Try to learn something about everything

Mix It Up!

I know I didn’t write in way too long (and I still didn’t talk about Argentina and Chile), but that just happens when you are traveling. Especially when that takes you to Bolivia, where Internet connection speeds are still stuck in the 1990s.

Anyway, we made it to our 5th South American country now, and after 3.5 month in the Cono Sur, this feels distinctly more “foreign”. That’s probably related to the fact that 60% of the population are indigenous, so there are a lot less European looking people than in Argentina or Chile. Many of the women still wear traditional dress, and coca is quite omnipresent, be it in the form of tea (mate de coca), sweets or as leaves. All of them are supposed to help with altitude sickness, and considering that we never really went below 2500m since we got here (and up to 5000m maximum) we’ve consumed our fair share too. And I strongly deny all rumors that I actually enjoy chewing coca, it’s purely for medical purposes… ;–)

But let’s go back to the beginning: on February 2nd we crossed into Bolivia at the La Quiaca/Villazon border, and after having heard terrible stories of hour long waits, we considered ourselves lucky to have made it across in roughly 45 minutes. Alas we later realized that the border guards on the Bolivian side had only changed the day on their stamps but not the month, so our entry stamp actually said January 2nd and you only get 30 days when entering overland. We managed to get this fixed in an immigration office afterwards, the guys working there were pretty amused about what the “idiotas” (quote) at the border did.

From Villazon we took a shared cab to Tupiza, where we spoiled ourselves with a stay in a rather nice hotel. Bolivia is cheap though, so we spent less money for it than we did for dorm beds in Argentina, Uruguay or Chile. The landscape around Tupiza is absolutely stunning, and exploring it on horseback definitely made me feel like Butch Cassady or the Sundance Kid, who by the way weren’t shot too far from there. After a couple of relaxed days we embarked on a 4 day tour of the so-called South West Circuit, which ended at the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s biggest salt flat. It’s hard to put what we saw into words, when we get to a place with a faster Internet connection again I’ll try to upload some pictures. One really remarkable thing about the tour was Silvia the cook though, who managed to prepare awesome meals with very limited time, space and equipment. She also made some of the best vegetarian food I’ve had in South America so far, which is why I still kinda regret not having kidnapped her. I definitely could do with my own personal cook who knows how to prepare veggie meals… After the tour we made our way via Potosi to beautiful Sucre, where we have been kicking back since last Saturday. And by “kicking back” I actually mean hiding in our guest house like most gringos, since the local carnival tradition involves water bombs, buckets of water, shaving foam and an utter lack of sympathy for people who have barely any clothes to begin with. Luckily this is over now, so we can actually fully enjoy the city before heading to La Paz.

After almost two weeks in Bolivia, my feelings are a bit mixed. Before we came, everyone told us how awesome it is, and from a landscape point of view I can wholeheartedly agree. What I miss though is interacting with the locals, which was a lot easier in the Cono Sur than it is here. First off there are lots of Quechua and Aymara speakers, but also the Spanish speakers are more reserved than they were further South, so we barely ever manage to have interesting conversations with locals. But that’s not the only thing that makes you feel like you are suddenly on the “gringo trail”: the restaurants mostly serve a rather uninspired mix of western “favorites” and even the banana pancake found its way from Southeast Asia to here. There’s also a lot more younger and/or obnoxious backpackers around, which I mostly attribute to the fact that Bolivia is considerably cheaper than the South, while still boasting a well-developed tourist infrastructure.

One thing I really like about this trip is how diverse it is: we stayed in hostels, hotels, B&Bs, rented a room from an old lady, used CouchSurfing and AirBnB and stayed with friends. We crossed borders via plane, private car (thanks Mencho!), bus, boat and by walking. We dipped our feet in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, saw volcanoes, salt flats and the world’s driest desert. I did my first longer trip on horseback, and also took my first surfing lesson. We learned a new language (Spanish) and got to use all the other ones we know, including Turkish, my very limited Swedish and even Mandarin (twice in Buenos Aires). All this variation makes traveling for a long time a lot more interesting and helps with not getting tired of it.

