Montevideo – Veni, Vidi, Vici

Note to readers:

All the new blog posts are being released or freshly written in our self imposed quarantine in Prague. We urge everyone to stay home with prudent social distancing. We would love to hear where you are and how you are faring. What is one positive insight you can share about this difficult situation?

A friendly message came through on WhatsApp when we were still on the comfy sleeper overnight bus to Montevideo:

NOT the bus of our youth

Hello Ksenija! It’d be a pleasure for me to meet you. So, you’ll stay in Montevideo until Tuesday.
When are you thinking of coming to Punta del Este ? Sunday 1st of March is a great day to be in Montevideo. Mr. Lacalle Pou will start being our President. It’ll be very moving. I’ll write later to give you advice about this day and places to visit in Montevideo. – Esmeralda

A quick inquiry to an (Uruguayan) friend of a (Brazilian) friend started the ball rolling in a most unexpected, interesting and entertaining way and direction. This is what makes travel so much fun, especially for a traveling extrovert, one that loves to meet new people.

Initially we thought of only staying in Montevideo for two days, transiting from Brazil back to Argentina. But when a possible visit to a Brazilian coffee plantation fell through, we suddenly had two extra days. As they say: When a door closes, a window opens. Perfect timing for an interesting experience. We have been to coffee plantations before, but never to a presidential inauguration.

I shot a message about the timetable of inaugural events to our young Airbnb host Sergio and he quickly responded: I have a friend who used to be a journalist. Let me ask him.

Within minutes the obvious response came: The ceremony is by invitation only, but there will be a procession and big celebrations.

Somehow our “influencer fame” 😉 has not yet spread to Uruguay, so with no invitations pending, we decide to just follow the crowds. We booked a cool apartment

Not a stained glass window, but ceiling

in the Ciudad Vieja (Old Town), thinking it will be a lively spot for the weekend. My, my, were we mistaken.

There are only a few caffees and one museum open. It is actually one of those that Esmeralda has recommended. We really, really love it, the colors, the details, the playfulness!

NOT Another Brick in the Wall

It is dedicated to an important Uruguayan artist José Gurvich, who moved to Montevideo in 1932 as a child with his Jewish family from Lithuania, seeking freedom and safety from religious persecution. With his floating figures and sheep heads he reminds us of a much more famous Jewish Russian painter Marc Chagall.

Jacob’s Dream

We can’t help but ponder how ironic it is that many Nazis escaped to Uruguay for safety from international court after the WWII.

As we are wondering the largely deserted streets full of trash and homeless people, we quicken our steps and clutch our (very conspicuous) fanny packs tighter. In search of safety and nourishment we change directions from the port side inland, towards the Plaza de la Independencia. Even there everything is shuttered with big strong iron bars. The whole open plaza is barricaded with security fences and police. We see a small crowd of people with flags.

It is a natural instinct of humans to be attracted to a group of fellow humans. Maybe there is a snake charmer, or an entertaining hanging to partake in? This day and age a traveler would be wise to stay away from crowds; it can be an unruly demonstration, or a perfect opportunity for a terrorist bombing. (Or only some short weeks later, as we know now, – a lethal virus).

As travelers we might be old, but we are certainly not too wise, so of course we press on.

“Que pasa?” we ask a family with a few kids. They quickly deputize their grandma, the only one speaking English, to explain.

“We came to see the old president say goodbye. He will keep the Uruguayan flag for the last night and tomorrow the new president will get it. “

“And are you happy or sad about it?”

“The people who are here, all support the old president. It was a very narrow win and the new one only won through a coalition with diverse small parties. The country will swing to the right, we just don’t know how much.”

I could see the tears gathering in her eyes.

“I am sorry,” I said. “I feel your pain. We are in the same boat. It seems like the whole world is swinging to the right. “

We watch the small crowd sing the national anthem and wave their fists in the air. After the flag comes down, we leave to find the only open restaurant around the corner, right across from the Solis Theater.

