Amazon.com Widgets A Round-the-World Travel Blog: Devil May Care: October 2010 Archives

October 2010 Archives

Our jump to Sydney was our first transcontinental shift of the international trip, and it has been a bit of an adjustment. In Argentina, a thousand dollars covered a month's rent at good apartment in Recoleta, one of Buenos Aires' most fashionable neighborhoods. As every Australian helpfully tells you these days, the greenback is now at parity with the Aussie dollar, and as result a double room at a rough hostel in Kings Cross is about three times the price of our beloved apartment. Thus, we go from comfortable and fashionable expats one week to proper cost-conscious backpackers the next. I imagine this will happen a couple of times this year.

We intentionally punctuated our trip, which mostly makes its way through budget-friendly and exotic countries like Ecuador and Peru, with a few weeks in more expensive nations. The expectation was that the costlier countries would give us a chance to outfit ourselves with items not available elsewhere. For instance, I am hoping to pick up a pair of high quality sandals either here or in New Zealand, as the (very cheap) pair that I purchased a week and a half ago in Puerto Madryn are already falling apart.

Some things that you might not expect to be hard to find turn out to be inconceivable in certain countries. For instance, women in South America apparently wax or use
depilatory cream on their legs: women's shaving cream is nowhere to be found. Likewise, the newer men's razors are not on offer.

Another major difference between Australia and Argentina partially accounts for our lack of frequency in posting. In Buenos Aires, just about every bar, coffeehouse, hostel or other freestanding structure likely to host tourists is likely to have free wireless internet access. Sydney is far less welcoming: most hostels require some hourly fee for wireless access, if it is available at all, and coffee shops with wifi are few on the ground. Indeed, the big venue for free wifi is the Kings Cross Mickey D's, and it bustles 24-7 with a LAN party's worth backpackers working at their notebooks and iPhones.

Wednesday will put us in New Zealand, though we will be back in Australia later this month. Although the plan is subject to change, we are thinking of renting a camper van and heading through the countryside. It may take a while to post them, but we hope to have some good pictures.

I'm used to the U.S. dollar, which is the lingua franca of currencies: even when it's down, everyone wants them.

The Argentine peso? Not so much. I really should have converted my pesos to dollars before we left, because while the exchange rate with the Australian dollar is theoretically about 4:1, no one will buy pesos at less than a 4.6:1 rate.

Leaving Buenos Aires

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I have to admit, I've kind of fallen in love with Buenos Aires. I keep referring to it as "a laid back New York without all the bad bits." But today we're leaving. I'm writing this post from the airport, and we board the flight to Sydney in a few minutes.

A quick note for those tempted by the Tina Fey advertisements touting the utility of American Express cards for getting into airport lounges: think twice before making this investment. We've found that once we're out of the United States, every lounge has a different reason to deny you access. If it's an American/OneWorld lounge, you have to be flying American, not a partner. Or you have to fly business (which would get you into the lounge anyway). Or it's the second Tuesday of the month and the moon is in Taurus.

That said, Amex has its own lounge in Buenos Aires, and while it's not as nice as many I've been in, it does have free wifi, free coffee, and relatively clean facilities. So at least on this leg of the trip we get some value.

Everyone is entitled to his opinion. This is a statement about the rights of free men, however, and does not imply that the opinions of all men are equally valid, a statement that can be proven by a cursory glance at GQ's article purportedly listing the best cocktail bars in America. It's a travesty.

I like Angel's Share, which happens to be where I first met in person an old law school mentor who would years later help kick off the North American Road Trip. [1] Angel's Share's drinks are well-mixed, the surroundings classy, and the place certainly deserves a spot in the top-25 New York bars. But second in the nation, ahead of Houston's Anvil, to say nothing of New York's own Death & Co. or PDT? Not a chance. And what Pegu Club is doing on GQ's radar at all is a mystery: it's overpriced, overcrowded, and by the time a drink gets to you it's sometimes room temperature. That said, if you require a chance to sober up between cocktails, Pegu's your place. For better drinks and better ambiance in New York alone, you could try White Star, Apothke, or half a dozen others. Still, it's made me think of one important project for this trip: to keep track of the best drinking holes that we come across on our way around the world, and to wrap them up into one lengthy post.