Cono Sur Reflections

I know I’m far behind on telling you about the places we visited, but I will eventually catch up, or at least I hope so. For now I wanted to reflect a bit on the past 3.5 month, which we spent in the Cono Sur (Southern Cone), which according to Wikipedia “has traditionally comprised Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay”.

So, where to start? Let’s say, I always thought of myself as an Asia person. Considering I studied Chinese at university, that may not be surprising, but whenever I went to Asia, I kinda felt at home. Or more so than in Europe at least. But in the last 10 or so years my interest in traveling Latin America steadily increased, and now that I’m finally here, I’m reconsidering the “Asia person” thing. Sure, I love travelling there, but Latin America (or more specifically the parts we saw so far), are very fascinating for a different reason, mainly that some of them feel a lot like alternative versions of Europe. Maybe that isn’t the best description, but what I mean to say is that there’s a shared cultural heritage between Europe and here, which makes it much easier to actually have meaningful conversations with people. On top of that there’s only one language you need to learn (unless you are going to Brazil or the Guyanas) to be able to travel from almost the Antarctic to the Southern border of the US.

But there are also certain cultural differences that I appreciate: first off, there’s a lot of left-wing politics going on, which makes me quite happy. Sure, the left may not always be in power, but it has a good grassroots presence (trade unions, student groups, squats). I also found that people started to consider Latin America as a global player in its own right, which can compete with the EU and the US in the medium term (at least some countries). Anyway, this is not supposed to turn into a political rant… Another thing I like is how open people are and how much life takes place in the streets. Any random walk to a park can turn into an adventure, full of random conversations and tons of entertainments provided by jugglers and other street performers. I’m sure the better weather plays a role in this, but also the general attitude of people to live parts of their private lives in the open makes a huge difference. You also can see a lot of enterprising people in the streets, from shoe shiners, over food stalls, used book sellers, artesanias and fruit sellers to guys peddling vegan brownies or puppet performances for children. I know a lot of them do this in lack of better options, but for others (especially the artensanias) it’s a way to do what they really like while being able to travel. As one girl selling handmade jewelry (and who has been traveling for almost 10 years) just told us a couple of days ago: “¡No the preocupes, te ocupes!” (freely translated: “Don’t worry, do something!”). I don’t know how to say this exactly, but there’s a certain energy here that I miss back home. Sure, people here complain a lot too (and they have every right to in some cases), but they still seem to believe in being able to change their own destiny. Probably this has to do with one of my pet peeves about Austrian people, who constantly complain without acknowledging enough that they are among the luckiest people on this planet for a lot of things. The bottom line is that i’m rather fond of people here, and while there obviously are big differences between e.g. Paraguayans and Chileans, the things I mentioned above could be recognized in all the places we visited so far to some degree.

Of course not everything is perfect: One of the most disturbing things is the huge inequality found in basically all societies here. While some people are incredibly rich, others literally live off their garbage. Argentina for example is sliding back into a big crisis, and there’s a lot of very visible poverty around, more than in some Asian countries I visited in the past. Also things don’t always run as smoothly as they could, mostly because in quite a lot of cases you can observe a “good enough” attitude. Sure, you don’t always have to strive for perfection, but sometimes it just seems like someone started out with a great idea, but stopped implementing it at about 95% for no apparent reason. Last but not least people here seem to have a difficult time with silence, so you are quite likely to end up in a beautiful spot in the middle of nowhere, just to have a guy turn up with some bad Cumbia blasting from the crappy speakers of his mobile phone. Seriously people, what’s wrong with using headphones?

Anyway, I’m quite in love with this part of our planet now, the combination of beautiful nature, interesting cities and wonderfully open people is rather hard to beat. We are supposed to arrive in Bolivia in about a week, let’s see how/if my perceptions will change there.

That’s it for now, in case you haven’t seen them before, here are the links to the pictures of the Cono Sur part of our trip:

2012 Travel Review

I know it’s a bit late for a 2012 review post, but we spent the last couple of days in a wonderfully isolated place on the Chilean coast without an Internet connection. Anyway, I thought better late than never, so here are some thoughts on the first 3 month of our trip.

