A tale of two border crossings

This border crossing from Bolivia into Chile (15,000 feet) is on the simpler side.

In the last year, we have passed through 15 countries. Some countries, like Chile and Argentina, we entered multiple times, amassing oodles of passport stamps. We´ve experienced a number of border entries ranging from sophisticated crossings designed to quickly process thousands of people to sleepy single-room stations in the middle of nowhere where ´efficiency´ and ´timeliness´ are not part of the immigration agents´ repertoire.

At some time between saying ´adiós´ to Argentina and ´dzien dobry´ to Poland (our current location), we found ourselves inside a US Immigration Control office at the Atlanta airport (a layover in the US resulted in us briefly reentering the country).    Jeff lost his passport fifteen years ago, and despite this having happened ages ago on a long since expired passport, he always gets flagged for additional screening with every pass through US Immigrations.   A quite obvious lesson here is: do not lose your passport, as this mistake will haunt you for years by the ghosts of Homeland Security past.

On this particular re-entry into the US, the immigration office we found ourselves waiting at was in actuality a dictatorial fiefdom of the Atlanta chapter of Homeland Security –  its sole intent being to instill the fear of Uncle Sam into anyone with an irregularity on their visa or passport. During our twenty minute visit, we observed officers yelling and accusing visitors of all sorts of misconduct.   A Nigerian man made the egregious mistake of first stating that his American holiday was to last ten days, and later, that it was to last for two weeks. The officer, relishing another opportunity to perfect his ¨bad cop¨ role, began to yell: ¨Well, which is it? Were you lying then, or are you lying now? Go sit in the corner!!!  No, not there!!! Sit in the other corner, and don’t look at anyone!!! Did I tell you that  you could speak??!¨

Nor did we leave unscathed.  Apparently one is not allowed to quietly converse with one´s spouse while waiting for one´s passport issue to be cleared up lest another, equally tyrannical agent behind the counter screeches at both parties to shut up.   I suppose that verbally assaulting visitors is one way of dealing with the immigration problem by ensuring that no visitor will ever want to return.

Dumpster divers in the UAE.

Now, contrast this with our border crossing from the United Arab Emirates into Oman just a few days ago.   Ignoring the advice of our rental car agency (Jeff: “it may be technically required but surely they won´t ask to see it¨), we showed up at the border without the proper insurance requirements to take our car into Oman.  (We think you can divine another obvious learning lesson here.) We were politely informed  by Hasan, the soft spoken Emirati immigration officer, of the document´s absolute necessity.  You don’t have the paperwork? No problem, just call the rental car agency and have hem fax the documents to our office.  You don’t have a phone to call the rental car agency? No problem, you can use my personal cell phone.  You need me to send a fax to them with an official request detailing the information needed? No problem.  You need me to pick up the fax that the rental car agency will send to us in return? No problem, I´ll just run back upstairs and get it for you.¨  Hasan, in between processing other tourists, listened to our issue, resolved our problem, stamped our passports and kindly wished us on our way.   And so, within thirty minutes, our issue was cleared up and we were happily driving through the dusty streets of Oman, counting stray roadside goats.

Some countries have a stray dog problem. Oman has a stray goat problem. This group of goats likes to call this Omani beach home.

If the scenarios were reversed and we overlooked some critical piece of info necessary to get back into the US, do you think Mean Cop and Grumpy Cop would have lifted one fingers to help us?  Another great learning lesson rests somewhere in this story, the kind that deals with stereotypes and tolerance.

Some border crossings (like this one in Chile) like to honor their officers by with framed wall hangings.

In the course of our travels, we´ve met all sorts of border agents, from the courteous but apathetic (most of them), bored (all of them), power-obsessed (you know who you are), and of course – the canine (our favorites!).

For, what would a travel adventure be without the occasional ironic/strange/frustrating border crossing experience?  To this end, we´d like to send a ¨Shukran!¨ (¨thanks¨ in Arabic) to Hasan Al Shehhi, border crossing agent extraordinaire, (should he ever come across our blog) for helping us add one more memorable travel experience to our passports.


Making it to the end of the world…twice!