Speaking of which, we came across a new global favorite on Saturday night, when I hit The Library Lounge (warning: sound and lots of Flash) with the Guniganti sisters. Like the overdone website, the actual bar must be seen to be believed. The decor is faux-19th century tacky, as if Russell Crowe's character in Master & Commander had resigned from the Royal Navy, purchased an upscale French bordello and converted it into an unofficial officer's club. The walls are bedecked with animal heads. Some of the walls and half of the seating are one shade or another of dull crimson. But the Library Lounge doesn't stop at chairs, chaises and low tables. One corner holds a leather-covered desk and four officer's chairs, next to a small humidor of cigars, while another corner offers what I think is a fainting couch as a seating option.

On Saturday night it was filled with an odd mix of the brash and the beautiful: hotel guests in their khakis and golf shirts sat at one table, while another was full of slinky model-wannabees in little black dresses. Yet another couple nestled on a loveseat and attempted to bring hipster fashion to South America. (Note to the hipster: a gentleman always takes off his hat indoors.) While I wouldn't wear jeans and a t-shirt, you don't have to dress up too mightily to avoid feeling under-dressed. One thing Buenos Aires shares with San Francisco, however, is that if you feel like going all-out, you can do so. A young gentleman roamed the room in a suit with such broad pin-stripes that it begged to be turned into a Tex Avery cartoon, while a woman with hair trimmed an eighth of an inch from her skull never took her (presumably real) fur cape off the shoulders of her bright red dress.

A word of warning: this place is expensive. Buenos Aires is in general more expensive than Peru or Ecuador, but this was the first place that made New York prices look good. In the evenings the bar has an AR$150/per person minimum (about US$38), which will buy you about two drinks. We avoided this by arriving very near closing, so that they only charged us for the one round we had time to drink.

On the upside, the cocktails themselves are as interesting and oddly-designed as the bar itself. My Manhattan was unusual for two reasons. First, the whiskey did not taste like Jack Daniels or Jim Beam (apparently the two go-to brands south of the equator), but considerably better. Second, they garnished it with some kind of albino cocktail cherry, a whitish marble at the bottom of the glass with only a rose-like hint of its original color left. I don't know how they bleached the cherry, but it did go well with both the drink and the decor.

[1] This lady taught me one rule to live by: if you're a lawyer and you meet a law student at a bar, you pay. They then pay the next generation of students when they graduate. (My only post-recession corollary to this rule is "when they graduate and have a job.")

An Open Letter to iTunes

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Dear iTunes:

I know that you would really like me to spend as much as possible in your store. As a generally capitalist fellow, I can appreciate this. However, some of us have slow netbook computers that choke on HD video of anything more complex than South Park. And out here on the road, some of us frequently stay in hostels with internet connections that make 2400 bps modems feel proud of themselves. Buying HD video is simply not an option.

Thus, making me click through several slow-loading iTunes pages in order to get to the SD video option is really, really annoying.

P.S. On a side note: are there really people who buy South Park and Futurama in HD?

One Shirt to Rule the Byzantine Empire

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An important lesson about international travel: bring extra socks. The little b**%#@#s are Madame Bovaries of fidelity. Like carbon dating, I suspect you can tell how long someone has been on the road by the percentage of original socks that they retain at any given point. Socks will betray you, they will leave you, they will get lost, whether you do your own laundry or give them to a service.

Thus on a rainy September day in Cuzco we stepped into a Tipitop, a Gap-like chain of inexpensive clothing offering "MEGA-sales!" And while I didn't manage to find any socks in my size, a couple of interesting shirts caught my eye.

