Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Empire State of Mind

The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things. So, I'll try to say what I can to sum up the last four months. I'm a bit reminded of a great Onion article about This American Life, and the subject of "things ending" being the final subject they have left to cover. I've talked about basically everything I could think of on this trip. So this seems like the right time for this particular thing to end.

I've been back in New York for five days now, trying to regain my grasp on reality. I've been reunited with my family and my dog Sonny (whom, the other day, I awoke to find asleep on my shoe). I've had several people ask me if it's weird to be home, but in truth it's surprisingly not. In fact, what's weirdest about it is how normal it feels. It doesn't feel like I've been gone as long as I have. When I think about specific things that happened before I left, or how long it's been since I've seen specific people, then I feel the full weight of it. But it doesn't feel like four months since I woke up in this apartment, since I rode the subway, or since I took Sonny out for a walk. It feels like some time has passed, certainly, but more like a few weeks than a few months. It's amazing how easily the routine things stay routine.

The weird result of all this is that my trip also feels, in my mind, like something that existed outside of normal time. In a way, it's true, because, in relative terms, it existed far outside of my normal experience. Travel time always feels a bit different, and when it's all you're doing for four months, things get a bit skewed. But the net impact is that it almost feels like it must have been a dream. Not because the memory of it isn't still vivid, but because it seems so improbable that I should have had the opportunity to do something like this trip. At any rate, I seem to have very quickly moved past the point of not wanting to talk about it at all--I did, after all, document much of it in elaborate detail on the internet--to the point of wanting to talk about it a lot. I'll apologize now to the people this may annoy in the coming weeks. I think it's just a function of my brain trying to come to terms with the fact that I actually did this.

At any rate, this seems like a good time for big picture stuff, so I want to come back to something I haven't really gotten into since I was in Nicaragua, but which was a pervasive issue throughout my trip: poverty. For me, as much as this trip was about the incredible experiences I've had, it was also about what I saw of the world and the lives of others. I'll take with me my memories of the people I met and saw as much as anything else. Obviously not everywhere I went was destitute, although people in Uruguay and Argentina would occasionally explain one dysfunction or another by saying "well, it's a third world country." Having also been to Ecuador--which can't even support its own currency--and Nicaragua, I think there is no doubt that, terminology aside, the Rioplatan region is just on a completely different economic plane than those two. But there is still a significant difference between everywhere I went and the U.S., particularly in terms of access to technology and quality of life. It's also worth noting that the two countries that are the most developed overall--again, Argentina and Uruguay--are the two with the smallest indigenous populations. In both cases, as with the U.S., the original population was almost completely wiped out, and nearly everyone has ancestry from somewhere else. In Uruguay, in fact, the indigenous Charrua culture is completely gone. This may be an indication of greater natural resources more than anything--greater resources would have meant more aggressive colonization, as well as more long-term wealth. But, spending some time down there, the long-term impact of colonization is very apparent.

In that light, it's not particularly surprising that one encounters the mythology of Che Guevara frequently. This is in spite of the fact that the Argentine government has denied any legacy one might grant him--there is not a single street named for him in the country, even though he was arguably the most famous citizen in its history. When traveling through and around South America, it is impossible to escape the fact that a young Guevara himself once traveled a similar route in an effort to get to know himself and to see the world. Anyone who sets out with similar intentions and sees similar places ultimately ends up thinking extensively about Guevara and the things he fought for.

Guevara was, of course, a murderer--even if you do believe many of his actions to have been justified, it's clear that at a certain point he came to delight in violence. Moreover, fighting against a system that perpetuates hegemony by backing a system in which bloodshed is the only source of power is a deeply flawed approach. But the poverty and systematic oppression of indigenous peoples Guevara saw throughout South America saw were a real thing, and still are in many parts of the continent. As in Guevara's time (after all, it's only been fifty years), we have a status quo in which the centuries-old oppression is institutionalized. It's in the U.S. as well, in other forms. The original structures may no longer be in place, but their repercussions are a major factor in many people's daily lives. Of course, the fact that so little progress has been made is just another piece of evidence that Guevara's tactics achieved little aside from changing the body in the dictator's chair. Although given that his ideology seemed as driven by a sense of vengeance as by a sense of justice, this might not be much of a surprise.

Ultimately, regardless of our politics, it becomes a huge problem when we end up trying to decide who deserves what amount of comfort, wealth, and power. It's not a question I can answer, and it's not a question I am interested in answering. But I do think we can largely agree that everyone deserves a few fundamental rights. And walking around Granada or Guayaquil, for example, it's clear that the status quo remains largely unacceptable. As Guevara noted, too many people have no access to opportunities because of who their ancestors were. But too often, those seeking social justice--Guevara included--are preoccupied with the past. As I've noted before, punishing people for the sins of their forefathers is a woefully backward-looking approach to moving forward. It is not possible to reverse the pain of past injustices, but their long-term effects can still be mitigated. The question cannot be "how do we make up for the oppression people have felt?" It can only be "how do we move to a system in which they are no longer feeling the burden of that oppression?" So the focus, in my mind, must be on creating opportunities where currently there are none.

I recognize that I'm writing in terms that are both overly idealistic and extremely simplistic. It's much easier to say "everyone should get a great education and equal access to government" than it is to figure out how to give everyone a great education and equal access to government. The road is far from obvious. There's a scene in The Motorcycle Diaries (the movie, at least) in which Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado visit Machu Picchu, in Peru, and discuss the poverty they've seen along the way. Granado suggests forming an indigenous political party, giving people the opportunity to build a a movement. Che arrogantly scoffs, and argues that change cannot come without bloodshed and bullets. In the end, the kind of change he brought--that won by mass murder--has shown itself no less oppressive and self-serving than the powers it replaced. Granado's solution is no silver bullet, but adding a previously absent voice to the conversation is always a good step. I do believe there must be some way to extend the opportunities which are humanity's birthright to peoples who have for centuries been denied them. I don't know whether it can happen in my lifetime, but I have no doubt that we can make a lot of progress. So, what is the solution in the long run? I certainly don't have an answer. But I know that it's important to keep asking the question. And for me, in many ways, this trip has been about doing just that.