“Bienvenido al fin del mundo”.  (Welcome to the end of the World)  – slogan for Ushuaia, Argentina

“Más allá del fin del mundo”.  (Beyond the end of the World) – slogan for Puerto Williams, Chile

It seems that Argentina and Chile have a rivalry. We’re not referring to the obvious, and highly subjective subjects like which country has more passionate soccer fans or whether Carménère is a better wine than a Malbec. We’re referring to the question of which country possesses the southernmost city in the world.  Ask an Argentine, and they’ll tell you that city  is Ushuaia.   Chileans believe the answer is Puerto Williams. You may wonder, why the controversy?  Can’t this be resolved with a quick click of the mouse and a visit to Google Earth?

Stringent baggage weight limits? No problem - just wear extra layers of clothing (Sean won with 8 layers).

Our ride to Puerto Williams: The pilot/flight attendant demonstrates the flexibility required for the job. Even claustrophobic passengers will find the spectacular views to be (almost) worth the cold-sweat inducing flight.

As it happens, Puerto Williams, Chile is approximately ten miles south of Ushuaia, Argentina. That should settle things then, right?  Well, not quite.  Some say that Puerto Williams, originally founded as a Chilean naval base and home to a mere 2,000 people, doesn’t qualify as a city, given it’s small size and dependence on the presence of the navy.  Ushuaia, on the other hand, home to 70,000 matte-toting Argentines, draws tons of visitors (90% of trips heading to Antarctica originate from Ushuaia), and offers scores of restaurants and souvenir shops selling everything from bejeweled penguin statues to llama key chains.  Now that qualifies as a real city – the southernmost city in the world, they say.

Puerto Williams: more than just a one horse town. We counted at least six hanging out in the city square.

Puerto Williams, does indeed have many fewer tourists, and thus fewer restaurants and llama key chains for sale.    However, one can find similar city staples as in bigger towns – a post office,  fire station,  school, and even an airport.  You’ll also find horses lazily grazing downtown, friendly locals, even friendlier dogs, and the cozy, welcoming feel of a small-sized, big-hearted city.   In this case, less is more – this town was a clear winner with us in that it offered so much more than just its southerly location.

Welcome to Ushuaia!: Proof that you can find bad advertising just about anywhere, even at the end of the world.

Wishing to offend no one, however, we visited both locales.   We made it to the end of the world in Chile …and then we crossed the Beagle Channel and did it all over again in Argentina.  What’s more, it seems that the karmic power-that-be decided to reward our efforts.  As we crossed the channel, we were briefly greeted by six sei whales swimming in a pod directly in front of us, a site so uncommon and dramatic, that even the boat captain uttered a “Jesus Christ!” before quickly guiding the boat in for a closer look. And at that moment, half-way between the two cities laying claim to being at the end of the world, it certainly felt like we were indeed there.  The end of the world!  Or beyond the end of the world as it would be, flanked by our six new best friends with the jagged peaks of Tierra del Fuego and Navarino Island around us – an amazing highlight within a year of highlights.

link below to more photos of Torres del Paine and Tierra del Fuego

Torres del Paine & Tierra del Fuego

Since February 1st, we've been on the road, traveling from Santiago to Puerto Williams and then north to Uruguay, stopping in all the cities in red along the way.

This is not what I signed up for, Jeff!

“It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong”  – Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia Clothing and adventurer-extraordinaire

Upon disembarking from an overnight ferry, with virtually no sleep, we are greeted by a soggy Patagonia

After arriving  in the pueblito of La Junta in northern Patagonia, we were relieved to get out of the rain and looked forward to a good night’s sleep  before continuing our journey southward. The preceding 24-hours included a sleepless overnight ferry ride, followed by five hours of standing in the cold rain as we waited for the not-so-Express mini-bus to make its appearance and take  us southward along the Caraterra Austral.  Little did we know that the real test of resolve was still before us.

Finding shelter from the rain as we wait for the mini-bus. A stray dog hid underneath our bags to warm up.

It wasn’t long before we learned that we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Protesters in several Chilean towns south of La Junta were making their dissatisfaction towards the rising cost of fuel known by forming roadblocks to prevent cars  and gas tanker trucks from accessing gas stations. As a result, bus tickets southward were nonexistent, and those for northward routes were sold out for at least a week, as hundreds of people (mostly backpackers) were beating a hasty retreat.  This left us somewhat stranded.

As such, we made the team decision to hitchhike, but with limited vehicle traffic (no fuel available for 100’s of kilometers) and scores of backpackers all in the same predicament, we knew this was not going to be easy.