It wasn't that they were stylish: on the contrary, they were in garish colors that would not match any of my other clothes. But the designer indulged in an odd form of collage: he would take bits of old maps, combine them together, and stick them on a shirt as if they actually represented something. For instance, a shirt that declared itself to be a "Map of the Province of Nottingham" [1] turned out to be, on closer inspection, the borders of the Austro-Hungarian empire from about 1890. And then there was this:
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The shirt, which bears the title EAST-WEST SCHISM, mostly consists of a map from The Atlas of Middle-Earth. It's all there: the Shire, Gondor, Mordor, each in glorious, copyright-violating purple-and-black. [2] The text below the map, on the other hand, reads:

The origins of the Crusades lie in developments in Western Europe (or earlier in the Middle East Ages, as well as the deteriorating situation of the Byzantine Empire in the east caused by a new wave of Turkish Muslim attacks. The breakdown of the Carolingian Empire in the late 9th century.

What does all this mean? Your guess is as good as mine. It was odd enough (and cheap enough), however, that I had to buy it. I figure it would make a great prize for a Devil May Care contest.

If you have thoughts on what the nature of the contest should be, please leave them in the comments.

[1] Is Nottingham even a province? Was it ever?

[2] For some reason it comes out as red when shot with an iPhone. I don't know why. Perhaps representations of the Eye of Sauron don't like Steven Jobs. Or perhaps Steve Jobs is Sauron, and iPhones are his version of the rings given to mortal man. The latter possibility is made much more likely if they ever launch an iCanHasInvizibility app.

Adventures in Plumbing

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Travel broadens the mind, but not necessarily in the ways that you expect. You can walk through centuries-old ruins and come away with nothing more than a respect for stone masonry and gratitude that Thomas Friedman has fallen in love with modern China and not ancient Peru. [1] On the other hand, the ordinary course of daily life will grant plenty of sudden insights through smaller lessons. For instance, never stay in a hostel with a cat that looks like Garfield, for fat cats do not mouse.

Traveling has made me fascinated by humanity's seemingly limitless ingenuity when it comes to the provisions of running water, particularly hot water. Although several of our hotels or hostels have had standard centralized hot water heaters, others have been quite creative. For instance, our first night at Los Ninos in Cuzco (the night after the the rat incident), we contacted the front desk and told them there was no hot water in our room. Quickly thereafter, a short handyman in paint-flecked overalls showed up at our door, followed by the receptionist. The receptionist and I boosted the handyman into a tiny crawlspace above the bathroom, and there followed a few minutes of his shifting about culminating in the loud, unmistakable click of a circuit-breaker being thrown. Apparently each room had its own hot water heater, hidden out of sight. Once I realized this, I started looking in other hostels, and realized that in Cuzco this sort of set up is not uncommon.

We've encountered a variety of different plumbing systems so far. Hospedaje Kinsa Cocha features wood-heated showers. When we have stayed with local families (at Huchuy Cusco or Puno), there has either been no hot water or no running water at all. [2] While making our way around Lake Titicaca, I noticed that some of the most prosperous of the small houses had large, bright metal drums perched on their roofs, presumably to warm water through sunlight.

Our Buenos Aires apartment has introduced me to the concept of the tankless hot water heater. Instead of pre-heating water, a gas burner provides hot water on demand, with a "maximum" temperature set on the heater. I can't believe that these systems are efficient: although they allow the luxury of tremendously long showers, they seem to use a lot of gas. The downside is that the heaters are triggered by pressure, which means that a certain volume of hot water must be demanded before they kick in. This makes shaving--which requires a low volume of warm water--quite tricky, as the temperature will tend to switch between boiling and freezing.

While I did my share of tinkering and DIY when I lived in New York, my projects were always utilitarian. I never thought that I'd be so interested in the pros and cons of hot water systems.

[1] Given Friedman's habit of praising a totalitarian society for making the trains run on time, I figure it could be worse. If he'd seen what the Inca were able to do using only a penchant for conquering neighboring tribes and a talent for employing corvée labor, I'd fear for the day that the New York Times op-ed page proposed the repeal of the 13th amendment and the annexation of Canada.

