Sunday, 27 November 2011

IATTOUR Nov 21-27, 2011

Montevideo Week II

Well we have settled into a comfortable routine of 4 hours of class a day with two sessions; a grammar and conversation.  Afternoons are spent exploring the city, with either an evening out for dinner or to make something tasty we picked up in the market.  Every week the offering of extracurricular activities changes.

This week, we had an evening class with Christina (the director's sister-in-law) on how to make empenadas and a type of bread pudding.  Delicious and there is nothing like making food for motivating conversation en Espanol.  Montevideo is easy to get around, with lots of very helpful inhabitants keeping us on the straight and narrow.  The day of the last bus strike, we even had transportation officials stop us on the street.  When they discovered we were tourists, they welcomed us to Uruguay and reassured us that they were working to have the buses back on track.

During the week we spent a bit of time with a retired teacher, Steve, from Denver, who gave us lots of  useful tips on various places he has visited around the world.  We shared a US Thanksgiving dinner with Steve and Charlotte (from Germany) over a bottle or two of Tannat wine and steak.  Friday we had a number of people finishing at the school, so there was a chance for a group photo on the back patio.
The week was capped with an excursion out to Punto del Diablo, a lovely small beach town about 4.5 hours by bus from Montevideo (almost on the frontier to Brazil).  The trip was organized by the coordinator of the Tango school we attended the previous week (Andrea) and was attended by 6 of the language school students (2 Canadienses, 2 Suizos, 1 Estadosunidse, 1 Alemana) and 8 other people from the Tango school (who arrived on the next day).  Our hostel was within walking distance of the beach and we spent an hour or two wandering through Punto Del Diablo followed by a number of attentive young dogs before dinner.
Andrea had made reservations for us on Friday night a quaint and rustic beachfront restaurant.  We spent a wonderful warm evening enjoying a beautiful sunset and eating fresh seafood by candlelight while the host played guitar.  It was a lovely time with great food and conversation.
Shortly after breakfast, we headed to the beach.  As it is still spring in Uruguay, the ocean water felt a little cold to those from the south, while those from the north felt it was quite warm.  We spent hours swimming, sun-bathing, walking, photographing, watching seals (and a possible whale) before moving out of the mid-day sun to eat.  
This time we moved to the aptly named "Zero Stress" restaurant for lunch.  The Tango students arrived just in time to join us for a couple of hours of eating (fresh fish!) and drinking in this beach-front restaurant with an unimpeded view of the Atlantic.  
 Moving back to the beach, we continued our relaxing before striking out to buy 4 kilos of fresh-caught prawns for dinner.  The Tango students decided to join us making dinner in the hostel and few hours later we sat down to a feast.  We said that it was a stand-in for the Thanksgiving dinner that Elizabeth (from the US) had missed that Thursday.  To top the evening off, those who were still able to stand, played fubol or danced Tango late into the night.
The next morning, though not all had slept well, we returned to a different beach and spent the morning playing in giant waves, sun-bathing, shopping or playing soccer.  
 Although we climbed on the bus at 4 in the afternoon, I don't think anyone really wanted to leave this wonderful place.  A number of hours later and we were back in Montevideo, ready for what the week ahead had to offer.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

IATTOUR November 13-20, 2011: Montevideo, Uruguay

Back to school
We arrived on Saturday evening and were met at the school by Juliana—a University student from Germany who works for the school and lives here.  After a long journey, it took no time to say hello, settle into our room and fall asleep.  

Juliana directed us to a supermarket and then a street market on Sunday where we were able to pick up all required food stuffs.   
This past week we settled into a new routine.  The Herradura language school has been incredibly interesting and fun.  There are 4 hours of classes each day (2 with 2 different teachers).  The school is based in a 3ish story stone townhouse in a bohemian district of Montevideo and caters to both live-in and live-out students.  We are living here for the 3 weeks and share the space with a varying numbers of housemates/students.