Hitchhiking is always more fun with a beer in hand.

We rose bright and early (sort of) to flex our thumbs, but our optimism deflated when a band of protestors descended upon the town and proceeded to blockade the main bridge – our exit. Once they started rolling tires onto the road and setting them on fire, we knew it was time to move to another road with a revised hitchhiking motto of “we’ll go anywhere, as long as it’s out of La Junta”.   Not to be outdone, the protestors quickly blocked the other exit out of town, rendering it useless.  And now we were officially stuck.

We couldn’t even buy our way out of town by attempting to contract a private driver.  Local residents apparently were expecting this latest dispute to last a while, and as such, were unwilling to share their “precious” – fuel –  on nonessential trips with a bunch of backpacking gringos.

Exit 1 blocked: burning bridges!

What´s more, hotels and restaurants were virtually a cash-only business and ATMS only accepted Mastercards (Visa, it’s everywhere you want to be…except for southern Chile, apparently). Since we  had very little cash and not a Mastercard among us, waiting out the strike in a comfy hotel was  out of the question.

Exit 2 blocked: Red semi truck parked on the road.

After another emergency team regroup, our new plan was to walk 70 kilometers to the nearest town that, rumor had it, still had daily running buses with empty seats.

A two-three day walk.

With a single two-person tent to shelter four people.

And it rains a lot in Patagonia.

Even 70km away, we would still be relying on buses (likely full), or hitch-hiking (never a guarantee) to get to Argentina.

We book out of town in Jo and Gregs car before the protestors come back!

Before we were able to put our plan into action, we were spared by a lovely Irish-American couple with a car, just enough gas, and a strong a desire to get out of La Junta as well. Jeff had run into Jo and Greg  on a handful of occasions on our journey south and had developed a traveler´s rapport, so when we approached them for a ride, we had an advantage over all of the other people begging them for a lift.   Jo and Greg promised to make room in their already heavily laden car and take us with them once the tire-burning protestor party retired for the evening and opened the road. (Rumor had it that the protestors would reopen the bridge long enough to catch some zzzs before reassuming their positions following morning). At 9pm, satisfied at having derailed enough travel plans for the day, the protestors ended their blockade for the night.  Jo and Greg, now with us in tow, tore out of town and to an improvised campsite about 5 kilometers down the road.

Sadly, since there wasn’t enough room for all of us in the car, Sean and Olivia spent another night in La Junta, sleeping in a garage/shed.  Sean claims it was as cozy as the garage’s owner promised: “you will be fine, my dog sleeps in there all the time!”

Finally! Crossing the border!

Sean and Olivia finally made it to Futaleufu on Sunday night,  12 hours later than us, after spending another day wearing garbage bags in the rain and riding in backs of pickup trucks.  We were all able to rest a bit and cross the border into Argentina together without further incident.

The moral of this story still eludes me.  It’s certainly not about trying to anticipate every possible risk when on a trip, as the best laid plans can fall apart through actions beyond our control.  Instead, one should appreciate the purity of the adventure, with all its twists and turns.  Finally, we learned that when things don’t  go as planned, you learn what you’re really made of, which in our case is grit, beer, crackers, and the ability to look good in a trash bag.

Southward ho! By bus, bike, and boat we go!

Too sunny for a nap? Sean demonstrates how to get some shut-eye on the bus.

No more than five minutes after the coffee was served, the first glass dropped and shattered all over the floor. Not to say “I told you so”, but as soon as I saw the crystal glasses of hot coffee being passed out on the moving bus, bouncing along on its way over the continental divide between Argentina and Chile, I knew that the opening lines of our next blog were about to write themselves. Surely the bus company should have known better than to trust budget

Some buses, aware of the mess passengers are capable of creating, resort to the use of plastic seat covers. (and Jeff likes naps)

travelers with nice things? Before the end of this particular ride, an additional coffee glass would shatter, a little girl seated across our aisle would vomit all over the floor, and the bus would have to pull over so that the attendant could rush to the bathroom with two large buckets of water to take care of a bathroom emergency.  Twice.  All  in a day’s journey…

Nevertheless,  we were excited  to hit the road again. Aggie´s brother Sean, and his friend Olivia (who began their great overland trip in LA, and Mexico City, respectively) have since joined us on our travels.