Old World Charm – Opened 1856

The tours of the elegant old theater are suspended that evening due to the inauguration.

“How do you feel about the new president?” we ask the waiter bringing us a large bottle of beer.

“Well, I don’t know enough yet. He is talking a good talk, but then, they all do. He says he will keep what was working well and change what hasn’t. I would like to believe he won’t polarize the country.” Ah, we know too well about that!

Next morning we walk alongside long barricades with security watching over the corridor where

the new president will drive from parliament to the Independence square.

Soon we find a very different kind of crowd on Tristán Narvaja Flea Market.

A dozen books or a dozen eggs?

It is one of the iconic Montevideo places on Sunday mornings. It is crowded and messy and hot. As much as I really like markets all around the world, I suddenly realize, I don’t really care for flea markets at all. Huh, it took me long enough!

In the meantime our WhatsApp pen pal is sending us more information about the inauguration and a plea to take some photos for her. She is obviously a big fan of the new president. After 15 years of the left imposing high taxes with no action, he will bring us security and economic growth, she writes.

The intriguing piece of information that 3000 gauchos on horses have come to Montevideo to accompany the new president clinched the deal. You know I am a sucker for horses. And indeed we find the whole square around the Palacio Legislativo ringed by men, women and children on horses.

Look closely in the background the amount of horses is astounding

A much, much larger crowd is out in force flying other flags today.

Ceremony on the steps begins

Endless rumps,

Oops, wrong pic!
The other blue pic!

tails and ears anywhere the eye can see. Impressive sight, indeed. We heard some horses were brought by trucks and same took a week walking from the farthest provinces. We felt bad for the horses and the riders, it was a very, very hot day and they have been standing for hours and hours on the hot sun. There was no provisions for water either for the beast or man.

I realized there were also no toilets either for the riders or the big crowds who came, by horse or on foot, to welcome the new president.

Finally after all the other dignitaries got into their official cars the president Luis Pou and Vice President Beatriz Argimón Cedeira jumped into an antique car and drove a victory lap around the plaza. In the meanwhile we had a back and forth reporting with our pen pal Esmeralda, siting in front of her TV in Punta del Este.

It must have taken a good part of an hour to set all the horses into motion.

Overheated and not buoyed by nationalistic and party pride we did not follow the procession to the Independence square. We jumped into an Uber to get back home. The woman driver, who spoke good French, very excitedly shared her opinions about how only the rich will benefit from the new government. “I am worried that they will also try to roll back some of the freedoms gained under the old regime: women’s rights, abortion rights, gays rights to marry.”

Uruguay is indeed a very liberal country and the first country in the world that legalized the growing, selling and use of marijuana.

Next morning we leave our apartment to find the Old City transformed. The stores are open, the outdoor restaurant seating covered by colorful umbrellas. There are people everywhere; strolling, sipping coffee, reading the morning newspapers. Huh? On Monday you would expect everyone to be at work, right? But the old town being also the financial district, comes to life on Monday.

We walk through the small park behind our building to visit the Museum of Decorative arts (open on Monday morning!) when we notice a well heeled crowd spilling out from the museum’s courtyard.

“Que pasa?” I asked two gentlemen in suits. (You might notice my frequent use of this universal expression in my limited Spanish vocab).

“It is the inauguration of new ministers.”

“Oh, is the president here? We saw him at the Palacio Legislativo yesterday.”

“Oh, yes, he is here.”

“How about the Vice President? I appreciate that you have a woman vice president.”

“Sure, here she comes!” pointing at the elegant blond woman in a white coat followed by a woman in uniform. “Why don’t you say hello to her?”

“Are you kidding, the security will arrest me!”

“No, no, you can take a picture with her, too.”

Well then, here goes…

“Madam Vice President, congratulations on your win.” Her hand goes out to shake mine and the woman in uniform grabs my phone to take our picture.

Do notice the dichotomy in footwear.

It is a campaign strategy they have employed, I am told later, taking pictures with their supporters on the trail.