It has been interesting to consider these ideas at a time in which my own country has just completed a massive healthcare debate. It was a debate in which one side argued that providing low-cost or subsidized healthcare to the sick and poor amounted to handouts for the undeserving. I do believe that it's important to have a society in which capitalist opportunities exist--in which people can work hard and achieve and advance, and in which there is always room to grow. And I understand that it is a biproduct of such a system that there will be people whose opportunities, from birth, far outstretch those of fellow citizens. But I also believe that we are all obligated to remember that it is circumstances beyond our control--whether you believe it to be God, luck, or pure random chance--that give us the mere capacity to advance. It was not my choice to be born into a wonderful and supportive family, who could provide for me a great education. Nor was it my choice to be born in a country where I have never had to fear that police might come and take me or my loved ones away for the color of our skin or the thoughts I express. It was not my choice to be born without any major developmental impairments, such that I have the ability to read and to write, to speak and to comprehend, and to get around as I please. It was not even my choice to be born a human being. None of this came from anything I did. That I, this soul, was born into this body in these incredibly fortunate circumstances was nothing short of a blessing. And so to consider myself more deserving of this life than others would be to thumb my nose at the very forces that grant me these opportunities in the first place. So it is that I believe in a fundamental human duty to lend a helping hand whenever the opportunity arises. I don't believe we can--or even should--all be Mother Teresa. If you are sailing along and see a shipwrecked man drowning in the water, diving in to save him won't help if you're not a good swimmer. But sailing blindly on is no better. Not when it would cost you so little, and help him so much, just to toss him a life preserver.

Anyway, I think I'll get off my preachy high horse, and wrap things up. It just seemed appropriate to discuss all this as part of this blog, because it has been the one thing I've thought about every day since I arrived in Nicaragua on January 9th.

It has been an unbelievable thrill to share my journey with you. I am so grateful to live in an age in which this kind of travel and this kind of communication are possible. I hope you've found what I've had to say enjoyable, or at least not completely self-indulgent. Now, at long last, it is time to get back to my dog and my family, and to spending time with old friends as well as new, before starting the next chapter of my life in graduate school. And so, reminded of just how grateful I am for the life I have, I'll continue on to the next adventure, keeping this memory close, always thinking back, and looking ever forward.


Monday, May 10, 2010

Send Rudy Giuliani his royalty check

I'd like to take one last next-to-last post to write about something I'd been thinking about for the last few weeks of my trip.  I'm home now, so I certainly don't have much new ground to cover, but this is something that showed up as a theme in every place I visited.  As such, I think being in New York, which is as much the center of this story as anywhere else I've been, makes this an appropriate time to discuss it.

I've arrived home at a time when much of New York is, once again, concerned about terrorism.  Last week's attempted bombing of Times Square is a reminder that, though I may feel less vulnerable here than I did on my travels, I am not necessarily any more safe.  This is notwithstanding Stephen Colbert's point that New Yorkers will be fine because the bomber targeted Times Square, the one place in the city New Yorkers never go.  At any rate, I mention this mostly to bring up something I've been thinking about for a while.  I know I'm grossly overgeneralizing here, but New Yorkers, I think, don't think of 9/11 all that much, at least not when thinking of our city.  It might pop into your head from time to time walking around, but if you're away and thinking of what you remember about home, it's not going to be one of your first thoughts.  During elections, it can often feel like other parts of the country make a much bigger deal of it than we do.  The truth, however, is that by being so close to it, I think we often miss just how wide its repercussions were.  When I told people in Latin America that I was from New York, I almost always got one of two responses: "Ah, la Gran Manzana" ("the Big Apple"), or "¿Qué tal Las Torres Gimelas?" ("How about the Twin Towers?").  Nearly everyone I met asked me if I was in the city that day (I wasn't--it was freshman year of college) or what I thought about it.  The dialogue was often a bit bizarre ("How about the Twin Towers?" "What about them?" "They fell."  "Um, yes, I know.").

This line of inquiry, it's worth noting, wasn't limited to the Spanish-speaking locals.  It came up in conversation with plenty of English-speakers and travelers as well (though none from the states).  And, I suppose, it's just something that made a major impression on the world.  So if you're someone who was relatively close to it, they want to know what you thought about it.  It makes sense.  If I'd met an octogenarian from Pearl Harbor, I'd probably have the same reaction.  But it mostly felt kind of weird because, although I felt deeply affected by 9/11 at the time, I don't really have much to say about it now, and certainly don't have much interest in talking about it.  As such, I'd usually try to change the subject as quickly as I could.  I'd usually just say some basic things that are true: "it was a huge tragedy," "that day was awful, I remember it clearly," or "hey look, a dog!"

On the plus side, once I went through the basic motions, things generally stayed pretty normal.  There were, however, a few times people asked my opinion on conspiracy theories.  For example, an Irish friend asked me if I thought the Bush administration secretly blew up the World Trade Center and was very surprised that I am certain they did not*   I also had a Galapagan hostel owner ask if I knew that Osama Bin Laden used to be the director of the CIA, and that he coordinated 9/11 from a hotel room in D.C. before flying to Iraq to meet with Saddam Hussein.  He told me "I watch TV, I know all about the world."  The moment shook me a bit--not because of anything to do with the conspiracy theories, but because it was a reminder of the incredible good fortune I experience every day.  Here I was blissfully seeing so many things that are so far removed from my experience, and this man has no other window to the enormous world beyond his island's shores than a TV that parrots distorted accounts of information.

As a result, I got very tired of the 9/11 conversations.  I understand why people wanted to have them.  They had no way of knowing that neither of us would get anything out of it.  So I was obliged to go through the motions until something appeared that could distract us. 

There's an almost-certainly-apocryphal story in the travel community about American backpackers sewing maple leaf patches to their backpacks in order to pass as Canadian.  I didn't have a problem admitting to be from the states, and was always happy to say "soy de Nueva York."  But after enough questions about 9/11, I started thinking I might say I was from California.  After all, I'm much more interested in discussing economic policy than in discussing terrorism.

I'd been struggling to decide whether to write this post or not.  Ultimately I've decided that although it isn't really about the places I've been so much as where I came there from, it's still worth noting.  I've tried to make this blog not just about the things I've seen but also my experience in seeing them.  And, whether I wanted it or not, this was a consistent part of the experience of this trip.

I'll be back in the next day or two with--I think--my actual final post.  For now, a real celebration of New York: matzoh ball soup.


*I told him that the idea that they could pull off something so coordinated and devastating suggests a massively higher level of competence than they demonstrated at every single turn.  They did enough major damage to the world with things that were and still are real that we do ourselves a disservice to distract ourselves with fictitious abuses of power.

Friday, May 7, 2010


Maybe it's the statistics nerd in me, but I felt like dedicating a post entirely to a series of lists and facts.  The "tale of the tape," if you will.  So here are some random lists of random facts about my trip.  Note that these lists are based on my memory as of the last few days, and as such are incomplete in at least a few cases.  There is also almost never any particular order, aside from the first two, which are chronological.  Usually, the order is just the order in which I remembered things. At any rate, here are some things that happened.