Passengers & bags exit the bus so that border crossing agents can search for forbidden fruit.

When not patrolling for contraband foods, some border agents accept ear scratches and snuggles

Our destination? Tierra del Fuego – and the southernmost cities in the world: Ushuaia (if you ask Argentinians), Puerto Williams (if you ask Chileans).   We will hit both to cover our bases.

Means of transport?  Whatever it takes: buses, cars, ferries, pick-up trucks, our own two feet, and the occasional tandem bike.

Buses are usually our ride of choice, and when you’re on a budget, there’s no better way to save money on accommodation than a night bus.  We’ve ridden a modest number, seven in total so far, but four of those have come in a recent ten-day push.

And,  at the end of a long day on the road, we look forward to resting our heads in a comfortable hostel or B&B.  Sometimes we luck out with a hostel manager  like Marta, a lovely Argentine who simultaneously managed the hostel and cared for  her 92-year old dad and his two elderly sisters. The nonagenarians  livened up the atmosphere with lots of  naps.  Marta was more energetic, playing pick-up-sticks with us, sharing her limoncello, letting us stay well past check-out, and insisting we send her pictures of our dogs when we get home.

Marta and her toy poodles made us feel like we were in a home-away-from-home.

But, not every hostel atmosphere is as welcoming as Marta’s. We’ve been chastised for our cooking habits (I mean, its impossible to fry bacon without smoking up the kitchen), have had a hostel owner indicate he thought our Patagonian itinerary was stupid, and we’ve had to  wake up hungover staff in the middle of the afternoon in order to check-out.

 These colorful  hostel stays and modes of transportation were just the beginning, however.   Little did we know that upon reaching southern Chile,we would find ourselves in a travel predicament the likes of which none of us have ever witnessed before… 

We’ve posted some new photos so click on this link to see the Photos Page!

Christmas without snowman sweaters, crazy shoppers, or reindeer yard art

With January, 2012 in full swing,  we’re fairly certain that our dear readers are  wholeheartedly hitting the gym and partaking of the paleo/grapefruit/P90X diet and exercise routines, and other such resolutions that are mere days away from failure. (This blog seeks to speak the truth, my friends, and sometimes the truth hurts.)  Those wanting to avoid being “that house” on the block have already packed away the holiday choch in the basement. With that said, please indulge us in one last recap of the holiday season – – with a Chilean (and Costa Rican) twist, of course.

The downside of hosting Thanksgiving dinner sans dishwasher

No turkey, no problem! M'mm m'mm

After enjoying Thanksgiving chicken (alas, no turkeys to be found) with Aggie’s mom and some international friends in Viña del Mar, (attempts at explaining stuffing  to non-Americans: “You shove it inside the bird’s gut, but it tastes great. Trust us.”), we were ready to kick off the Christmas season and even looked forward to the flood of holiday noise  and merchandising that came with it.

A classic Christmas tree - all the decorations you need to enjoy the holidays (in Costa Rica)

Having agreed to purchase one another very small gifts (only buy what you can carry), an excursion to the mall in was in order. We braced ourselves for what was surely going to involve discomfort,  a little jostling, and some elbowing  (‘queue’ culture has not yet caught on in Chile.)    Upon arrival at the mall, however, we found no hordes of shoppers fighting over parking spots, no lines for anything. Just business as usual.  Even Starbucks had only one haphazardly thrown together “Christmas blend” drink on the menu.  A few department stores had a smattering of holiday decorations, but the mobs of people clamoring over cheese and sausage gift baskets and hand lotion variety packs were conspicuously absent.  A subsequent trip two weeks later revealed the same – –  At 10:15am, we found that the majority of the stores were still closed. I repeat.  Closed. 10:15am.  December 16th.  Apparently, Chileans do not take Christmas Consumerism  seriously enough.

The local news channels did not issue reports of lines snaking around Wal-Mart at 5am. (Being there are no such lines, there’s nothing to report on). Television commercials largely abstained from peddling Christmas Lexuses (or is it Lexi?) and we were thankfully spared renditions of “I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus” by Mariah Carey or the Cast of Glee.