Favorite places visited

This is tough, because we visited a lot of very nice places. If I had to choose 3 though, I’d pick Buenos Aires for being an amazing and amazingly chaotic city, the coast around Pichilemu in Chile for being a magical nature paradise (besides one of the world’s best surf spots) and Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay. Sure, the last one is rather touristy, but it deals with it really well and in the evenings you can have the place almost to yourself. The honorable mention goes to the Iguazu Falls, which are absolutely amazing, but somehow don’t conjure up as fond memories as the other places.

Favorite places stayed in

The “Hostal de la Viuda” in Punta del Diablo (Uruguay) was a great place to stay. It’s a bit outside town, run by a lovely couple and incredibly hard to leave, because of the nice garden, great common area and the three cute dogs. We also quite enjoyed the “Mate Hostel” in Cordoba, because it’s a place run by travelers (from Argentina, Colombia and Germany) for travelers. I shared lots of mate and good conversations with the staff, and it’s a very social place where it’s easy to meet other backpackers. Another amazing place was the “Surfarm”, which is located about 15 minutes by car from Pichilemu (Chile). It’s basically a couple of huts right next to the beach in a pretty isolated area. It’s the sort of place where time just has no significance and you fall asleep to the sound of the Pacific after looking at the beautiful night sky. The honorable mention goes to the “Casa Pueblo” in Mendoza (Argentina), which is also slightly out of town (there might be a pattern here) and is owned by a very nice young Russian-Argentinian couple who made our Christmas very enjoyable. There’s also a special mention in this category, the “Casa Amarilla” in Aregua (Paraguay), which is basically an old colonial house which was turned into an art space/hostel by the two brothers who run it. I’m not sure how much I enjoyed staying there because of the David Lynch atmosphere, but it’s fun to wander around the premises and look at the random art pieces that can be found all over the place.

Favorite foods

Paraguay had quite a few nice vegetarian dishes, although they were mostly bread-based, so a bit heavy on the carbs. Nonetheless, chipa definitely was a great food discovery. While Uruguay is a bit bland on the food side, there’s a very old pizza place in Montevideo called “Subte”, which serves delicious pizza and faina. Argentina on the other hand mostly stayed in my mind for its sweets: there’s some of the best ice cream outside of Italy, and alfajores as well as chocotorta were rather dangerous for my blood sugar levels. My favorite country for food so far definitely was Chile though, since there’s more variety than in the other places and it’s full of awesome fresh avocados, which are probably my favorite fruit in the world.

Biggest positive surprise

Definitely Chile, because before we came we hadn’t heard too many good things about the place. People mostly complained about how expensive it is and that the locals are not the most friendly people on the planet. However, we found none of that to be true, Chileans have been incredibly friendly and hospitable so far, and we actually find it easier to stay within our budget here than in Argentina. It’s also an easier place to travel as a vegetarian because of the abundance of great fresh fruits and vegetables, which is a definite plus for me.

Biggest disappointment

Probably Curacao. While I have quite a few good memories related to our two weeks there, it wasn’t the mindless beach holiday we were after, but actually a rather exhausting backpacking experience. I don’t regret that we went, it was very interesting, but it didn’t really live up to our expectations.

Best decision made

Doing a Spanish course early on was definitely the best decision we made on this trip so far! The two weeks at “El Pasaje” in Buenos Aires were great, since we had a very small group (us and a girl from the U.S.) we could progress at a really fast pace, especially since we didn’t start from zero. In only 10 days we managed to cover a lot of grammar and, more importantly, had lots of conversations where we actually could use it. I even started reading a book in Spanish now, and while I’m a bit slow and still miss some vocabulary, I actually manage better than I would have expected. Anyway, being able to have proper conversations in Spanish makes this trip a lot more enjoyable, since we interacted a lot with hostel staff, artesanias, local travelers or random people in the streets.

That’s it for now, maybe I’ll do a similar post in another three month or so.

2012 Reading List

Once again here’s a list of all the books I read in the past year, in reading order. I’m surprised I made it to 52 again, since there were several periods where I didn’t read much for various reasons.

I also got to work on two books, first as technical reviewer for Ruby and MongoDB Web Development Beginner’s Guide and then as the author of the Metasploit chapter for Informationstechnologie und Sicherheitspolitik.