Pictures taken: 9,495
Blog posts: 47 (not including this or any subsequent posts)
Blog posts that I posted on's blogsherpa program: 37

Countries on whose soil I set foot:
  • Nicaragua
  • Costa Rica
  • Panama (1 night)
  • Uruguay
  • Argentina
  • Brazil (1 day)
  • Chile
  • Colombia (airport)
  • Ecuador

Books I read:
  • The Audacity to Win - David Plouffe (started before I left)
  • The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown
  • Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
  • Liar's Poker - Michael Lewis 
  • A Briefer History of Time - Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Díaz
  • Galapagos - Kurt Vonnegut

Countries whose citizens I met on my travels: 
  • United States
  • Germany
  • Canada (French and English-speaking)
  • France
  • Denmark
  • Sweden
  • Spain
  • Italy
  • Netherlands
  • Sweden
  • Russia
  • Belarus
  • England
  • Ireland
  • Scotland
  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Finland
  • Switzerland
  • Portugal
  • Japan
  • Peru
  • Paraguay
  • Norway
  • Israel
  • Nicaragua 
  • Costa Rica
  • Panama
  • Uruguay
  • Argentina
  • Brazil
  • Chile
  • Ecuador
  • Colombia

Countries and territories from which this blog has been read:
  • Argentina 
  • Australia 
  • Austria 
  • Brazil 
  • Canada 
  • Chile 
  • Costa Rica 
  • Czech Republic 
  • Ecuador 
  • France 
  • Germany 
  • Greece 
  • Guatemala 
  • Hong Kong 
  • Iceland 
  • India 
  • Indonesia 
  • Italy 
  • Kuwait 
  • Malawi 
  • Malaysia 
  • Mexico 
  • Netherlands 
  • New Zealand 
  • Nicaragua 
  • Norway 
  • Pakistan 
  • Panama 
  • Peru 
  • Philippines 
  • Puerto Rico 
  • Romania 
  • Russia 
  • Slovakia 
  • Spain 
  • Sweden 
  • Switzerland 
  • Turkey 
  • U.S. Virgin Islands 
  • United Kingdom 
  • United States 
  • Uruguay 
  • Venezuela 

Types of transport (*indicates something I'd never done before):
  • Bus (school, city, and coach)
  • Car (taxi, rental, and friend's)
  • Van
  • Pickup truck
  • Boat (ferry, yacht*, sailboat, zodiac*)
  • Airplane (small as 12 passengers*, large as a 767, and some others in between)
  • Dune buggy*
  • Bicycle
  • Zipline*
  • Chairlift
  • Snorkel fins
  • My feet (a lot)

Things I saw for the first time (non-animal division):
  • Crater of an active Volcano
  • Glaciers
  • Icebergs
  • Solidified fresh (meaning within the last few centuries) lava flows
  • Lava tube caves
  • Organic farm
  • Murga
  • Soccer match
  • Fjords
  • The inside of a cruise ship (first time I ever slept on a boat, in fact)
  • Moai (very location-specific, but still worth mentioning)
  • Cactus trees
  • Live theater in Spanish

New fruits I tried:
  • Nispero
  • Sapote
  • Calafate
  • Maquí (in fairness, I only tried the ice cream)
  • Guanábana

Animals I saw (in the wild) for the first time
  • Monkey--Howler, White-faced (Capuchin), and Squirrel 
  • Scorpion
  • Sloth (three-toed and two-toed)
  • Tree frogs
  • Crocodile
  • Macaw
  • Parrot
  • Coati
  • Penguin--Magellanic and Galapagos
  • Rhea
  • Flamingo--Chilean and American
  • Sea Turtle
  • Boobies (heh)--Blue-footed, Nazca, and Red-footed
  • Shark--White-tipped and Galapagos
  • Iguana--Green, Galapagos land, and Galapagos marine
  • Frigatebird
  • Tortoise
  • Fur seal
  • Manta ray
  • Moray eel
  • Triggerfish
  • King Angelfish
  • Damselfish
  • Common dolphin (had previously only seen bottlenosed)

Favorite regional foods:
  • Quesillo (Nicaragua)
  • Gallo Pinto (Nicaragua and Costa Rica)
  • Tuna a la plancha (Costa Rica)
  • Chivito (Uruguay)
  • Mate (Beverage--Uruguay and Argentina)
  • Grassfed steak (Uruguay and Argentina)
  • Meringe / dulce de leche pastries (Argentina)
  • Ice cream (Argentina--listed because it's that much better than other ice cream)
  • Patagonian lamb (Chile and Argentina)
  • Venison (Bariloche, Argentina)
  • Ceviche (Easter Island, Ecuador)
  • Locro de papa (Ecuador)

    UNESCO World Heritage Sites I visited:
    • Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
    • Iguazú National Park, Argentina
    • Iguaçu National Park, Brazil
    • Glacier National Park, Argentina
    • Rapa Nui National Park, Chile
    • Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

      Blogopagos - The Dread Pirate Frigates (or So Long and Thanks For All The Fishes)

      I once again find myself writing an entry from an airplane, this time between Galapagos and Guayaquil, where I'll catch my final flight home to New York.  Before moving on, though, I thought I'd write a bit about my last three days aboard the Angelique.  In particular, I want to discuss our trip to Genovesa, the island that, among those I had not yet seen with the Cachalote, I most wanted to visit.

      Genovesa is most noteworthy for its enormous population of nesting Great Frigatebirds.  I've mentioned the frigatebird a bit already, and I knew that I found them fascinating, but getting to observe them up close crystalized my feelings.  Let's get this out there now: frigatebirds are assholes.  They are the assholes of the bird world.  Seriously, total jerks. Frigatebirds*, also known as Man-O-War birds**, are most well known for their piratical habits.  They steal everything they get.  I've already mentioned that they often get food by harrassing other birds into disgorging a fresh catch, and swooping down to snatch it before it hits the water.  It turns out they do this with nesting material as well, as I've now seen firsthand.

      On Genovesa, we witnessed scores of Red-footed Boobies--the tree-dwelling and alternate-colored cousin of the Blue-footed and Nazca varieties--cutting small twigs from bushes with their beaks, and attempting to fly them back to their loved ones.  You'd think birds would leave them alone.  After all, they're just trying to build a good home for their kids.  Well, most of the time, not a moment after the booby took flight, a frigatebird would swoop in from above and start pecking at and colliding with the booby.  Occasionally, the booby would escape with the twig still in its mouth, and make it home--or at least out of my line of sight.  For the most part, however, the incredibly dickish behavior of the frigatebird would cause the booby to freak out and drop its twig.  As impressive as it may have been to then watch the frigatebird swoop down faster than the twig***, great feats of athleticism don't make up for shoddy morals.  This ain't the NFL.

      As I watched these acrobatic thugs do what comes naturally, I struggled to find the appropriate analogy.  I initially thought it a bit like a neighborhood with a heavy mob presence.  The frigatebirds take a taste of all the food and all the construction materials.  The problem with that analogy is it would have to be a combined mob neighborhood / police state, because if you really lived in such a neighborhood, you would always have the option to leave it, and you almost certainly would.