Oh, and here comes El Presidente. It is slow going, every guy in a suit or office shirt wants to shake his hand and give him a hug.

Here I am in my T shirt, magenta fanny pack and blue baseball cap, sticking out like a sore thumb. He catches my eye. It worked once, why not again…

“Mr. President, congratulations on your win!“

He smiles and then he grabs my phone and with a practiced hand switches it to selfie mode… and snaps away!

The craziest incident in crazyparents travel

You can only imagine the reaction of our friend Esmeralda, when she receives our photos. “You are a genius, you are my idol!”She insists we have to come immediately and she will wait for us at the bus station with her car. She has a whole day of sightseeing including lunch planed. “You should stay for two days, there is much to see!” she writes.

Next day, our last in Uruguay, we take an early morning bus to Punta del Este. Finally we meet Esmeralda in person. She is a lively, colorfully dressed widow.

A Negroni cheers for Esmeralda

She has two small grandkids that live in Florida. Only at the end of the day we find out that her late husband was actually a senator. No wonder then, her interest in politics.

Without her driving us around we would have had no clue what Punta del Este is beyond high vacation apartment buildings and beaches.

The Hand, The Drowning Man or…?

We know it is the playground of the Latin America’s elite, albeit a bit more low key, family oriented. Many Argentinians and Europeans buy houses or apartments here.

“The season is really very short,” she explains, only during Christmas and school holidays. In the winter you can pass all these apartment towers and there will be only one light on.” We take a certain pleasure in seeing the abandoned Trump tower. Another successful business venture of our el presidente.

How wonderful to get a break from the daily grind of independent travel! No need to look for directions and find parking, decide on a place for lunch or wonder about opening hours. On top of it have a pleasure of an enlightened conversation in great English. As our travel motto says: Making friends along the way.

Knowing of Mirek’s engineering background Esmeralda goes out of the way to drive us to and over interesting bridges

The Wavy bridge. Go fast enough and you feel you’re on a boat or a roller coaster.

and past and to beautiful structures.

Faro=lighthouse

The most famous one is probably

The white and blue home, atelier, museum, gallery

and now also a hotel

by Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró was built organically, without architectural plans in 36 years. It evokes the blue and white of Greek islands or Spain, and it is enhanced by the fun large scale ceramics.

There is also an area that pays tribute to artist’ s son Carlos Miguel, one of the sixteen Uruguayan survivors who spent 72 days trapped on a glacier in the freezing high altitude Andes, after their airplane crashed in 1972. They were only rescued after two of the men walked for ten days over high mountains with no equipment and food. What a terrible ordeal for the young men and their parents. Some of you might remember the movie Alive with Ethan Hawke. I remember being very shaken up when I saw it as a teen.

I remembered meeting an Argentinian hiker (hi Marcelo!) in Tronador glacier area who told us about the three day trek to the site of the crash and spoke of the challenge to get there and the difficulty of being in a place of such tragedy.

Weeks later at a wine tasting we met an Argentinian couple who have a house just around the corner from a great restaurant where Esmeralda and us broke bread together.

Luckily we came early as it is the place to see and be seen even outside of the high season. Wonderful food, too! Yummy locally sourced camarones to start with

and grilled black figs for desert, oh my.

Always room for desert

It was probably the most expensive lunch of our trip, but it was well worth it, we thought. Until the American Express bill came…

Next time we will try MasterCard! 😉

I Cry for You Argentina, I Had to Leave You

Don’t cry for me Argentina
The truth is I never left you
All through my wild days
My mad existence
I kept my promise
Don’t keep your distance

Songwriters: Andrew Lloyd Weber/Tim Rice

Canyonlands views

It was a lovely day, the first full day on our drive to the south from the salt pans near the Bolivian border through the Wild West of this remote corner of Argentina.