Mukoma wa Ngugi: Nairobi Heat
Antoinette Bergin: Bedtime Stories for Children You Hate
Margaret Killjoy: Mythmakers and Lawbreakers: Anarchist Writers on Fiction
Roberto Ierusalimschy: Programming in Lua
Tobias Klein: A Bug Hunter’s Diary: A Guided Tour Through the Wilds of Software Security
Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses
Banana Yoshimoto: Kitchen
Jens Bjørneboe: Haie: die Geschichte eines Schiffsunterganges
Henry David Thoreau: Civil Disobedience
Terry Pratchett: Reaper Man
Dean Wampler: Programming Scala
Brendan Behan: After the Wake
Bruce Sterling: Black Swan
Lewis Shiner: Slam
Peter Godwin: When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa
Ron Currie Jr.: God Is Dead
Kurt Vonnegut: Cat’s Cradle
Aravind Adiga: Between The Assassinations
Jonathan Safran Foer: Eating Animals
Chuck Palahniuk: Nonfiction
Gautam Rege: Ruby and MongoDB Web Development
Terry Pratchett: The Fifth Elephant
Herbert Rosendorfer: Großes Solo für Anton
Brian P. Hogan: tmux: Productive Mouse-Free Development
Charles Bukowski: Ham on Rye
Thomas Marcinko: Astronauts and Heretics
Avdi Grimm: Exceptional Ruby: Master the Art of Handling Failure in Ruby
Michal Zalewski: The Tangled Web: A Guide to Securing Modern Web Applications
Haruki Murakami: 1Q84
Jesse Storimer: Working with UNIX Processes
Qiu Xiaolong: When Red Is Black
Lao Tzu: Tao Te King
Kim Wright: City of Darkness
Joyce Carol Oates: Rape. A Love Story
Joseph Heller: Catch-22
Hugh Howey: I, Zombie
Nury Vittachi: Mr. Wong Goes West
Douglas Adams: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
p.m.: bolo’ bolo
Kenneth S. Cohen: Qigong. Grundlagen, Methoden, Anwendung
David Wong: John Dies at the End
Terry Pratchett: Lords and Ladies
Julia Alvarez: How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
T. E. Klemm: 100 Chess Problems for the Rest of Us
Robert A. Heinlein: 6xH
Gao Xingjian: Soul Mountain
Junot Díaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Matt Ruff: Bad Monkeys
Richard Wilhelm: The Secret of the Golden Flower: A Chinese Book of Life
Uzodinma Iweala: Beasts of No Nation
James Bracken: ¡Che Boludo!: A gringo’s guide to understanding the Argentines
Terry Pratchett: The Light Fantastic

There also were several programming books I didn’t finish, either because I didn’t have time, didn’t find them interesting enough or because I got all the information I needed before the book was over:

Martin Logan: Erlang and OTP in Action
Leo Brodie: Starting FORTH
Timothy Perrett: Lift in Action
Kees Doets: The Haskell Road to Logic, Maths and Programming
Ivo Balbaert: The Way to Go

Feliz Navidad!

I even have a present for you, the long overdue post about Uruguay, one of the highlights of our trip so far!

Our first destination was Montevideo, a city I basically liked from the very beginning. Which is strange, because it’s not necessarily the prettiest of places. Let me rephrase that: it’s a city for the second look. There’s a lot of ugly architecture around, but also tons of nice old colonial buildings. Add to that tree-lined streets (occasionally even with cobblestones) and roughly 22km of coast and you have a pretty neat mix. On top of that Uruguayans are lovely people, very relaxed, friendly, talkative and with the highest mate consumption in the world. What’s not to like? We also had some great CouchSurfing hosts, so we met lots of people and had quite an active social life.

After a week though we decided to leave the city behind for a bit, and headed to the Atlantic coast, more specifically Punta del Diablo, a charming little town of about 700 inhabitants. At least during low season, because once high season hits the places grows to over 20000 people. While some may like that, I’m definitely not one of them and having kilometers of beautiful beaches to ourselves was a great experience. It’s hard to describe the beauty of this place in words (and I haven’t uploaded our pictures yet), but it was very hard to leave Punta del Diablo. If you ever get a chance to go there, do it, especially during mid to late November, when the weather is already good but the place is not overrun by tourists yet.