      I think, at the end, it's most like a normal American high school.  I say "normal" because this kind of thing didn't really go on at the artsfest I attended during my formative years, but that's beside the point.  The frigatebirds are the bullies and the red-footed boobies are the A/V club.  Or the sci-fi club.  Or the D&D club.  Or Mathletes, perhaps.  Take your pick.  The only difference is that, in PS Genovesa, there are about twice as many bullies as there are nerds.  The nerds wish more than anything that they could escape to a place without bullies, but they have nowhere else to go really.  This is where the fish are, so that's where the nerds stay.  So, the nerds have no real choice but to tolerate the frigatebirds' stealing their lunch money and their twigs.  The boobies occasionally yell a bit in exasperation, and even throw the odd weak-looking peck.  But they never really manage to retaliate in any meaningful way.

      The courtship traditions of the frigatebird are also noteworthy.  The male frigatebird has a big red throat-pouch that he can inflate to impress the females.  If I may continue the game of "Torture That Analogy," (a favorite pastime of my brother Art and I), it is the bird equivalent of  the bully--clearly already overcompensating for something--stuffing a sock in his pants.  Often, on Genovesa, one will come across a large group of male frigatebirds sitting on the ground with their pouches fully inflated, waiting for a female (who has a very visible white patch of feathers in lieu of the pouch) to fly overhead.  Whenever this happens, the males spread their wings and shake them, proudly displaying the size and redness of the pouch.  In order to ensure the female's attention--just in case she might confuse the group for little Jimmy's fourth birthday celebration--they ullulate.  Eventually, the female will choose the "ballon rouge" that suits her fancy the most, and settle down with a male.  She will then blissfully pretend, a la Carmela Soprano, that the twigs and aluminum siding he brings her have come from an honest day's work****.

      At any rate, Genovesa, isolated in the northeastern part of the archipelago and located fully north of the Equator, is unique because it is the only island that has neither introduced species nor land reptiles (of Galapagos's two iguana species, only the marine variety has made it as far as Genovesa).  As a result, it is so full of birds as to be an appropriate setting for a remake of the Hitchcock movie.  In addition to the frigatebirds and all three kinds of boobies (though Blue-footed are not very common there, and nest on other islands), it has a wealth of Red-billed Tropicbirds and a freakish amount of petrels.

      The petrels pass their time trying to impress each other with aerial acrobatics along the cliffside, sweeping and swooping all over the place.  The boobies and frigatebirds, by contrast, mostly just sit there and try to mate, giving off a range of freakish noises.  As on the other islands, one can walk right up to the larger nesting birds.  In addition to large amounts of puffed-up frigatebirds, we got to witness a Nazca Booby***** couple preparing to mate.  The nesting ritual of the Nazca Booby is so endearing it makes me want to adopt a pair of them.  First, as do all species of booby, they do a little dance with each other.  Next, however, the male starts to help the female build a nest.  Rather than fly off and find some good material for a foundation, like the other birds in the area, he just looks in his immediate vicinity.  Upon finding a twig or a small pebble, the male will pick it up in his beek, and very gently place it at the foot of his mate.  He will proudly repeat this process at least a few times, each time newly giving his bride the precious gift of a thing he just found.

      As with any small cruise in Galapagos, we spent our fair share of time in the water as well.  This time, however, the sights on land outshone the experience underwater, though there were certainly some good things to see below the surface.  The water was very murky in Genovesa--less so in Bartolomé, which I had visited with the Cachalote and to which I returned with the Angelique.  However, I did manage to see three major animals I had not previously seen, as well as a few new fish.  In Playa Las Bachas, on the northern part of Santa Cruz, I saw a juvenile Galapagos Shark.  Fully grown, these are slightly bigger than the white-tipped sharks, and more menacing-looking as well.  In the obscure waters of Las Bachas, it appeared as a silvery flash in front of me, and then swam past without paying much attention.  At Genovesa, we briefly saw an iguana in the water, feeding on some seaweed.  I had seen this from land, but this was my first time in the water with one.  Unfortunately, right as I got out my camera to take a picture, an enormous wave knocked us back about fifteen feet, and I missed my chance.

      A short while later, we came across a fur seal, which is a relative of the sea lion, of course, but which behaves differently.  Fur seals are nocturnal, so when they get into the water during the day, it's usually just to relax a bit.  Their standard approach, which we witnessed, is to lie upside-down at the surface, all four flippers facing the sun, and head facing down.  It's not as curious or playful as its Californian cousin, but it's still a lot of fun to watch.

      Yesterday, in Bartolomé, I hoped to get another opportunity to swim with a penguin, and capture the photo that I missed last time.  Although we saw a few of them sunning themselves as we swam by, our group apparently missed the only one that had been swimming by about five minutes, so it seems it was not in the cards.  Fortunately, there's an important lesson to be taken from this.  The thousands of pictures I've taken in the last four months serve as a wonderful record of all the excitement of this trip.  They are, however, just that--a record.  They are not, themselves, the point of the trip.  As much as I might feel like kicking myself for not checking my camera before the first time I got in the water at Bartolomé, I am so lucky to have had the unique experience of swimming with a penguin in the first place, to say nothing of everything else I've had the opportunity to do in the last four months.  The lesson is an obvious one, of course, but it was nonetheless good to be reminded of it before heading out with only the memories in my head and the pictures on my computer.

      So, all told, I had an excellent final few days in Galapagos.  Of the nine islands I visited in the archipelago, it would be very difficult to pick a favorite.  Genovesa, however, would be in the top three, along with Española and Fernandina.  Anyway, I started writing this post this morning on the flight from the islands to the mainland, and I'm now finishing it in the air over South America, only five and a half hours from JFK.  This is not yet my last post, but that will happen soon enough.  I'll stop getting to self-importantly broadcast my opinions and I'll rejoin my friends and family in the rest of the world.  Not yet, but soon.


      *The name, as I learned from Sid Meier in my youth, comes from the best boat a civilization can have before it discovers steelwork.

      **Ibid, but switch in "colony" for "civilization" and "wins independence" for "discovers steelwork."

      ***Something high school physics class taught us would be impossible without air resistance.

      ****This part just works better with the mob analogy than the high school one.  Apologies for any confusion.

      *****I suppose I should address, at long last, the fact that this species is called the "booby."  I'll just say two things about that: 1) The name comes from "bobo," which is a Spanish term for "clown," so given because of their mating dance, in which they show off their oversized feet.  2) Heh.