[2] Nothing makes one more thankful for working sewers than a day or so in locations served only by outhouses.

Guniganti Girls Take Buenos Aires

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With both of my sisters visiting for the next few days, I'm really focusing on what's worth seeing and doing in this city. What follows is a very tentative, front-loaded plan, because I know that all sorts of factors may alter the outcome. I've already been foiled in "listen to live jazz" tonight, because Notorious, a record store-cum-restaurant-cum-performance space, made an exception to its usual jazz-supporting policy to have a klezmer orchestra play instead. Charming fellows with a cute "Fiddler on the Roof" medley, but not a good example of Buenos Aires's famed jazz scene.

Thursday
- Morning: Greet my older sister, coming off the overnight flight from Texas. This and other events will obligate being up and about before 9am.
- Noon: Recoleta cemetery. We've walked by dozens of times, but never yet gone in, though it's probably the most famous site in the neighborhood where we've rented an apartment. What better way to welcome someone to Argentina than to show her where Evita's remains lie? Nearby, we can get coffee and medialunas ("half-moons" or croissants) at La Biela, a historic cafe.
- Afternoon: Sirop Folie. I think I've made clear my views on the desirability of a cream tea, and I'll have been awake early enough to justify it!
- Evening: Tango lesson and show, along with dinner and a drink. All this has been promised for 190 pesos per person, thanks to the help of the great South American Explorers club.

Friday
- Morning: Plazo de Mayo. Another place we've walked by but not closely explored, and breakfast at Cafe Tortoni.
- Noon: Lunch at Clasica y Moderna. Like La Biel and Tortoni, it's a cafe notable, i.e. a restaurant with an interior protected by historic preservation law.
Afternoon: Shopping in Recoleta. I haven't bought much clothing on this trip, but even I can admit that my existing wardrobe, bought for both its durability through multiple washes and its cheapness that allows me to be indifferent if it falls apart, is just not working for going out in this city. When we had dinner and cocktails a few nights ago, I wore a $10 dress from Macy's with flats; the woman who preceded me into the restaurant was wearing a fur coat.
Evening: Dinner at Cafe Garcia, famous for its multi-course meals dispensed essentially at the owner's whim.
Late night: Putting the results of the afternoon shopping to use at a dance club -- maybe Tequila? KiKa? Suggestions are very welcome.

Saturday
Sleeping off the previous night, getting one sister on her flight and hitting the to-dos on my other sister's list. Also, perhaps visiting Persicco or Chungo, two of the most-recommended gelaterias that I have yet to try, and another late night out.

Sunday
A day in Colonia, if we can get on the boat to Uruguay. Otherwise, retreading the San Telmo and Recoleta markets for gifts and souvenirs, and checking off the missed items of this list and my sister's.

Monday
Getting Sister 2 on her flight and putting ourselves in order for an upcoming trip to Patagonia...

All the cool kids are Tweeting!

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I can count the number of "tweets" that I've ever sent on one hand and my facebook updates are irregular, at best. That said, I've added some code to Devil May Care for tweeting and "liking" posts.

I'm still testing the code: I'm pretty certain that on the homepage, for instance, I need to pass the URL for the entry to the Twitter button. (To be honest, I'm not entirely sure that the Facebook button works.) If you have any problems, feel free to leave a comment and I'll try to fix it.

UPDATE: I think that I have it fixed, so feel free to try it. Does anyone with better CSS skills than I have know why the Facebook and Tweet buttons won't line up?

Before we went to Ecuador, I had never heard of Otavalo. But once there, it and Banos were the two day-trips that everyone suggested. Otavalo, aside from having its own share of tourists, is about as different from Banos as two Ecuadorian towns can be. Banos's tourist appeal is based on outdoor activities and nightlife; it's essentially divorced from the particularities of the people and their culture.