In Costa Rica, Santa probably leaves the reindeer behind and utilizes Capuchin monkeys to deliver toys

Yes, Christmas south of the Equator is a decidedly more casual affair with traditions focusing less on buying and more on, well, religion and family stuff. Nevertheless, there are plenty of local customs as well.  Those turkeys, so desperately missed at Thanksgiving,  make their appearance in mid-December, in time for Christmas dinner.  Some towns feature  parades with the “Viejo Pascuero” (Santa) astride a decorated car/float hurling candy at excited children on the street.  And finally, single ladies looking to snag a man in 2012 wear yellow panties on New Years Eve.

New Years Eve midnight fireworks: one of the world's largest displays, stretching about 12 miles from Valparaiso to Concon

New Year's Eve reminiscent of Phantom of the Opera?

Single ladies: Yellow panties available in all shapes and sizes

In short,  we had a fantastically unique holiday experience and want to thank the family and friends who joined us in Chile and Costa Rica to make it so special (with lots of laughs about durian farmers and tossing doggy leftovers over the balcony).  Rest assured, however, that when in the US for our next Xmas, we will be mailing out ‘Season’s Greetings’ photo cards depicting us in matching candy cane turtlenecks and snowflake cardigans, alongside Donner (Kaya)and Blitzen (Loca) – – outfits  courtesy of Petsmart – – right after we decorate with lights, lots of lights, Clark Grizzwald style.   Happy 2012!

Dog blog: The best place in the world to be a stray?

Ecela regularly makes the rounds to both our spanish language school & a nearby laundromat to stock up on food and cuddles.

Like its Latin American neighbors, Chile has an overabundance of homeless cats and dogs crowding its streets.  Bob Barker would not be pleased.  However, although unclaimed strays abound, the Chilean variety is unique in that they are generally healthy, well fed, and graciously accepted within the human community in which they reside.

In other countries we have visited, strays find themselves at the seamy bottom of the food chain, with their presence being about as desirable as finding a dead rat on one’s doorstep.  Natural selection is hard at work here: these dogs are comprised of a furtive, skinny, half-feral breed of scavenger that creeps through the streets looking to eat before it is eaten. Cute and cuddly are not competitively advantageous adaptations.  (Your average Labradoodle would survive all of five minutes here.) Sadly, life can’t be double rainbows and butterflies for everyone.

Furry employees? Two tabby cats (napping on the job) are always at this little market, making it both homey and a little smelly. Surely, the health board approves.

Chile differs dramatically in that the existence of the feral mangy dog-beast is more exception than the rule.  What’s more, some of the strays we’ve seen near our home look downright…plump.   So, what’s going on here exactly?

On numerous occasions, we’ve seen locals playing with, feeding, or putting out cardboard box beds for the neighborhood pooches.  On weekends, the puppy adoption tent, strategically located across the street from  the mall, teems with people oohing and aahing over the little bundles of fur – – all telltale signs that animal lovers are alive and well here.

Tabitha the Boxer can ALWAYS be found on 7th street. Purebred strays (discarded by irresponsible owners who don't realize that cute puppies grow up to be big dogs) abound.

On any given day, in Viña del Mar, a half dozen dogs frolic on the beach, chasing seagulls, barking at waves, and generally behaving like happy, well-adjusted canines enjoying a day at the beach.  The advantage for dog lovers like us, is that we can essentially foster an animal for short time intervals at a moments notice, enjoying some of the best aspects of dog ownership (the playing) without the onerous and inconvenient parts.  Jeff says this is similar to the advantages of being an uncle.

We don’t mean to dismiss the seriousness of the stray dog epidemic in Chile (it does seem like there are close to a thousand of them just in our city alone) and we strongly believe that pets should be spayed and neutered.  But setting aside these more serious issues, we are left with frolicking pooches on the beach, wagging tails outside the butcher shops, and our melting hearts just about everywhere.  Two paws up for Chile!

PS.  We miss our dogs.

Canine pickpocket? Or just guarding the purse warm for a friend?

Some owners take their love for dogs a bit too far by forcing them to wear Old Navy style beach-tees

Relating to zoo animals

Recently, while visiting a museum exhibit, we suddenly found ourselves flanked by twenty Chilean  school children and their teacher.  The teacher approached us cautiously and asked us where we were from.  Upon hearing that we were visiting from the US, he turned to his students and stressed how far we had traveled in order to see this exhibit.  Essentially, the message was: Look, kids.  Strangers from far, far away are visiting your museum! Now appreciate it, and stop goofing off!  Twenty faces continued to stare, perhaps trying to understand why these foreigners would ever waste a Saturday afternoon voluntarily touring an exhibit on the life and times of Gabriela Mistral (Jeff, incidentally, was wondering the same thing). However, those stares, with no attempt at subtlety or discretion, made us feel like we were on display, like zoo animals.