      Galapagos - Santa Cruz - Playa Las Bachas

      Galapagos - Genovesa - Prince Phillip's Steps

      Galapagos - Genovesa - Darwin Bay

      Galapagos - Santiago - Sullivan Bay

      Galapagos - Bartolomé - Pinnacle Rock

      Galapagos - Santa Cruz - Charles Darwin Station

      Saturday, May 1, 2010

      Blogopagos - No Soap, Radio Silence

      This is my last post from the road. It feels really weird to say that, because it hadn't occurred to me as I was writing my previous post that it would be my last major post before getting home.  But I've since finished making my final plans for Galapagos.  On Monday, I'll get on another sail cruise, at the end of which they'll take me straight to the airport for my flight home (with a brief layover in Guayaquil).  Because, of course, the boat doesn't have internet, this means that my next post will be from New York--or at least, it will be posted from New York.

      I have to say, I'm very excited to go home.  I've had a lot of people ask me if I'm ready, and I would say "ready" is an understatement.  This trip has been truly amazing--undoubtedly the experience of a lifetime.  But traveling on your own for so long gets exhausting sometimes.  There's always another logistical hurdle to jump, or a choice to be made between spending time on your own and battling through a perfunctory round of small-talk to make a new friend.  I enjoy meeting people, and am always happy to have conversation, but I've definitely found myself receding into books a bit more as the social fatigue has increased.  This is absolutely not anything against the excellent people I've met throughout this trip.  But it does speak to my readiness to move on.

      At any rate, I'm really looking forward to getting back to my family, my friends, and my dog.  I'll miss the friendly sea lions who've filled my days here and sneezed on me, but I think the trade-off is a worthwhile one.  I've also decided that my plan for my first meal back is a bowl of matzoh ball soup, a slice of real New York pizza, and a plate of chicken with garlic sauce--all three major cuisines I've missed in one fell swoop.  It will also be nice to have the same home for more than three weeks at a time. This is particularly salient when I think back to a 10 day stretch in Patagonia during which I slept in 10 different places.  I'm really looking forward to a bit of stability before I move to the other side of the coast to start something new.

      But, of course, I'm getting ahead of myself.  Starting on Monday, I have one last adventure ahead of me, which should take me to the nesting sites of frigatebirds and red-footed boobies, among others.  I should also mention that all of my pictures from aboard the Cachalote (thought none of the videos) are now up.  The relevant albums are linked from my previous post.

      So, with that, I just want to say that it's been a great time, and it's been cool getting the opportunity to share my thoughts on everything as its happened through the magic of this here internet, and I think all of you for reading, whether you're my family or one of the surprising people who's read this blog from Hong Kong or Pakistan.  I'm planning to write one more post once I get back stateside just to sum things up, so this isn't yet goodbye.  So, for now let's just say I'll see you on the other side.


      Galapagos - Santa Cruz

      Thursday, April 29, 2010

      Blogopagos - Come Sail Away

      Green Sea Turtle and Me

      I'm back on land after a week on a sailboat.  The eruption in Iceland of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano (pronunciation here) meant that a number of Europeans had to cancel their trips, meaning there were only six of us on the sixteen-passenger Cachalote.  It turned out that was just the start of a run of good luck.

      Before I arrived in Galapagos last week, I was actually a bit concerned.  This is my last stop before returning home to New York.  How could I possibly put a proper cap on the trip of a lifetime?  Moreover, this place has always fully captured my imagination.  It seemed impossible for Galapagos to meet my unreasonably high expectations, especially coming on the heels of all the remarkable things I've seen in the last three and a half months.

      Well, I was clearly underestimating the wonders of the Galapagos archipelago.  I thought I had things figured out when I wrote last week about the pelicans, sea lions, and iguanas I've been seeing.  Then I got in the water, and I experienced an entirely different world.  It seemed like every time in the water, the islands threw something new my way, and each experience even more mind-boggling than the last.

      Swimming with sea lions was cool.  They're extremely curious and playful, and will often swim right up to you and go around in circles, trying to figure out what you are before swimming off.  I was amazed and even gleeful.

      Then I swam with sea turtles.  They're not as playful as the sea lions, but they're certainly beautiful and mesmerizing.  They're also very easy to follow for a while, because they don't generally move much faster than people.  They can when they want to, but don't generally seem to feel the need.

      Then I swam with a shark.  Not a big one.  It was a white-tipped reef shark, which is about as long head-to-tail as I am head-to-toe.  Lest you fear for me, it's also worth noting that they're completely indifferent to people.

      So, I was astounded by all I had experienced.  Using the underwater case I got for my camera, I got great pictures.*  I was extremely pleased with all I had seen and experienced.

      Then I swam with a penguin.

      I had taken my head out to talk to some of my fellow Cachalote passengers, when I heard the unmistakable call of a Galapagos Penguin**--it sounds like a little lamb looking for its mother.  I shouted to my fellow passengers, "penguin!" and swam toward it.  And there it was, tiny head above water, occasionally dipping below the surface.  Just a few feet in front of me, and swimming toward--and then right past--me.  I can't express how incredible that brief moment was (it swam off at a speed I couldn't match within a minute or two).  Galapagos penguins are the northernmost penguins in the world--the only ones that ever travel north of the Equator.  This is one of the few places where you have the opportunity to swim around with a little snorkel and mask, and look up to see the world's most adorable flightless waterfowl paddling your way, taking its head out of the water and calling out for a compatriot of the same species.

      I lined up my camera, and had the penguin perfectly centered in the frame.  What I, infuriatingly, didn't realize until a few minutes later is that my memory card was full.  For the first time on this trip, I had forgotten to make sure there was room on my camera before going off to do something of which I'd want pictures.  On the plus side, I found this picture that someone posted, which is almost exactly what I saw, though from the other side.  But I've been kicking myself for the last 48 hours.

      It's worth noting that if I didn't already know that there were penguins here, I wouldn't have believed it.  When you're getting sunburns in 80 degree heat, you just don't expect to look out at the water and see a bird most commonly associated with Antarctica.  Of course, now that I know that there are Flamingos in the Andes (as well as here, by the way), I suppose I'm a bit less surprised by the spread of interesting birds.

      Of course, the underwater inhabitants aren't the only fascinating thing about Galapagos.  After all, the birds are even more famous, and Darwin himself was most interested in the volcanic geology and fresh lava flows.  So it is that the most impressive fact of the Galapagos once one leaves the comforts of Puerto Ayora is how unspoiled it all is.  There is an extremely focused--and successful--effort to preserve the ecosystem and let it progress naturally.  So it is that one sees huge colonies of marine iguanas--swimming iguanas that exist nowhere else, solitary and enormous land iguanas, flightless cormorants--which have evolved into swimming birds with awkward and useless vestigial wings, enormous albatross, and thousands upon thousands of specacular blue-footed boobies--which live up to their name with nearly flourescent webbed feet.  These creatures don't really seem to care one way or the other about people, and so don't bother to flee when you approach, creating amazing opportunities for observation and picture-taking.  I've been in Galapagos for a week and a half now, and I'm still having a hard time believing this place is real.  When people ask how it is, I have a hard time saying anything other than "almost fictional."  It really just seems like someone's imagined version of a wildlife paradise.