Natural Amphitheater

Despite scary world news about the new virus, Argentina still seemed unscathed and we were in good spirits and full of energy, as you can see for yourself. Our children have been bombarding us with messages, begging our return. We reveled in their sudden attention, but intended to finish our trip as planned.

We should have known better! It Was Friday The Thirteenth! Something was bound to ruin our travelers’ euphoria that had lasted for nearly six glorious weeks!

Pampa grasses dancing in the evening wind

As the sun was setting over the sharp edges of Quebrada de las Conchas (Gorge of the Shells) we pulled into a spectacular hotel Los Castillos de Cafayate at the foothills of the red ridge of the same name (Castles of Cafayete).

Best hotel view

Over two bottles of cold beer, one lager and one stout, with the view to kill for, we looked at each other:

“Are you thinking of what I am thinking?”

Beautiful grounds

This would be a nice remote hideaway to dig in and hide from the pandemonium virus fever! We could relax here and write those parts of our blog we couldn’t get to over the last days, driving from sunrise to sunset, before hitting the sack, dead to the world.

Oh, Friday the Thirteen! How quickly everything can change. The pleasant empty country roads suddenly became menacing with frequent check points

“What flight did you arrive on?“

set by police, military, gendarmery, national guard… who knows what those guys in wide variety of uniforms call themselves. They were still polite enough while checking our papers, with flowcharts in their gloved hands, questioning our entry dates and past moves, inquiring about our future plans, filling in their freshly printed forms,

When, where, how…

stepping aside to call the distant seats of power for advice on what to do with us. After passing through the fourth check point that morning we tried, with the first sign of a working phone signal, to call a small resort in the vineyard

Sweet memories when everything was still peaceful and well

where we spent the night on our way to the north a few days back. When we tried to make a reservation for the night, we learned our predicament was far worse than we thought.

Overnight the government imposed a new nationwide protocol for dealing with foreign passport holders. Every hotel was to report to the local hospital all foreigners checking in, so the doctors could come and check them for fever. Through US embassy warnings we also learned of cases of foreigners being detained in hotels and kept in involuntary quarantine even past 2 weeks. The bad news kept rolling in. The Argentinian land borders with Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brasil and Uruguay were being closed. The direct flights to the US, UK and EU were shutdown. All National Parks were closed effective immediately.

Ramped out

The writing was on the wall. Coronavirus reached the southernmost tip of this continent and we better deal with it immediately. Our air tickets to fly out of Mendoza to Buenos Aires were for March 18, long five days later. Our Norwegian airways tickets to fly out of Argentina to London Gatwick for April 1 were clearly too late for us. Our situation was ridiculous. We have been in Argentina already for 6 weeks and without any exposure or symptoms we could hardly be considered as somebody bringing the virus here. But with the number of cases in the country rising, we were simply singled out with all other foreigners as dangerous people threatening the health and well-being of Argentina. Our daughters in the US started sending us possible air flights to get out, but we were still far away from a main airport. Taking turns we sped on empty Ruta 40 at 150 km/h.

No Overtaking!

Our depression lifted momentarily when we screeched to a halt, spying animals along the road. Some still very much alive like this elegant guanaco

On alert

enjoying her sandy bath

or barely a mile down the road this Nandu family, a mother with her chicks

Argentinian Ostrich relatives
Lessemsaurus

and, if not alive, fossilized animals were impressive, too.

Even without the occasional stop, the drive would have been too long, so we hunkered down in a cheap motel. We figured the receptionist/cleaner/cook would not bother with much paperwork. Indeed he only had us fill out a paper and didn’t even ask to see our passports or make copies. But hours later a knock came on the door.

“My owner called, noticing you are foreigners, can you show me your passport with the entry stamp.”

“Sure, my friend!” I said sweetly. “Why don’t you call your boss right now and even take a photo of our page with the entry stamp.”

The infamous stamp

While I stood by, he placated his boss and nobody made the call to the hospital. Whew.