One of our objectives for this year abroad included learning more about and assimilating, as best we could, into Chilean society. For us, that meant leaving the safety of Spanish-language classes and participating in activities where we were likely to be the only foreigners present, ranging from yoga to running clubs and most exciting of all… “Flair Bartending School!”

During our cocktail-making classes, our bartending instructor, Rodrigo, likes to give each student an opportunity to show off their skills (use of flair is encouraged) by demonstrating how to make a certain drink.  Rodrigo calls Jeff and me to the front of the class seemingly twice as often as any other student. Is this special treatment to ensure that his American friends feel that we are getting our money’s worth? Maybe, but the more cynical side of me believes that this is not unlike making a dolphin at Sea World jump through hoops and punch a beach ball with its dolphin snout. Imagine that dolphin is slightly uncoordinated and accidentally clips the hoop with its dorsal fin.  Even more entertaining!  I am that dolphin in the world of bartending, desperately trying to mix drinks with my rubbery flippers. My clumsiness, somehow brought on by a lack of language comprehension, becomes  apparent when my front-of-the-class demonstrations rarely resemble the original intent of the drink.  But it’s fun to watch a clutzy dolphin that doesn’t speak Spanish well, so we keep getting called back for encore performances.

Jeff attends Krav Maga classes, a self-defense method of Israeli origins, that leaves out all of the posturing and wax-on/wax-off moves found in other martial arts, but keeps the head-bashing and knee-to-the-groin techniques required to thwart would-be attackers. Communication is limited to basic grunts, with no real need to construct full sentences, so Jeff is in his element.   And, being the only gringo, Jeff is naturally the favorite test-dummy on which the instructor (a damn scary man) likes to demonstrate the best ways to immobilize a bad-guy. At least one part of each class usually entails Jeff getting thrown to the ground repeatedly, while getting his hair pulled, his shins kicked, his arm contorted, and his face punched or elbowed. The instructor doesn’t land real blows, drawing back any kicks or punches upon initial contact, but even his “demos” leave one a little worse for the wear.  But everyone is extremely nice, always asking “¿estás bien?”  and it’s easy to bond with your classmates while exchanging knowing glances of what it’s like to be clobbered by the sensei.

Zoo animal spotlight opportunities abound.  They’re at the yoga classes at the local community center where the median attendee is aged 75  (hey, you can’t beat a free yoga class) or at Jeff’s soccer tournaments where kids ask to have their pictures taken with him. Depending on how well we can articulate in spanish on a given day, some days we feel like swans and some days like  horned toads, but we’re always having fun and are glad to have been invited to the party. Ribbit.

Easter Island: Mystery at the navel of the earth

An important lesson of growing-up is realizing that the world isn’t as magical as you believed it to be when you were  a kid. All the things that once captured your imagination – Santa Claus, the tooth-fairy, Milli Vanilli – turn out to be nonexistent or fake.  There are few things in the world that intrigue us the same way as adults. A few exceptions exist, however, that reawaken our imaginations, and Easter Island is one of them!

Home to numerous archeological artifacts, including the famous moai statues, Easter Island remains an enigma.  What do these giant rock-hewn heads signify? How did these 70 ton towering giants get transported around the island? Why were they all eventually toppled (the ones currently standing have been re-erected by archeologists)? Was the near collapse of the civilization on this resource-constrained island a result of intertribal warfare, or the importation of disease, weapons, and slavery?

Our ride...

Eager to resolve these mysteries to our satisfaction, we set about exploring the island for 3 days.  We hiked, toured, and buzzed around on a 4WD ATV.  (We would have preferred carbon-neutral bikes, but there was a road-rashed hand incident that made the 4-wheeler a necessity.) In addition to the moai, free-range horses were everywhere.  Although the island horses technically have owners, there are neither saddles nor fences in sight, and we believe that the world’s happiest animals live on Easter island, moseying and grazing about, independent and unconfined.