From the coast we headed back for another weekend in Montevideo, before setting off to picturesque Colonia de Sacramento, another place that was hard to leave. True, it can get quite full of tourists, but somehow the town absorbs them well. Also a lot of them just come on day trips from Buenos Aires, which means they leave again in the late afternoon and the old town full of cobblestones, cute little colonial houses and the friendliest street dogs in the world is all yours again.

Uruguay, a love affair. And I can’t even tell you exactly why. Is it because the whole country looks like Hobbit Land? Or because the people are amazingly friendly and welcoming? Or because of the very relaxed rhythm of life? Probably all of the above, and a bit more that’s hard to put into words. I know this mail is somewhat shorter than the others and lacks detailed descriptions, but somehow I find it hard to write about Uruguay. It’s not a flashy country full of things to do and places to visit, but it’s beautiful nonetheless and I had a wonderful time there. Whenever someone mentions it, something in me just wants to go back there right away…

Anyway, I hope all of you are doing well, I’ll try to be faster with the post about the month we just spent in Argentina!

A First Glimpse of Argentina

Ladies and gentlemen,

with a delay of only 3 weeks I present to you our first impressions of Argentina! As you know by now, our last destination in Paraguay was charming little Encarnacion, from where you have an excellent view of Posadas in Argentina. And when I say “excellent”, I mean it:

Originally we wanted to take a bus on Thursday morning, but since our CouchSurfing host had an appointment in Posadas on Wednesday he took us along and so we suddenly found ourselves in Argentina. That was a rather special moment for me, because it’s a country I wanted to visit for as long as I can remember. I don’t even know why exactly, it just always held a certain attraction… Anyway, Posadas itself is the capital of the Misiones province, and while it may not be the most exciting place in the country, it’s rather relaxed and has some pretty spots. And it feels distinctly more urban than most of the places we saw in Paraguay, which was a welcome change for city rats like us.

Two nights proved to be enough though, so we followed our trusty friend the Parana river to San Ignacio Mini, a Jesuit mission similar to the ones found in Trinidad and Jesus in Paraguay. We managed to catch a tour of the premises (in Spanish) and while the ruins are very impressive, I think I preferred their Paraguayan counterparts, if only for the fact that we had the latter basically to ourselves when we went there, which is quite different from San Ignacio where domestic tourists are carted in by the busload. Still, if you are in the area, try to include the mission in your schedule, it’s definitely worth it!

San Ignacio is also where the first terere withdrawal symptoms kicked in, but luckily one evening we met a guy called Paco, who not only offered us some mate, but also proved to be good company and an engaging conversation partner. Since then numerous encounters like this followed, and it’s one of the big differences to traveling in Asia for me: once you speak a bit of Spanish, the shared European cultural heritage allows for a level of interaction I never really managed to attain in any Asian country. Don’t get me wrong, I love traveling in Asia, people there can be as great and friendly as they are in South America (or even more), but barely ever did I manage to have such nice and meaningful conversations with locals…

And then: Iguazu! I saw waterfalls before, or so I thought before I saw Iguazu. It’s like nature put on its best Crocodile Dundee impression and said: “You call that a waterfall? THIS is a waterfall!”

I never thought I’d be this awed by water falling down some rocks, but I was, and words can’t really describe it. Or maybe one word can, ridiculous, as in ridiculously big/impressive/awesome. The town of Puerto Iguazu mostly consists of tourist infrastructure and is nothing to write home about, but there’s a cool tri-border point from which you can see Paraguay and Brazil. There’s also a pretty cool animal sanctuary close by, so if you find yourself with some free time before catching an overnight bus, give it a go (it’s called Guira Oga).