In the morning we texted our Mendoza Airbnb. We have stayed in a cottage of a lovely Belgian-Argentinian family on our way in. “When we return, are you supposed to report us to the authorities?” The answer came immediately: “No, don’t worry. This is your home in Argentina. Just come, whenever you can, we will put the keys in the mailbox, if you are late. “ We have always been fans of Airbnbs, but now our love was cemented forever.

In the moments the internet worked, we looked at our options to fly out of the country. With our tickets to London deemed worthless, we abandoned our last planned excursion to Southern Patagonia and focused on any option to leave Argentina with any airline flying out of Buenos Aires to any airport outside of US, UK, or EU which may have a direct connection to Prague.

Why Prague? We do have a place to stay there with family support, health insurance, AND Prague airport was STILL open to flights from so called safe countries. We found two options: Qatar Airways flying daily through Doha, and Turkish Airlines a few times a week through Istanbul. We chose Turkish, as we are familiar with Istanbul and we have some friends there, who might be willing to help us. And if the Prague Airport shuts down (rumors were of 30 day total air travel ban throughout the whole of Europe being negotiated by heads of EU States) we would much rather be stuck in Istanbul than Doha. With this important decision made, we bought new tickets to Prague for March 20, connecting nicely to our March 18 evening Mendoza flight to Buenos Aires.

Late at night, unhindered and unchecked, we entered Mendoza, where our AirBnB family was waiting for us with open arms.

What a relief, a real friendly safe home away from home! A lot of laughs, food, drinks and latest news and rumors was shared. Everyone agreed that our plans to get out seemed realistic, so around midnight we all called it a day and off to bed we went to get some sleep.

We did not have to wait for another change of our plans for too long. In the morning we got news that people entering Mendoza will be asked to be in quarantine for two weeks, so we decided not to drive and walked over to the bakery, where we usually had our breakfast. We were greeted with a big smile by the guy who always served us, the only one speaking some English. “Look at the silly face mask they make us wear. They don’t fit and are totally useless!”

Hearing us speak English the young couple sitting at the table next to us, immediately stood up and moved outside, slathering their hands with hand sanitizer.

“They are afraid,” he said.

“Well, we have been here for 6 weeks and in the boonies. If anyone, they could give us the virus, especially if the came from Buenos Aires, where all the cases are, for now.”

In the middle of our cappuccinos

worse news came by text: “The city has asked the federal government to shut down the airport. But don’t worry, it would only be for incoming flights, not departing.“ This is NOT how air traffic works! You can’t have departing flights with no planes arriving.

We paid for breakfast in a hurry and within an hour we packed all our stuff and were on our way to the airport. Our current tickets to Buenos Aires with Norwegian were for 3 days later, so we had to find seats for any flight right away. The scene at the airport was totally unaffected. Calm before the storm. No representative of Norwegian could be found, but we found an Austral (Aerolineas Argentinas) office. There a kind lady was willing to accept our tickets for our already abandoned flight to Southern Patagonia and exchange them for a flight checking in in 40 minutes to Buenos Aires. But wait, we still have to return our rental car! “I can put you on the next flight, if you need more time!” No way, we are going now!

We called the private company we had rented the car from and as the owner raced to the airport to take the car keys

we checked in our luggage. With a few minutes to spare we jumped on our flight, seeing the screens already blinking red. The next flight to Buenos Aires was cancelled.

By 6pm we landed at AEP, the Domestic Airport, and got a taxi. Well, the first thing the taxi driver shared with us was the latest news he just heard on the local radio station:

“All domestic air trafic will be shut down tomorrow and international traffic the day after!”

“What!!!” we almost screamed at him, the inocent messenger of bad news!

“Go to the EZE International airport, right now!” – a 25 miles long drive in the evening traffic.

“When is your flight?” asked the driver. “We don’t have one – yet, but drive fast.” As the driver was weaving in and out of traffic, we were feverishly trying to figure out what to do. Working both of our iPhones and three computers in San Francisco, where our daughters were looking for any available alternative of travel for tonight, we felt like in a Bond movie.