When we first arrived, there were 2 German girls, 1 American a Brazilian as well as ourselves.  Now it is 3 Americans, 3 Germans, 2 Swiss and 2 Canadians.  As if this mixture wasn't crazy enough, there are many other Spanish language students who come in from apartments, home-stays, pensions and even their own homes to the school every day.  They hang out and chat in at least 5 different languages (luckily English is the default for all but 1).  The young Swiss woman in our class is unilingual French, has just recently moved to Uruguay to be with her family, so is interesting with Elaine translating French to English for the benefits of all.
  Her father was one of the political prisoners in the 70’s who escaped to Europe (too much to put in the blog, but a great story).  It is the most amazing situation to be in. 

We benefit from their explorations in South America and have picked up a few tips for later.
  We are able to sign up for extracurricular group activities or make up our own.  So far, we have explored the old part of the city, walked along the beach, watched an intense international street bicycle race and visited a mall that resembles a North American one in its entire Christmas splendor.   

We tried Tango on Tuesday with 2 German girls and a Swiss guy (the instructors were exceedingly patient with us) and visited several museums.  The Guacho museum is chock full of riding paraphernalia, as the horse plays a large role in the development of this area (the Guacho is very revered in all of South America). 

The Contemporary Art Museum is really different.  Housed in an old prison in the interior of the city, it displays incredible pieces of interactive art—changed regularly.  A cross between Alcatraz and Emily Carr School of Design.  We spent about ½ hour making incredible graphic images with an interactive keyboard and then photographed decaying cell blocks.
Yesterday it was a group trip to the market with two other housemates to pick up ingredients for a group meal--shared between 7 of us.  Markets happen regularly in Montevideo streets and this was a lovely grocery market.  Many stalls of organic level produce, fish, cheese, baked goods and assorted random household items blockaded the street while vendors called out to shoppers and an old blind man played lovely sad Tango music on his accordion.    
Buying, cooking and conversation made for quite the evening. 
Tonight/Sunday night, we were out with 2 brothers from Germany to see Penerol play Nacional.  This was apparently the match to see, featuring the 2 main rival teams in Uruguay and held in “Estatios Centenal” (a stadium which can hold 70,000 fans).  Even the Germans, both great soccer fans, were taken aback by the passion of the crowd.   1 hour before the game, the stands were mostly full and the crowd was singing, waving banners and jeering the other team.  

Unfortunately, our section, Penerol, lost with a penalty kick on a handball, but it was highly entertaining. Afterwards everyone at the school asked if we got caught up in any after match skirmishes…but no…I think things were pretty well contained as there was quite a police presence everywhere. We ran off to dinner with Wolfgang and Martin and then followed a group of drummers through the streets to home.
We are planning to join another group of Uruguayan Tango Students with their guide and head out to Puenta Del Diablo next weekend.  Apparently it is in the edgy, undiscovered paradise for young travellers, artists and local hippies (early Saltspring?).  At least you can get there by bus—the next small town over (Cabo Polonia) requires an ATV or hitch-hiking! 

Although I wouldn't say our Spanish has improved greatly, we are much more comfortable in the market, in restaurants and when we speak to people who know a little English.   A small amount of progress and a great adventure!

Sunday, 13 November 2011

IATTOUR November 8-12

November 8,2011 Puerto Iguazu
Well we both survived the night in our separate dorms; each with different experience- Elaine's room mate preferred no fan or AC due to too much noise thus was a bit toasty; Tony had some bloke arrive sometime in the wee hours.  The end net result we both decided we prefer the private double; at least you know your roomate even if they have their own special attributes.  Up for the standard continental breakfast before striking off for the "Gran Adventura" tour through the jungle, jet boat ride up the lower Iguazu River rapids then a dip under a few of the falls on the Argentine National Parc side.  We must say this tour was a blast, but could have settled for just the boat ride under the falls (about 1/2 price)  which was the best part.
After this last picture, the commander of the boat directed everybody to put away the camera's into the dry bags as we were going under the falls.  Both of us were in our swimming suits, but a good portion of the customers on the boat were fully dressed, long sleeves and jeans; needless to say who had more fun.   The boat made at least 3 runs under different falls and had everyone asking for more, this was thrilling but over too soon and dropped off at the lower landing to begin our exploration of the Argentine side of the falls.
The park perspective from the Argentine side is quite different from the Brasillian; you do not get the large panoramic shots, but you are up close to feel and hear each of the falls.  The park area is a lot larger, so the crowds do not seem quite as big; but maybe we were there on a good day.  The trails meandered through the hillside to the top of escarpment with numerous small falls along the way and interesting flora and fauna to watch.  The pinnacle of the park is the Gargantua del Diablo "Devil's Throat", which you view from directly above.