In contrast, the big draw in Otavalo is a weekly market populated largely by people from outlying towns and villages, many of them wearing traditional garb. This consists of bowler-esque hats, embroidered blouses and long black skirts with white or colored underskirts on the women; lengthy braids (allegedly signifying virility) and pajama-like pants on the men. It's no once-a-week costume for the tourists, either, as we saw several people dressed this way going about their business in town on days before the market took place. Many of the products at the market are produced nearby. Tony acquired a jaunty Panama hat that came with its own box in which to be rolled up, and I got a dark red llama wool poncho that occasionally needs to be petted back down when the long strands of wool get ruffled.

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Coolest Consulate Ever

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You may remember me remarking on the coolest consular website ever, the Indian consulate in Buenos Aires, home of Cafe con Visa. On September 27, I wandered across Recoleta and other of the posh areas of Buenos Aires to that consulate as part of my long-running quest to get an Indian visa. To give a short version of the story: I had planned to get my visa when I was in Houston, but did not realize (as it's not well-explained on the website) that you can only make a walk-in visa request in the specific Indian Embassy assigned to your state of residence. Thus, if I wanted to get a visa in the U.S., I needed to be in Chicago.

On the other hand, embassies outside the U.S. could give me a six-month visa if I dropped by during my travels. I tried in Lima, but they pointed out that a six-month visa would expire before my arrival in India, and encouraged me to try Buenos Aires. Since I wanted to see Cafe con Visa anyway, this wasn't such a bad thing.

And let me say, it lived up to expectations. The waiting area for visa applications is on an upper floor of a gorgeous office tower in one of Buenos Aires's nicest locations. A brilliant sunny view pours in through wide windows, lighting an open space filled with a long table, bookshelves full of helpful information on Indian business and tourism, and best of all, wifi and free coffee. Embassy staff were ceaselessly helpful, and while there was the typical amount of sitting, waiting, and filling out forms one expects in government processes, the affair was actually quite pleasant. Other applicants around me were similarly cheerful and upbeat.

Bureaucracy has an unpleasant reputation, usually deservedly so. Anyone who has ever tried to get a passport in person in New York knows about waiting in multiple lines in cramped, dingy, dirty spaces, as functionaries behind glass security windows move with no particular urgency. Even when I dealt with Japanese bureaucracy--which is generally quite competent and efficient--the sense of the impersonal and uncaring was palpable. Cafe con Visa is unique in my experience: a government agency seemingly designed to make interactions with it pleasant, professional and respectful. Perhaps it is not the Lost City of Atlantis or the fabled Cities of Gold, but it is the most surprising discovery I have made on my travels thus far.

Tomorrow on Devil May Care

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Pallavi and Tony sign up for polo lessons. Tony is allergic to horses and not fond of big animals. Hijinks ensue. Later in the week: tango!

I wrote a full review of this device at Amazon, but figured I would post the short version here. We purchased this GPS for the road trip largely because it offered a broad feature set for $99. After a month of intensive use, I'd recommend against buying a Motorola GPS because:

  • The user interface is clunky, attempting to guess the address you are searching for in a manner similar to Google's auto-suggestion feature. Unfortunately, the processor is nowhere near powerful enough to support these operations, so entering an address is a painful process.
  • The unit overheats easily if mounted on a dashboard, rendering it useless much of the day (or requiring us to turn the AC on full blast and pump it out of the front defogger vents). One would have thought that this was a basic feature for a GPS. (That said, while parked at the U.S./Canada border, we passed one couple who had solved this problem with a similar model by putting a towel over the unit, making it look like Lawrence of Arabia.)
  • The power adapter broke in Canada, and we had a ridiculous time trying to contact customer service to get a replacement.
  • The bluetooth connection (one of the high-end features one doesn't expect on a unit this cheap) is finicky, to say the least, and did not play well with an iPhone.

Bottom line: I would steer clear of Motorola products in this segment.

Things We've Seen


Things We Like