Cool under pressure, just like James, are we.

To make this story short, there was NO Turkish flight that night and NO representative when we arrived at the airport. Hence no chance to change our second set of tickets. We had to buy the third set for the next day, March 17, instead! It was the most expensive one way ticket of our life, but thank god for credit cards and cell phones and T mobile international phone service.

So we were bound to spend one more night in Buenos Aires. It is a great country, a great city, with great people!

But the question was where we could spend it? The kids were texting us to just stay at the airport, but no way Jose, not 24 h before two following nights of travel. Not in a hotel, for sure. Back to our trusty Airbnb app. The first request for lodging was denied by the host, despite my explanation that we have been in the country for 6 weeks already. An apartment that was available on line, was suddenly full! Yes, people were starting to get afraid.

Luckily the second request was approved immediately and we ordered an Uber. As we jumped in and headed in heavy traffic back to the city a call came in from the Uber driver, “Where are you, I am waiting for you at terminal C!”

I leaned to the front and asked, “Wait, what is your name, Mr. Uber Driver?”

“I am Pablo, are you Allison?”

Oh, oh! Poor Allison, stuck at the airport. Cancel rides, start rides, pay cash. Of we go again. Except that when we get to the apartment building in record time, nobody is there. Luckily a nice young woman sitting at the restaurant bellow used her cell phone to sort things out and soon we were safe inside. A special gift: No need to check out at noon, stay till your departure and have a safe return.

So we spent the last rainy day walking the empty streets of Palermo Soho. A quarter we stayed in when we first arrived six weeks ago and fell in love with. Spent the last few hours in cozy, but empty Lobo Café

Full Sanitizing service

and got our farewell haircuts (exactly 6 weeks from our last haircuts

Hers
and His

after our arrival to this country) and we were on our way back to EZE airport.

Only a few airlines were still operating, so it was easy to find our check in. We had scheduled our flight in such a way that we could spend the second night of travel in Istanbul. We even booked the same Airbnb we stayed in last fall for a month and were looking forward to a happy reunion with our house manager. She was excitedly sending us text messages

and shopping for our favorite cheese and black olives.

“Please check our luggage only to Istanbul.“ we asked the Turkish Airlines check in lady.

“I am sorry, I can’t do that, no one is allowed to leave the transit. And anyways your flight to Prague has been cancelled. Go to the office behind the glass door and reissue your ticket for an earlier flight.”

Chaos reigns. People next to us are trying to rebook their cancelled flight to Copenhagen. We are told everything is fixed in the computer, to go back to the counter and check in. New tickets and new luggage tags are being printed. Luckily my husband who is really good with numbers notices our luggage is on the flight to Copenhagen. Back to the drawing board. The flight numbers have been mixed in the computer system. Finally the new boarding passes are in our hands and they even gave us an exit row! After a 17 hours overnight flight we will arrive in Istanbul in the evening and hopefully leave the next morning for Prague. Better get a room for the night if at all possible. In the last moments before boarding we find an airport Yotel cube hotel and book a room.

The flight is surprisingly not full and we have an empty seat between us. (That always makes you feel like you have won the lottery). But by the time we make a stop in Sao Paolo, Brasil, the empty seats get all filled up. Still Turkish Airlines has a decent service and actually pretty good food, one can actually eat.

We miss you, Istanbul!

Upon arrival in Istanbul, we have to find the hotel we reserved. We know there are two, one Airside in transit area and one Landside, and we should get to the Airside one and definitely not go through immigration control. Of course, everyone we ask sends us to the immigration. After some confused wandering around the transit area we finally discover our Yotel.

Spare clothes and toothbrush always in your backpack!

There is a lot of people trying to get a room, but of course they are all sold out. Two Israeli girls are attempting to check in next to us, only to find out that their parents have reserved the land side Yotel and they are too afraid to go through immigration, and perhaps not get back in the next morning. We feel bad for them, but there is nothing we can do, but commiserate.