You will notice in the video a lot of birds flying around; these are Swifts.  They roost on the basalt cliff faces on the sides and underneath the waterfalls.  We were mesmerized watching them plunge through and emerge from the walls of water.  This was a very cool place; just made the list for the new 7 wonders of the natural world and would recommend as a must see place if you are anywhere in lower SA.  It was a warm day and we were pretty played out by about 3pm so headed back to the hostel to check into our double room for the night.  Sat around the pool, drank a bit of beer chatting to an Aussie couple and German woman;then went off to another good grilled dinner with the whole group.  The room tonight was to both our liking and a good night's sleep was had in preparation for our bus trip tomorrow.

November 9,2011
We had a liesurely day in Puerto Iguacu today, sightseeing in the morning (looking out at the "Tres Frontiers" where the waters from Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina merge), window-shopping in town and relaxing in the lovely gardens of the Garden Stone Hostel. 
Thank goodness for the pool as it was melting hot outside. The owners are very generous and allow guests to stay after they check out; most trips away from here start in the evening.  Watching a beatiful bird in the garden extended into a wonderful conversation with a pair of guests from Spain--father and son who were birding in the area.  The son was a fire fighter from Barcelona, who was quite and adventurer/mountaineer/birder; made us look like pikers.  He was showing us photos of a mother Condor and chick taken on some mountain peak in Southern Argentina on previous trip- spectacular  National Geographic quality.  They were off to some remote lodge in SW Brazil to study the flora and fauna of the large swamps.  We bid them goodbye and headed to the bus terminal to catch our overnight bus with CAMA seats to Concordia/Salto.  The CAMA seats although comfortable, lacked leg room, so took a while to figure out how to get comfortable but was OK.   Dinner was served, but no wine or scotch as the rumour promised.  Settled in for the long 13 hour ride.  Through the night, we woke a few times to find the bus travelling through a severe rain storm, lashing at the windows, lightning flashing everywhere, not sure how the driver could see the road. 

November 10, 2011
We survived.  The next morning came too early and we were literally dumped by the side of the road near Concordia.  Fortunately there were a couple of cabs hanging around, we decided to take the easy way and cab over to Salto in Uruguay as opposed to figuring out the urban bus or the boat across the river at 0630 hours.  The cab driver led us through the Argetine-Uruguay border formalities, then crossed over the dam traversing the Rio Uruguay into Uruguay. 

We were deposited at the Salto Omnibus terminal, then had to figure out our next moves.  The girl at the information kiosk was helpful but the exchange was limited by her English and our Spanish.  Fortunately, there was a free hotspot so were able to arrange a room for the night out at the Termas de Dayman. We picked up our Montivideo bus tickets for Saturday, then checked our bags before heading off on foot to explore Salto.  This is a very pretty little town with lots of old colonial style buildings, squares with green space and statues. 

On trying to figure out the local ATM, Tony realized that he did not get his VISA card back from the agent at the Nunez bus counter when buying our tickets to Montivideo.  Panic city...we hoof it back to the station to find the card safe and sound; they were as concerned as we were and spread word through out the terminal (checked bag storage lady asked about our card).  High praise for these guys.  Our heart rates back down to normal range, we catch the urban bus back to town to have lunch and finish our wander.  The town shuts down from about 12-3pm.   Later in the afternoon, feeling a bit fagged from the overnight bus, we head out to the Hotel in Dayman.  This is a tourist destination for the Termal Baths right across the street from our hotel.  Went for a soak in the baths before dinner, did that feel good or what.  The place was so nice we opted for 2 nights.

November 11, 2011
A lazy day,excellent breakie-pool-nap-lunch-pool-nap-walk-pool-dinner. What a life. 

On one of the walks we spotted a bunch of Parrot Condo's in the town up top of some Palm trees, really fun to watch, boy are they a noisy raucous crowd.  Off to Montevideo a manana.