If you know Argentina, you may have noticed something, namely that we never ventured to far from the Paraguayan border until now, which means there still was the Parana, the Guarani influence, chipa and landscapes and vegetation similar to Paraguay. This was about to change however, since we embarked on our first longer bus trip in Argentina, namely a 15 hour ride from Puerto Iguazu to Colon in Entre Rios provice, which is one of the border towns from where you can cross into Uruguay, which is just what we did. But let’s keep that for another time and go back a little… Long distance buses in Argentina are good, bordering on awesome. Our “semicama” had good reclining seats, ample legroom and they even served food, most of which was vegetarian to my great surprise. They also are rather determined to get you to your destination, so while our bus didn’t really go to Colon, it was nice enough to drop us off at the point where the road into town starts, which is what they told us before they would do. What they omitted however is that said point will be on the highway, with no real transport into town. So there we were, confused after not being awake for too long, by the side of a highway in the blazing sun. Luckily there weren’t too many cars, so we managed to cross the 6 lanes without too much trouble and call a remis (a kind of radio taxi) which took us into town. Colon itself is quite pretty and seems to be a rather popular destination for domestic tourists, so it was a pleasant place to spend a day and night (we rented a room from a nice old lady) before heading to Montevideo.

We spent the past three weeks in Uruguay, a country I’m madly in love with by now, and about which I’ll tell you more soon! Tomorrow we’ll enjoy our last day here, before heading to Buenos Aires on Friday where my friend Ezequiel is waiting for us! :–)

Oh yeah, I wouldn’t be the language nerd I am without at least mentioning that the Spanish around here (Español rioplatense) is quite different from the one in Spain (the use of the Voseo, the pronunciation of “ll” and “y”, the melody), but I have to say I really quite like it. I’d write more about it, but I’m currently in charming little Colonia del Sacramento, so I’d rather have a walk and expand on this thought when I tell you about Uruguay and the rest of Argentina…

In the Land of Tereré

Considering we left Paraguay almost three weeks ago, it’s a shame I haven’t told you anything about this wonderful place yet. But let’s backtrack for a second and explore how we got to Paraguay. When we looked for flights out of Curacao, going to Medellin seemed to be the most obvious choice, considering the flight with Insel Air is dirt cheap and takes about an hour. However, obvious choices are boring and we kinda wanted to work our way up from the South of the continent to the North, so we started looking into other options like Buenos Aires, Montevideo or Santiago de Chile. But then I found a reasonably priced flight to Asunción and given my previous wonderful experience in a place nobody really goes to (Bangladesh) I started liking the idea. So I introduced the subject to P. and we decided to go ahead and discover Paraguay. And I’m glad we did!

Let me get one thing straight right away: Asunción is not the most beautiful city in the world. In fact it’s a bit on the ugly side, at least around the downtown area. Apparently that’s because a paranoid dictator had all tall buildings torn down because he was afraid of assassins hiding in them, but I’m not entirely sure that’s true. It’s a pretty good story though. There are some beautiful old colonial buildings left, but since there’s not a lot of money to go around, they are usually in a state of disrepair (or worse). There are however some nicer modern neighborhoods like Villa Morra where we stayed with a wonderful CouchSurfing host. Anyway, Asunción’s a rather relaxed South American capital, that feels safe and is full of wonderful, helpful and welcoming people.

People who drink Tereré, all day, every day. Tereré I hear you ask? It’s basically like Mate, but made with ice-cold water and generally with some extra herbs like mint added. It’s refreshing, delicious, and since you pass it around it’s also a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours with some friends while drinking and chatting. Which we did quite a bit, for example with our friend Javier who just opened a beautiful little hostel close to Asunción’s downtown which you definitely should check out if given the chance! Anyway, for Paraguayans Tereré is more than just a drink, it’s an integral part of their culture and you’ll see lots of people carrying around a thermos at all times of day. They also always asked us we already had tried it and were delighted to find out that we did and that we actually love it!

Another vivid memory of Asunción are the public buses, which are colorful and full of people selling all kinds of things (food, drinks, little knickknacks). Also they don’t really bother to stop for letting people get on or off, they just kinda slow down and give you a chance to practice your Ninja skills.