We are pleasantly surprised how nice our cube is. The lighting does give it a bit of a brothel feel,

but everything is new and clean with crisp white sheets.

The next morning we feel guilty again emerging from our cube room, seeing the many people draped around chairs and sleeping on the floor. Anxiously we check the flight monitors and are relieved to find that the flight to Prague is still operational.

Top flight to Prague Go to Gate

It is blissfully short and uneventful. We thank the crew profusely for still flying.

The last hurdle for us now is the entrance into Czech Republic. It is clear that all foreign nationals are prohibited to enter, but citizens and spouses or foreigners with permanent residency can get in. I usually leave my permanent residency card in Prague, as I don’t want to loose it and I have no use for it outside of the country, anyway. Well, by strange coincidence this time we have the card with us, so our entry is easy. We expect that there will be some checks after the immigration, like a thermal station or health check up or at least someone making sure we knew we were to stay in quarantine for two weeks. Nothing. We are only given a piece of paper with instructions that basically tell us we actually do not even need to be in quarantine as no South American country nor Turkey are on the list of countries, return from which would put us in mandatory quarantine.

Nobody mentions it, but we have learned from family about the new law requiring anyone outside the home to wear a face mask, against a steep fine. But like in a Kafka-esque drama, no face masks can be found. We check in the airport pharmacy and of course there are no face masks available. As that is the case everywhere in the country, people have started sewing their own from materials available at home. If you don’t have a grandma or any sewing skills it is also acceptable to have your mouth covered by anything, a shawl or a scarf. Luckily I have two bandanas (my essential practical travel item), that I can wrap around our necks.

While I am guarding our luggage, Mirek goes to the airport supermarket to get some essential food staples. I am standing far away from the entrance to the store with no people around when two security officers clad in black with fancy looking masks stride towards me and pointed sternly at my face. I quickly pull up my blue bandana over my mouth and nose.

When I take a few steps to help Mirek with the grocery bags, two other security officers, a woman and a man, rush to our luggage. As I walk back with the groceries they very disapprovingly wag their heads at me.

Supermarket shopping or hold up?

We step out to the curb fully outfitted as Bonnie and Clyde sneaking out of Argentina and into Czech Republic. Who could have ever dreamt so many years ago under the Iron Curtain that one day we will try desperately to get in and not out.

PS. We are enjoying our home, we have washed and disinfected all our travel gear. As of the date of this blog posting on March 22:

  1. Mr. Fernandez, President
    of Argentina announced in televised address on March 18 (just a few hours after we left Argentina) a full nationwide lockdown till the end of March.
  1. The last Turkish Airlines flight TK1767 reached Prague on March 21 (2 days after our arrival). All future flights on this route were cancelled until further announcement.

3. We have plenty of time to whip up some past due blogs of our other less dramatic, but more fun South American adventures. Stay tuned.

Beaches of Florianópolis are Made for Walking

Our kind of deserted beach

This is not what people come to Floripa, as Florianópolis is called, for.

But for us it was just what the doctor ordered, after the heat and crowds of Iguazú Falls.

Besides, we are not “beach people” so our itineraries are not driven by the “Best 25 beaches to visit” type of articles. Moreover when we discovered, by sheer coincidence, beaches of (South-)Western Australia a year ago,

Who can compete with this?

all other beaches went by the way all zoos of the world were crossed off our bucket list after our honeymoon in Serengeti.

So why Floripa on Santa Catarina Island then? When my fearless leader discovered that our trip to Brasil coincided with carnival season she of course wanted to go. Hoping to avoid the craziness of Rio de Janeiro, her research led her to the festival in Floripa.

With advice of our friend’s Brasilian wife, who spent her younger (crazier) years here, we made a conscious choice NOT to spend our time on any of this island’s numerous popular, but overcrowded sandy beaches.