During our visit, we learned many fascinating theories to the above questions.  For the hardcore archeo-enthusiasts, articles and books abound, attempting to unlock Easter Island’s mysteries.  One good overview is: Smithsonian Rapa Nui overview

Hoa Hakananai'a, "Stolen Friend", needs to find a way home

Sadly, we also learned that numerous artifacts have been removed from the island over the years.  We were particularly moved by the story of Hoa Hakananai’a, a beautiful moai, whose name roughly translates to “stolen friend”. Hoa Hakananai’a is one of the most intricate and intact moai, not to mention an important link between two very distinct archeological periods in the island’s history.  However, we didn’t get to see it for ourselves as it is housed in the British Museum. It’s unclear whether this statue was gifted to British explorers in the late 1800’s or stolen, but all that remains on Easter Island is a pictorial display. Several years back, the Rapa Nui people signed a petition requesting that the statue be returned, but Chile never made a formal plea on their behalf, and thus it remains, thousands of miles from home. Interestingly – and not altogether surprisingly – most British publications we came across listed the translation of Hoa Hakananai’a as “hidden friend”.

Maybe we are anthropomorphizing, but it did look sad in the pictures we saw of it in the British Museum, so far from home and its other “friends”. Before we decide to boycott all future Austin Powers movies and royal weddings, let us consider that other maois reside in mainland Chile and in the United States as well.  A few artifacts have been returned to Easter Island over the years, but too few and too far between.

Horses everywhere. The foal on the right looks brand new : )

All seriousness aside, this blog is primarily for entertainment purposes (with a little education thrown in when we think you might not notice) so we will end with the following recommendation:  Visit Easter Island.  At some point in your life.  It is a must see.  The mysteries surrounding the moai and the island’s history, set against the scenic and remote backdrop of the island itself will renew your childhood wonder about the world.

As always,  check out our photos page for more pictures!

Monkey lovin’ in Bolivia

¨The vets will stitch you up really well when you get bitten.  And if you need to go to the hospital, there’s one not too far up the road.¨ Advice from the volunteer coordinator, 30 seconds into our orientation at the Parque Machia Animal Sanctuary.

The park´s cafe & meet-up spot offers snacks, beers, and one of the highlights of our stay: delicious vegetarian lunches!

Shortly after our reassuring orientation, we learn our assignments: Aggie will work with small animals, consisting primarily of coatis, and Jeff is assigned to the Vet Clinic and Quarantine, which consists largely of Capuchin Monkeys.  We head to one of  three houses  set  aside for exclusive use by volunteers.  Depending on whom you ask, the accomodations are described as ¨basic¨ (park website FAQs) or “malísimo” (everyone else).   But, no matter – we just want a good night´s sleep so we can be at our best for those furry critters!

Our 0-star accommodations

The kitchen at one of the houses inspires little confidence

Day 1:  We discover that the 10-hour workdays are comprised of 1/10th feedings (fun) and 9/10ths cage cleaning (lots of poop). A cage cleaner must nimbly sweep, scoop, and bleach each cage while avoiding the poop-covered claws of animals that try to scale your leg and up your back to cuddle and/or nibble.  That night,  Aggie discovers “wildlife” also resides in the house as she accidentally walks in on a brown cockroach chilling on the bathroom toilet. It is an awkward moment for both of them.  Future trips to the bathroom are punctuated by foot-stomping and flashing of bathroom lights to announce Aggie’s arrival so everyone else has time to clear out.

Day 2:  Jeff befriends two monkeys named, not coincidentally, “Martin” and “Isa”.   Martin and Isa like to pick invisible(?) mites out of Jeff’s hair and bite-lick his whiskers to help keep him well-groomed.  It seems that they are aware of  the conditions at the house, and are trying to assist with hygiene upkeep any way they can.

Jeff gets a shave from Martin

Day 3  Starts with a thunderstorm and a string of accidents.  A volunteer gets pinned to the ground by the large bear he takes for daily walks.   Another volunteer gets bitten in the face by a monkey.  (As promised, the vets work their suture magic.).  Getting peed on 3 times by a monkey that is afraid of lightning doesn’t seem like such a big deal to Jeff, in comparison.