Now for one of my favorite topics, food: Paraguay was surprisingly ok for a vegetarian. Not great and I had to eat a lot of carbs, but I managed. While the modern Paraguayan diet is centered around meat, a lot of the traditional dishes are vegetarian. This means that I basically lived off Sopa Paraguaya, Chipa Guasu, Chipa, Mbeju and Pasqualina. Fruit juices were ok too, but unfortunately they add sugar to them unless you stop them, which is common in the region and something I absolutely don’t understand. We also cooked quite a bit for ourselves which was rather nice since supermarkets are quite well-stocked and carry lots of Italian-style products. They also offer quite a few different soy-based “meats”, which despite not being my favorite way of eating soy is a rather convenient way to get some protein in your diet.

Language-wise Paraguay also was rather interesting. While the city population mostly speak Spanish (more on that later), Guaraní is still the most common language in rural areas. The local accent was rather easy to understand, although a lot of people mix in some Guaraní words. Anyway, it was a good place to improve my listening skills, and while I’m still far from being able to hold my own in an interesting conversation, I’m definitely improving.

From Asunción we did a day trip to Areguá, a nice little village with a stunning lake, a beautiful church placed on a picturesque hill and lots of handicrafts. We stayed in the “Casa Amarilla”, which is an old colonial house that’s part hostel and part art space and looks like something out of a David Lynch movie. We also met a couple of nice Argentinians who not only gave us a lift back to Asunción but also invited us to stay with them in Corrientes, an offer we might take them up on next month.

We then moved on to the pretty little border town of Encarnación, which has a pretty costanera from where you can actually see Posadas in Argentina. Nearby there are the stunning Jesuit ruins of Trinidad and Jesús, and since Paraguay isn’t exactly overrun by tourists, we basically had them all to ourselves when we went there, which made me feel a bit like Indiana Jones. Our CouchSurfing host also took us to Itacua, a famous local religious site, which had some gorgeous views. He also was kind enough to drive us over the bridge to Argentina, which made for one of the more interesting border crossings of my life. The border guard first looked confused when he got two Paraguayan ID cards, as well as an Austrian and Italian passport, but then stamped us in without so much as properly looking at us.

I guess that’s enough for now, I’ll soon write something about Northeastern Argentina, where we spent around a week before moving on to Uruguay from where I’m currently writing this.

A Quick One for the Road

After a lovely time in Paraguay (a separate post will follow), we explored the Northeast of Argentina a bit (Posadas, San Ignacio, Iguazu Falls). Today we’ll take an overnight bus to Colon were we’ll cross into Paysandu (Uruguay) on Friday or so. We don’t know how long we’ll stay there yet, but after that we’ll head back to Argentina to finally visit some cities.

Here’s some pictures for now:

Curacao! Curawow?

Last time I promised you all a bit more information about backpacking on a Caribbean island, so here we go: before we set out, we didn’t exactly know how much time to plan for Curacao, so we decided on 12 days, which also had to do with P.’s birthday. Considering this island isn’t too big this seems like a rather long time, but things here are slow, especially when travelling on a budget…

Take transport for example: unless you rent a car, you depend on the bus system, which mostly consists of white minibuses which you flag down at a “Bushalte” (or anywhere else really). You then tell them where to go and they drop you off there, but only after they did the same for all the other passengers who were already on that bus. So it takes time, but kinda works like a taxi since they bring you right to your house. At 3 NAf (around Euro 1.30 or USD 1.70) per ride they are rather expensive, especially for the locals, which you’ll often just see walking next to the road. Anyway, we got to see a lot of “real” Curacao that way, which is cool, but the whole system is a bit unpredictable and waiting for 40 minutes in the scorching midday heat on a Sunday was rather frustrating. There’s a great quote to remember in situations like this though:

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.“ — G.K. Chesterton

Our accommodation was rather nice, especially because it’s more or less the only backpacker place on the island. It’s not in a particularly good location, since it’s neither close to the beach nor the town center, but it has a lovely garden, two great dogs, a cute cat and you are bound to meet interesting people here. We were especially lucky with our initial group, since we all got along super well and did all kinds of things together. I found this kinda cool since the youngest member of our gang was 21, while the oldest was 53. This also allowed us to pool our money to rent a car for 3 days, which finally gave us the option to explore some of the nicer beaches in the northwest of the island (Kleine Knip is my favorite, so if you ever make it to Curacao, make sure to check it out). Anyway, you all definitely added a lot to our Curacao experience, so thanks guys!

