousy spanish), & tolerated some very constantly-screaming children before we boarded (by making a very odd N-shape around the check-in desk? i guess it got people out of the walkway quicker). i snapped some photos of buenos aires from the sky - the whole thing looks like a huge grid, & as i watched, the lights actually twinkled on & off. it was very pretty for a city. i stayed awake until they delivered us little snack boxes of herby crackers & lemon cookies & a fancy chocolate, then slipped delicately off to slumber. or, rather, stuffed my earphones as far as they'd go into my ears & put a nappable song on loop, 'cause for some reason this flight was the first i've ever experienced to FORCE you to listen to the funniest-home-videos-type show they were playing on the overhead monitors. unacceptable, LAN airlines. but your snacks were very pleasant.