Aggie pets her favorite coati, the adorable one-eyed Moises

Day 4:  Sensing weakness in security, wild monkeys steal fruit from the animals under our care. Aggie throws rocks and sticks to ward off the monkey-pirates, which proves to be futile.  (Anyone who’s had to duck and cover while playing darts with Aggie will know why.) The monkeys also have a secret weapon: ‘Speedy’, a crazy half-tailed Capuchin, whose ambushes on unsuspecting volunteers are so legendary as to instill fear in the hearts of many. Whenever she thinks she sees a monkey with a half-tail, Aggie hides. 

Day 5:  Jeff develops what we shall euphemistically called a “sore stomach”.  Turns out, several volunteers have “sore stomachs”.  We learn that the precautions utilized when cleaning food for the animals, such as soaking fruits in iodized water,  are not applied to human fruit and vegetable preparation.  Huh.

Day 6:  We lose shower water at our house.  Although the shower doesn’t work, we still have brownish water coming out of a lower tap, so we bathe by filling tupperware containers with cold water and dumping them over our bodies to rinse off the day’s animal poop.  Good enough.

The aptly named, Cuchi-Cuchi. Sticking her tongue out for the camera!

Day 7:  The ENTIRE village loses ALL water for the entire day.  No showers.  No flushing toilets.  Even washing hands becomes an issue. We have hand-sanitizer, but we wonder what the people handling our food are using. A few of the volunteers decide to bathe in the river.  We pass on this “opportunity” as we recall that someone spotted a cow’s head floating down the river a few days earlier. 

"Death Bridge": The only bridge into town. Note the lack of sidewalk or lights to aid pedestrians when crossing.

Several weeks after our volunteering stint has ended, we still recall this leg of our trip with great vividness and , more recently, lots of laughter.  Potential volunteers considering a visit to the park should do their own research, but we’d like to offer a few words of advice: try to stay off ‘Death Bridge’ after dark, don’t eat the chicken at ‘Red’s’, and take all the stories you hear about half-tailed monkeys seriously.

If you’d like to view more photos of Bolivia, check out our Photos page for new pictures.  We’ve also created a page titled Map Mania to detail where we’ve travelled within South America!

Part II Colombia: Searching for Juan Valdez and a good cup of coffee

When we last left off, our intrepid explorers (us) had arrived in Taganga, Colombia.  With the exception of a short hike that left Jeff temporarily disoriented atop a jungly hill that he had to bush-whack his way out of  (resulting in hundreds of scratches and knicks that looked like they were delivered by the razor sharp claws of a litter of kittens), the days had started to get a little…predictable.

Aggie is super excited to get on the back of a moto-taxi, which will take her through mountain dirt roads to the coffee plantation

We also had begun to crave  some real coffee.  Sadly,  the vast majority of quality Colombian coffee beans are exported, leaving coffee drinkers with options like  NesCafe, which was hard for us to wrap our heads around.  After all, this is the land of Juan Valdez – –   Remember the commercials with the farmer and his burro, reminding viewers that Colombian coffee is mountain grown, and therefore the best?  We needed to find that farmer and his coffee, in order to calm Jeff´s caffeine-withdrawal induced twitching.  So, in search of great coffee, we sought out one of the local coffee plantations on coastal Colombia, La Victoria.

Examining dried coffee beans

Our tour of  the La Victoria coffee plantation did not disappoint.  It was led by a seventy-something year old guide who had seen it all during his 30-year tenure at the plantation  (including a two year period in the early 00’s where members of the FARC forcibly occupied and almost ran the plantation into the ground).   It was a great tour, but, sadly, no free samples.  Our coffee frustration grew.Finally, on our second to last day in Colombia, we found Juan Valdez!  Not the farmer, but the franchise – a Starbucks-like coffee chain, only better.   It seems that Juan Valdez has been an iconic representation and marketing symbol of the National Federation of Coffee Growers in Colombia,  a cooperative owned and controlled by over 500,000 Colombian coffee farmers.  The Juan Veldez chain is also one of the best high-end coffeehouse chains in Colombia, and, we are happy to announce that, unlike the rest of the world, Starbucks has yet to make a dent here.


Jeff and I FINALLY struck gold!  My cup of Juan Valdez coffee  was one of THE BEST  cups of coffee Ive ever had (right after Gimme! Coffee in upstate New York with Sean) so creamy, delicious and walnutty!  Thank YOU Colombia!