One thing I really found attractive about Curacao is the mix of languages and cultures. I have a soft spot for creole languages, so I obviously really liked Papiamento. I almost was tempted to attend a course, but I’ve done enough strange language courses in the past when I got carried away while traveling (Nepali for example). Besides Papiamento there’s still a lot of Dutch, many people speak English and there are a fair few Chinese and some South Asians around. It’s this hotchpotch of cultures and the fact that Curacao’s main industry is not tourism (yet), that make the place rather interesting.

Considering how long this mail already is, it’s rather surprising that I haven’t talked about one of my favorite topics yet: food! The local cuisine is an interesting mix of various cooking traditions, with Dutch things like Kroket and Bitterballen next to more Caribbean fare like Papaya stew, plantains and obviously loads of seafood . On top of that there are many Chinese takeout places referred to as “Snacks”, which serve decent but rather uninspired staples like fried rice and noodles. Compared to many of the other options they are rather cheap though, so they became a regular contributor to our diet. They also serve a lot of vegetarian food, which made my life considerably easier, although I have to say that while the local cuisine is rather meat heavy, people were generally very helpful and considerate and just made up vegetarian dishes on the fly for me, which is more than can be said for a lot of other places. Last but not least there’s also quite a few Surinamese restaurants and “roti shops”, and although we only got to try one, I have to say we instantly became fans (veggies and roti, what’s not to like?).

So, how to sum up our Curacao experience? Overall, it was a pretty good and enjoyable stay. The Caribbean is not Asia, so on a backpacker’s budget it may not be easy to have that perfect lazy beach holiday. Especially compared to Thailand or Malaysia, where 15 Euro per day gets me all the luxury I need, meaning a decent room in a nice place and good food. On Curacao the same was closer to 40-45 Euro per day (including the 3 days of shared rental car), which is a bit steep for the kind of journey we are on. But after a rather stressful period in Vienna we both needed to wind down, so this was a bit like a little holiday before the actual trip. Besides that the pleasant weather, perfect sea and beaches and the interesting cultural mix definitely made it a worthwhile stay.

Would I recommend this place? If you are willing to spend a bit, definitely. Compared to neighboring Aruba it’s actually pretty cheap, but if you are on a budget, your perspective changes. A car definitely is a worthwhile investment, so if money’s tight, try to find people to team up with, even if it’s just for a couple of days. Also, if you do wanna spoil yourself, invest in a trip to Klein Curacao! Granted, 75 Euro for a day trip is quite the investment when you are traveling for a long time, but a couple of hours on an uninhabited Caribbean island were definitely worth it in my book.

The next mail will probably be about Paraguay (which is where arrived last Sunday), so stay tuned!

Bon Bini

This was originally written on October 6th as an email, but I only got around to modify and post it here now.

“Bon bini” means “welcome” in Papiamento, the creole language of the ABC islands, which seems fitting, since I’m writing this from Curaçao. Yes, that’s right, I’m in the Caribbean right now. But more on that later…

Let’s start from the beginning: I’m happily unemployed and homeless again, which can only mean one thing: prolonged travelling! Before anyone wonders, “I” is still a “we” and P. is somewhere around here, I promise.

Back to the present: our first destination on this trip is Curaçao, mostly because we found a really cheap one-way flight with Air Berlin, which in my book is a rather good reason to go almost anywhere (except for you, Dubai, I’m afraid we’ll never be friends). Except for the 45 minute delay the flight via Duesseldorf was rather uneventful, although the lack of in-seat IFE combined with slightly annoying neighbors made the almost 10 hours seem somewhat longer. Anyway, we got here safe and sound on October 2nd, met some really cool people right away and have been happily idling away the last couple of days. Unfortunately two of our new friends already moved on to Columbia, but the remaining four of our little hostel family are holding up bravely and are going to Klein Curaçao tomorrow as consolation.

We have a flight to Paraguay on October 14th, and while 11 days on Curaçao may seem like stretching it a bit, this is a much-needed break after a rather stressful period back in Vienna.

Since we only got here a couple of days ago it’s too early for any profound observations, but expect more impressions of backpacking on a Caribbean island in the next post.