      Before I head off to figure out my plans for my last week on the islands, I want to take a moment to thank Juan Tapia, the spectacular guide who led our Cachalote group around several islands for the last week.  Juan has 21 years of knowledge crammed into his brain, and he shared a sizeable amount of it with us.  He knew exactly when and where to take us so that we almost completely missed the other tour groups.  If you look through my pictures, you will rarely see anyone other than Juan or one of the other five Cachalote passengers.  If you ever make your way down to Galapagos, hope that you're lucky enough to get a guide as excellent and professional as Juan.  And if you bring along a guitar, you might--as we did--be able to get him to play you "Besame Mucho."

      At any rate, although I'm still recovering from the last week aboard the Cachalote--sleeping on a sailboat for a week means that sleeping on shore again feels like you're rocking back and forth--I should get going and figure out what I'm going to do for an encore.  It's going to be hard to top the last week--completely unique in my life to date--but I now have a great deal of confidence in the endless array of surprises that lay hidden in the various corners of these incredibly special islands.


      *As of this writing I have a bit fewer than half of my pictures uploaded, and none of the videos.  Internet is very slow out here, so most of this will likely have to wait until I've returned home to the states.

      **One thing that our group observed is that there's an easy way to guess the name of the species of animal you're looking at.  It's almost certainly the Galapagos _______, where the blank is filled in with the type of animal it is.  See also the Galapagos Hawk, Galapagos Shark, Galapagos Land Iguana, Galapagos Marine Iguana, Galapagos Tortoise, Galapagos Flightless Cormorant--with which I also swam, Galapagos Cotton (the plant), and so on.  These islands are so isolated that so many species of life here have evolved completely separately from their counterparts in the rest of the world.


      Galapagos - Española - Gardner Bay

      Galapagos - Española - Punta Suárez

      Galapagos - Floreana - Champion Rock

      Galapagos - Floreana - Punta Cormorán

      Galapagos - Floreana - Post Office Bay

      Galapagos - Isabela - Punta Moreno

      Galapagos - Isabela - Elizabeth Bay

      Galapagos - Isabela - Urvina Bay

      Galapagos - Fernandina - Punta Espinosa


      Galapagos - Santiago - James Bay

      Galapagos - Bartolomé

      Galapagos - Santa Cruz - Black Turtle Cove

      Thursday, April 22, 2010

      Blogopagos - Living in a zoo

      I'm at the bar at the Sol y Mar hotel in Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz, in the Galapagos.  The bar is in the back, and has a small pool and a deck which faces out into Pelican Bay--named for the many pelicans who live here and feed on the fish.  There's actually a pelican standing on the deck immediately adjacent to the pool, enjoying some shade, but no one's paying him much attention.  That's not actually surprising.  It's easy to miss a preening pelican when there's a sea lion swimming in the pool.

      I've been here three days now, and easily the most striking thing is the total indifference of the animals to the humans around them.  The sea lions, in particular, are happy to put themselves anywhere that there's shade, whether that means on a bench or next to a table at the bar.  Some of the smaller finches and lava lizards might freak out and flee when approached, but one can walk right up to a sea lion, pelican, marine iguana, or giant tortoise without scaring it away.  Although there is now a decently-sized human population living out here--Puerto Ayora has over 10,000 inhabitants--it still has the feel of a place that evolved over the course of millennia free of human contact.  The Galapagos dove, which is basically a pigeon with a piercing blue circle around its eyes, was described by Darwin as being so oblivious that "I could kill by throwing my hat at it."

      The animal that has actually captured my attention more than any other so far is the frigatebird.  It's rather large, with a wingspan similar to that of a vulture or some other large bird of prey.  Among the frigatebird's methods of obtaining food is a technique called kleptoparasitism.  In this, the frigatebird will identify another (smaller) bird--let's say a gull--who has just eaten, and harrass said gull until the it vomits.  Sometimes this involves catching the gull by the tail and shaking it aggressively in the air.  The frigatebird will then eat the regurgitated meal, taking the needed nutrients for itself.  Nature, as they say, doesn't fuck around.

      The islands have a massive number of species of plants and animals that are endemic, meaning they don't exist anywhere else.  One of these is a form of prickly pear cactus that grows as a tree, and mostly appears along the coastline.  I'm still trying to figure out how to incorporate such a thing into my conception of reality.  I'm not there yet, but I'm getting close.

      Another well-known group of endemic species is the finch family.  They're generally not that exciting to look at--they're quite small and the coloration isn't particularly thrilling.  But, given that they're the very birds that contributed so significantly to the development of Darwin's theory of natural selection, they end up being rather captivating.  What's funny, however, is that Darwin came here far more focused on the geology of the place--it's basically a big series of volcanos.  In fact, he barely even collected any samples of finches--just two of the thirteen or so species.  It was not until he got back to England that he realized what he had seen, and had to borrow samples from Robert FitzRoy, the captain of the HMS Beagle.  Accidental though Darwin's realizations may have been, it's fascinating and wonderful to be in the place responsible for them, and to witness firsthand the amazing biodiversity of an ecosystem left to evolve more or less on its own for thousands of years.

      This evening I'll be boarding a schooner for a six-day cruise around the islands.  I'm expecting to see a lot of amazing things, and hoping to avoid letting the boat treat me like a frigatebird treats a gull.  I'll check back in when I'm back on land.



      Galapagos - Santa Cruz

      Monday, April 19, 2010

      Seth of South of the Equator -or- Wrap-a Nui

      So, I'm in the air over the Pacific Ocean heading out to the Galapagos for the last few weeks of my journey, and I figured I'd do a wrap up of my time in Argentina and the southern part of the Southern Hemisphere.

      Argentina is certainly an interesting place, with a very proud culture.  I may have mentioned this before, but my buddy Matt back in Uruguay made the point that there's a certain stubbornness and even bitterness to Argentina's impression of itself.  There's a sense that for just a moment they were major players on the world stage, and that it's something that really should have continued.  Unfortunately, their tumultuous history over the last few decades--combined with the rapid development of the world's other large nations--has kept them on the outside.  They seem to feel a bit snubbed by the Obama administration (all the while noting what an improvement it is on the days of the Bush administration), and there's a not insignificant amount of jealousy toward Brazil, which is much more on the rise on the world stage.  There also seems to be a sense of superiority towards other surrounding countries--for example, most Argentines will tell you you can skip a visit to Uruguay, and that you definitely don't need more than a day trip to Colonia.  If you've been reading this blog, you know that I strongly disagree.

