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February 27, 2007

Video: Insane Winds at Torres del Paine

On the second day of the trek around the Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile, Jo looks out over the lake and sees 100 km/h winds whipping the water off the surface into a mist and braces for it to hit...

Click play above or visit the page on Google Video.

February 26, 2007

Starting Torres del Paine Circuit Trek

Ok, here we go... After months of planning, gear research and buying, reading and a dozen previous smaller backpacking trips, we are about to start our biggest yet.

We are entering Torres Del Paine (pie-nay) National Park to do the 120km Circuit around the central massif. We plan to do it over 8 days. Our gear is light, but 8 days of food for two is REALLY heavy, but we have good packs that carry that weight well.

There are 80-100 km winds now (typical), and it rained all night (atypical). Even though it's the end of summer, we are so far south into the Antarctic weather system, we expect temps of 4-14 degrees. Hoping rain lets up.

We are completely self sufficient, have food, water, medical supplies and training, are in good heath and shape, and know how to navigate by compass, sun, and stars. So don't worry about us, even though you won't hear from us for the next 8 days...

See you on the flip side!

February 19, 2007

Experiencing contrast

When we were exploring Cuenca in Ecuador, we met a girl named Manon who was born in Montreal but now lives in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. She generously offered to have us stay with her whenever we passed through the country she now calls home.

So here we are in Buenos Aires after going to Gualeguaychú (3 hours north of BA) to experience our first Carnaval, but I am getting off topic; that will be another blog.

We are at Manon's place and in heaven! For the first time in over three months we find ourselves in a setting that has us nostalgic about a time when we once had a home.

During that time, many details in our day to day living were not given much notice; these things were taken for granted. After traveling for over three months, these small details have become apparent, giving us a whole new appreciation for them.

We can wash our own clothes in a washing machine and know that all our stuff will not be returned 2 sizes smaller, as has happened twice already.

We can lay our heads down on a pillow that hasn't been shared by thousands!

We don't have to lock our bags every time we leave the room, regardless of how short of a time we're gone for.

A patch of grass to call your own and spread your toes in, a refrigerator, or listening to music on a stereo.

Then there's the biggy - if you haven't already thought about it, you will surely nod your head in agreement after reading it. Actually sitting on a toilet seat!!

None of these outweigh the traveling experience, but are simply some of the many contrasts that our journey brings to our awareness.

While we are enjoying these small details as luxuries right now, in 2 days we will take a 17 hour bus ride from Buenos Aires, south to Puerto Madryn, stretch our legs for 6 hours before hopping on another 17 hour bus ride to Rio Gallegos, followed by another 7 hour bus ride southwest, crossing into Chile at Puerto Natales. There, we will grab a night's rest - in a bed.

After getting some last minute supplies we take our final four hour bus ride to Patagonia's most famous destination: Torres Del Paine National Park. Here we'll backpack through what many describe as the most scenic wilderness on earth. Lots more contrast on its way.

February 14, 2007

Last minute deal to Argentina

It's been a bit of an unexpected whirlwind, but here we are in Buenos Aires, Argentina!

We left Vilcabamba on an overnight bus to Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city to rendezvous with our backpacking gear that's been waiting patiently at Empresas Amazonas since arriving from Montreal at the beginning of the month.

After hours of strolling in the hot humid streets, sticky with sweat, we casually duck into an air conditioned travel agency to see about plane tickets to Buenas Aires for sometime later in the week. Buenos Aires, both because it's the southernmost International airport before Patagonia (which is still a couple of thousand km south through nothing but enormous cattle ranches and agricultural land) and to partake in Argentina's largest Carnaval a few hours north in Gualeguaychú that's peaking this weekend.

Little did we realize it, EVERYONE's on holiday next Monday and Tuesday for Carnaval, and all flights out of the city in all directions are FULL!! Our only option is a flight leaving a few hours later, at full fare - get this - $1640 for the pair - OUCH!!, or wait until March for the next available seats.

Living in Ecuador is so cheap, and this is a huge scale shock. To put it in perspective, the best hotel in Vilcabamba, Madre Tierra cost us $13 each a day including five star meals. We could live like kings for over two months for the cost of that one transport... Put another way, you could rent a mountainside home for $50/month and hire a chef and maid for $5/day each. Even if you spent $100/month on groceries to feed us all - which would be very hard to do - we could soak in paradise for four more months...