      So it is that Argentina appears to be a place struggling with its own identity, and even more with its own reality.  The Kirchners (former President Nestor and his wife, current President Cristina) have seen their popularity collapse, largely after privatizing the pension system.  Most people still haven't recovered from the various economic bubbles that have burst over the last two decades.  Many people who were formerly middle and upper-middle class have been reduced to begging on the streets--several dress up in their nicest clothes to differentiate themselves from what might be considered more standard panhandlers.  Unfortunately, the question of whether an economic recovery or a dampening of the national ego will come first remains open, and, unfortunately, the latter strikes me as more probable in the immediate future.

      That said, Argentina--and Buenos Aires in particular--has a rich cosmopolitan culture to offer.  I left feeling like Buenos Aires would be a lovely place to live, even though I might personally still prefer Montevideo, a sacriledge in Argentine terms.  The people I met were lovely, and often a bit wistful when talking about their country and how far it has fallen.  When I look inward at the tarnished reputation and irrevocable mistakes of my own country in the last decade, I can certainly relate.  At any rate, it seems improbable that any kind of real recovery will happen while the Kirchners remain in power, and they have a couple of years left.  So perhaps a new administration and, let's hope, an improving world economy, will put a bit of shine back on Argentina's apple.

      As for Chile, the truth is that I don't have much to comment on.  I was talking to a Chilean couple a few nights ago, and explained that although I'd spent cloes to three weeks in their country, I hadn't gotten to see the real Chile.  Having only been to Easter Island and Patagonia, I did sort of the Chilean equivalent of seeing Hawaii and Yellowstone.  They're important components of the country, to be sure, and spectacular places.  But neither one is really representative of the national culture, one because its only full-time inhabitants are animals, and the other because its only full-time inhabitants are Polynesian.*  I'm thrilled to have seen these things, of course, but it does leave me less able to speak to the country's issues with the kind of detail in which I've been able to explore Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Argentina.

      I will, however, add a bit more about Easter Island.  There is some dispute over whether the pre-colonial Rapanui civilization crumbled due to decimation of natural resources or whether it might not have ever been all that big to begin with.  There is also dispute as to whether the island's palm tree population died off due to humans cutting them down or rats eating the seeds.  Those siding with the not-that-big-and-also-rats argument make the claim that our modern society's guilt about our own damage to the environment causes us to create a false narrative about the Rapanui, and use them as a cautionary tale.  I don't have much of a theory on that front, but I will offer one thing as evidence of a collapse.  The moai industry on Easter Island appears to have mirrored the real estate market in the U.S..  For centuries, moai were built and placed on altars looking out over nearby towns.  However, for some reason or another, there was a major boom, and production skyrocketed.  In some cases, moai too big to ever move were constructed.  For whatever reason--perhaps the workers revolted, perhaps the market for new moai collapsed--the bubble burst.  As a result, the number of moai left abandoned in the quarry in various states of construction outnumbers the number of moai at altars around the island by a factor of about six.  

      I will say that the rat theory does make a fair amount of sense to me--there wasn't that much reason to cut down so many palm trees, but rats could certainly have eaten a lot of seeds.  Moreover, I do agree with the theorists who posit that we as a society have a tendency to project our own issues onto others.  But it really does amaze me how easy it is to envision a huge collection of moai going up in the sun belt, perhaps financed by the Rapanui equivalent of variable tranches of moai-backed securities.  On the plus side, at least a giant stone statue is more aesthetically pleasing than an empty McMansion.

      Anyway, in about half an hour I should be landing on Isla Baltra and sinking back into the wonderful relaxation and isolation of island life.  I'm extremely excited to be finishing up what has been a truly spectacular experience with yet another stop in a long series of amazing sites to see.  I'm not sure how reliable my internet access will be there, but I'll check in when I can.


      *The Yellowstone and Hawaii analogy totally holds up.

      Friday, April 16, 2010

      Whoa-i Moai

      I'm writing this from the Santiago airport, waiting for my flight back to Buenos Aires after spending the last three days on the island of Rapa Nui, more commonly known as Easter Island.  If there was any concern I'd be jaded about travel after the last three months, it was quickly dismissed.  You're most likely to know Easter Island as the site of giant stone heads (called "moai")*, and they do feature prominently.  I was thrilled to discover, however, that the island brings so much more to the table.

      Rapa Nui, the name for the island in the local Polynesian dialect (called Rapanui), which is spoken by the native people (also called Rapanui) is an enchanting place.First off, the setting is unreal.  The island is the most isolated inhabited place in the world.  The closest airport is Santiago, and that's a five hour flight.  You can drive right along the coast until you find your way back to the same place (within only an hour or two), you will never see anything but ocean out one side.  My friend Mark, a Dubliner I met on the island, noted that you could easily see how the island's original inhabitants might have thought their little island was the entire world.

      Easter Island was formed by several underwater volcanoes erupting together, leaving over 100 volcanoes, craters, vents and the like above ground.  Three major volcanoes, all extinct, have spectacularly beautiful crater lakes at the top.  The ancient lava flows also created a number of natural caves, many of which housed native Rapa Nui for over 1,000 years, and as recently as the 1950s.  The culture of the island had actually already been decimated by warfare and rapid population growth before Europeans first found it in the 18th century.  Many people lived in caves for protection, hiding from rival groups and even cannibals.  These days, one can go into several of the caves and look around, contemplating an existence so completely different from our own.  Amusingly enough, the two caves that I visited with Mark and his girlfriend Sarah had architectural features that would make them highly sought after in the New York real estate market.  One had two windows out of a cliff, looking out onto the ocean.  The other had several openings in the ceilings--skylights, if you will--which enabled vegetable gardens.  Crawling into the first of the two, the Caverna de las dos Ventanas, was a bit claustrophobic at first, but well worth it once we got to see the view from the living room.

      Rapa Nui may not have an abundance of megafauna to compare with, say, Patagonia or the Galapagos, but it's far from a barren wasteland.  There are falcons everywhere.  You cannot drive along a road without seeing several hanging out on fenceposts, or zipping past your driver-side window.  Along the coast one sees frigate birds, which are enormous and majestic.  By far the best thing I got to see, however, was a family of sea turtles who came up to the beach to feed on fish.  My sister-in-law Shirley wouldn't agree with me (she thinks, accurately I'll confess, that turtles look like old men), but they were majestic and beautiful, and fascinating to watch.

      The main draw of the island is, of course, its archaelogy.  The moai are absolutely enormous--generally about 3-5 times my height, and weighing as much as 100 tons.  Historically, they stood on ahu--stone altars that were usually built along the coastline.  The moai faced inland to watch over the people and protect them.  Many of the moai also have pukao, which are red hat-like stones that are believed to represent a fashionable hairstyle from the time.  Over time, the warfare that wiped out most of the population combined with the occasional natural disaster to topple all of the moai from their perches.  These days some 40 or so moai have been restored to their original positions.

      Although a decent amount is known about how the moai were made--they were cut from the volcanic rock at Rano Raraku volcano--and they were apparently hoisted to their platforms over several days with ramps made from logs, no one knows how they were moved from the site of their construction to their locations on the ahu.  In some cases they were moved as far as 10 miles, so this particular mystery is a truly impressive one.  Perhaps as impressive is the fact that some 320 moai were under construction at Rano Raraku (known as the "nursery") at the time construction was ceased.  The nursery is the site of most of the largest moai ever made, as well as most of the iconic images of Rapa Nui, with the heads of various moai sticking out of the ground, the torsos buried below while the faces were detailed.

      An additional feature of interest is the cult of the bird man, believed to be the deity responsible for bringing bird life to the island, which happened many years after the arrival of people.  There are a number of petroglyphs around, many of them featuring the birdman.  The major annual ritual of the cult involved a swimming race to a rocky crag three kilometers off shore to search for the eggs of the sooty tern.  The first man to return with an egg would be crowned bird man for the following year.

      The bird man cult, it's worth noting, is from the last few hundred years.  And that highlights one of the island's most intriguing characteristics: although the moai look as old as time itself, and have the feel of ancient mysteries, the entire Rapanui culture is barely a thousand years old.  They are certainly old, but while the moai were being built, for example, Europe was experiencing the rennaissance and exploring the globe.  In Asia, meanwhile, Genghis Khan was conquering civiliations and repopulating the entire planet with his own DNA.  But Rapa Nui was still literally living in the Stone Age.  I don't meant this as an insult of the Rapanui culture--which has some beautiful songs and dances, and which obviously pulled off some remarkable feats.  Rather I mean to highlight the force of extreme isolation with which the Rapanui had to contend.  Stranded so far away from the rest of the world, and facing the dilemma of an increasing population fighting for decreasing resources, it's no wonder that so many people were lost, taking so much history with them.

      So, quite simply, Easter Island is a fascinating and multifaceted jewel dropped into the middle of the ocean.  It's a place that makes you ponder deep questions like the vastness of the planet and the ephemeral nature of civilizations, and it gives you an idyllic environment in which to do so--with a plentiful supply of delicious fish to make it all a little easier to handle.  By the time I post this, I will have landed back in Buenos Aires, having left behind what felt a bit like a three-day dream.  On Saturday I'm off to Guayaquil, Ecuador, before continuing on to the Galapagos on Sunday to begin the final portion of my journey.  It's hard to believe I'm so close to the finish line, but I'm thrilled that Rapa Nui has made it clear just how much I can still be enthralled and amazed by the world around me.


      *If you're like me, the moai conjure up images of both Marty Sherman's classmate on The Critic, or some bad guys from Super Mario Land for Gameboy.  But you're probably not like me unless you're my brother, you're probably not like me.


      Sunday, April 11, 2010

      Bloga Juniors Dos - El Fulgor Argentino

      I have arrived in Easter Island, a land which can easily make one feel like Super Mario. However, my hostel has no internet, which means you'll be seeing this a good deal after I write it. Travel is complicated like that, especially when it involves trying to connect to the global community from the most remote inhabited place on Earth. At any rate, the subject of this post is not Easter Island (I got in after dark, so I haven't seen any moai--giant heads--yet), but rather my most recent night in Buenos Aires.

      Last night I had the great pleasure of attending a work of Argentine community theater, called Club Social y Deportivo El Fulgor Argentino. The show was at Teatro Catalinas Sur in La Boca, and had some truly excellent props assembled by my friend and fellow Wesleyanite Hannah Nielsen-Jones. Hannah and her boyfriend John have been living in BA for a while, but we only just managed to get together this week. They are truly awesome people, but I'll come back to them in a bit.

      The show was excellent. I tend to be pretty jaded about all things theater, but this was really everything it should be. The piece is a revue of Argentine history from 1930-2030 (the future part is pretty crazy), with the country represented by El Fulgor, a social and sporting club of the type that is quite prominent in Argentine society. It's a musical with a cast of over 100 performers, very creative songs and staging, and phenomenal costumes. It also features some astonishing puppetry--puppets made by the same guy who does most of the lifesize statues (muñecos, in Spanish) in La Boca--executed in truly creative ways. For example, there is a sequence in which the whole group dances Tango in a circle, each pair made up of one person and one puppet, connected at the feet, so that the puppets' feet move in synch with those of their partners. There is another moment in which an actor appears in military garb with a puppet on either side, connected both at the arms and the head, so that they mimic his every move. It is really something to behold.

      In a lot of ways, my enjoyment of the show mirrors my enjoyment of Uruguayan Murga. In addition to having moments in which the musical style was similar--the finale, in particular--I was most impressed by the wholehearted commitment of everyone involved, and the degree to which this is really just a labor of love for the local culture. The cast is all volunteers, and the logistical nightmare that must be involved in coordinating so many people in something so complex is totally obscured by the seemless transitions on stage. It's clear that everyone involved has put a tremendous amount of sweat into the project, but seeing them perform gives the impression that they were all born into the script.

      I was also particularly happy because this was the most accessible Argentine culture has felt for me in Buenos Aires. It is easy to feel that there is a Buenos Aires for the locals, and a separate one for the tourists. Certainly New York can be like that, so I don't mean this as a criticism. But even something like tango, which is a major part of the cultural history of the city, often shows up in a form that feels somewhat camped up for the sake of the out-of-town crowd. At El Fulgor, those feelings washed away. I don't know that anyone there other than Hannah, John, John's parents, and me spoke English--certainly not as a first language. I finally felt a part of the city in exactly the way I had been looking for and struggling to find. So, a hearty thank you to Hannah and John for inviting me to share in that.

      And now that I've come back to the subject of how awesome Hannah and John are, I have to say that it was really great to see a familiar face. What's funny is that I hadn't seen Hannah in six years, and I'd never met John. So there's no reason it should have been that different from spending time with the various friends I've made throughout the trip. But one thing that does happen when you're meeting new people and making new friends is that you inevitably have your guard up a bit--no matter how awesomely down-to-earth your new friends may be. So it was just incredibly relaxing to be in a spot where I had even the slightest sense of home. I even felt that way after we discussed the most academically intimidating class I ever took, Colonialism and its Consequences in the Americas*. At any rate, it's really remarkable how valuable a bit of familiarity can be after a three-months of new experiences. And, to repeat, Hannah and John = good people.

      There's a three-hour time change that I'm dealing with now, so I'm going to go to sleep. Hopefully I'll be able to find some time to post this, and presumably by the time that happens I will already have seen some giant stone heads. I've been working on my moai impression, so hopefully I can break that out soon. For now, I'm going to work toward an early start tomorrow.


      *My struggles in that class forced me to confront how unseriously I took academic study, and, to an extent, myself. I still think it's good not to get too wrapped up in oneself, but I've at least gotten the intellectually serious thing down--or at least some semblance thereof.

      El Fulgor Argentino