We chew on it, and chew, and chew some more... and finally bite. We have to be at the airport in two hours! Ciao Ecuador, onward!

So here we are, sitting at an outdoor café on Ave de Mayo watching as the incredibly cosmopolitan, European-feel city of 12.5 million goes by. Hippies, indigenous farmers and the herb-collecting, fountain of mother earth soaking centairans walking down the dirt roads gives way, shockingly and suddenly, to fashonistas, suited, tanned and sun glassed jet-set singsonging the Italian-like Spanish into their ultra-thin mobile phones along the FOURTEEN lane Av 9 de Julio.

This is nothing like the third world South America we've known. Decidedly Barcelona-esque. How fabulously exciting to be faced with another culture shock on our way. Signing off to go explore.

February 10, 2007

Traveling vs. Vacationing

While traveling, we try to dive into the local culture as much as possible in order to gain a better understanding of the differences and similarities between us and the people we meet, the customs we observe, and the mindsets that drive them.

Learning of another culture from first hand experiences is incredibly thought provoking, and can be life changing. I often find myself questioning why I believe one thing with pure conviction while a whole other set of people believe in another with the same passion and conviction. Who is right? Or are we both wrong?

By removing the act of judgment, we arrive at the truth: there is no right or wrong, just differing perspectives.

Even though it is challenging for me not to apply judgments and opinions based on my upbringing, remaining open, and just being an observer in the experience, leaving preconceptions and cultural biases at the border is essential to get closer to a new culture.

We have had the privilege of meeting some people along the way who have been open, and shared their perspectives with us, enabling us to gain a greater insight into the mindset and subtleties of a culture that could otherwise be missed.

To us, this is the difference between vacationing and traveling, having and taking the opportunity to build real relationships, to go deeper into the cultures and inevitably learn more about ourselves along the way.

February 4, 2007

Vilcabamba, the fountain of youth

Having traveled most of the length of Ecuador, we're now resting near the southern border in a small town named Vilcabamba, meaning "Sacred Valley" in the ancient Quichua language. For ten thousand years before Europeans came, the shamans of ancient cultures have congregated in this place of bounty and natural energy. Here, surrounded by lush green Andean mountains, I sit by a waterfall thinking, writing and feeling the lasting spirit of men who have long passed, yet are ever-present.

Photo: IMAGE 037

We've just woken from our afternoon siesta sharing a hammock, resting after we summited Mandango, "Sleeping Woman", a peak of 2000 meters above the town's 1500 meter base.

Our "hostal", Madre Tierra, "Mother Earth", is outstanding: Lush terraced gardens of tropical and semi-tropical plants, waterfall, rocks built up seemingly organically into the mountainside, overlooking the sparsely populated green valley, where sugar cane grows. A soothing mix of soft music, birdsongs and the waterfall proliferates, oddly punctuated by the occasional donkey call.

The days start with pure, fresh mountain air and the aromas of tea and coffee, both grown here, mixing with the scent of Suzanne's oven, reeking of freshly baked goodness, including their famous cinnamon rolls and luscious breads. Ooof!

All the food served here is grown on their land organically and prepared from scratch for each scrumptious meal. We've never tasted lettuce, tomatoes, bread, granola, popcorn, fruits, pasta (home made too!) like this. Oh, and the horchata! A mix of 15-25 local medicinal herbs sweetened by freshly pressed sugar cane juice and topped with a garden lemon... Just perfect to quench the thirst of balmy summer weather.

The owners, Carol Rosin (a leader in the fight against space weapons) and her husband Jon Cipher (Chief Fletcher Daniels on Hill Street Blues, among many other roles) are such vibrantly interesting folks. Their stories and conversations varied and stimulate for hours at a time, whether about acting in Broadway plays, UFO spotting, protecting the land from overdevelopment or how they suddenly found themselves owning a hotel after passing through on a two day trip. Never a dull moment!

Other than the food and rich conversations, what has drawn us out of the dozens of hammocks littering the grounds is the daily yoga practice at sunset overlooking the pristine scenery that only a mountainside spot can offer, and the massages by Blanca, the valley's foremost healer.

Everyone here calls it paradise, we would have to agree. It's no wonder there's a freakishly large percentage of the local population living vibrantly well after they've crossed over 100 years old.

Maybe the name should be changed from Sacred Valley to Fountain of Youth...