Você Está Aqui=You are Here

Instead we intentionally selected the one which is the least visited of them all. My wife, who is an Airbnb fiend, booked us a cute Red Moon bungalow, barely a fifteen minute walk from more than six mile long stretch of

A Rolling Stone Gathers no Moss

pristine sand called Mozambique Beach on the northeastern shore of the island. The side open to rough and merciless surf from Atlantic.

Good choice! After more than 35 years shared with her, my smart wife knows way too well that traveling together 24/7 for many months throws inevitably once in a while a few grains of sand into otherwise well running machine of our marriage.

She also knows darn well that in such moments I should be:

either institutionalized OR at least provided with a beach of sufficient length to walk in solitude, complemented only by solitary seagulls

Seagull footprint and crystal medusa

and kite surfers,

Upside down and in the air

while performing deep self psychoanalysis. And hope I would come back to co-operative terms of life in long term relationship.

The surf is rough here, and the south wind brutal. Mind you that in the Southern Hemisphere this is the equivalent of freezing Arctic air pushing south to the Great Plains wrecking havoc in winter traffic in the US. Not conducive to lying on the beach and suntanning, in either case.

And results?

DAY 1

The day after the storm, coinciding with our arrival, hit the island. Not a human soul to be seen. Steely sky. Perfect timing to start psychoanalytical walk/work.

While I walk, my wife jumps on a horse at the other end of the beach.

Horse on a beach, every girl’s fantasy

Horses, as you know, are a great therapeutic tool. God knows she needs it, putting up with me.

DAY 2

This is the day when the strong south wind cleared the sky, but temperature dropped beyond comfort for crowds usually to be seen at the peak of the summer season on any decent beach.

This picture is not a selfie, so I am already enjoying occasional company of my fellow traveler who kindly agrees to assist the patient in his return to normalcy. In a sign of mental improvement I agree to attend the first day of carnival

Pirates?

in Floripa, the island’s nearest point to Brasil’s mainland.

These boots were made for…

No matter how low the south wind presses the thermometer in Floripa, and we shiver in long sleeves, nothing can limit the excitement of hot blooded and scantily dressed attendees of the carnival parade.

African Queen

What a great sight to help uplift my depression. Not even scalpers selling us fake

Local scalpers and my wife

tickets for the sold out stadium extravaganza can bring me down. In a sign of her incredible mental strength, determination and personal courage my wife proves her worth by getting our money back from the toughest guys in town, without being shot on the spot. As they hand over all their ill gotten cash, they look at me with pity in their eyes: You gotta live with her, man!

Hey, assholes, this is my girl and I am proud of her!!!

Clutching our precious recovered stack of cash we wade through the sea of revelers. They have come to the island from all over Brasil. They have not come to admire the elaborate costumes of samba schools, they have come for a night of plain and simple debauchery. Drunkenness and freedom of (bodily) expression do not always mix in attractive ways.

We now understand why none of the local people we pressed for information about how to attend the carnival knew nothing about it, nor wanted to join us. Only after we returned, they straightforward admitted they hate the carnival.

DAY 3

Look at my body language! What a posture!

With the return of sunny weather, blue sky and warm water,

More like it…

I feel ready, thanks to my wife’s assistance, to return to the fabric of society as a fully contributing member.

With my psychological treatment nearly completed, we decide to visit some of the famous sandy spots in the vicinity.

Yes, this is the sandy beach

At Praia de Barra we can hardly believe our eyes. There is a dense wall of bodies of all shapes and sizes (many XXL) in the tiniest of swimming suits. As I walk this beach and observe diligently the latest swimming suit fashion

Contemplation

of the better half of human mankind, I detect a strong trend.

Fuchsia Fantasy

If you are, as I am, avid reader of business news, you probably know that right leaning President Bolsonaro’s Brasilian Government Department of Beaches and other Entertainment Venues imposed, after finally getting leftist President Lula out of power, a strict control on import of suitable fabric for manufacture of women’s swimming suits. With number of women in Brasil reaching well over one hundred million and exhibiting strong growing trends, the average area of fabric per swimming suit drops every year by 5.6 square inches.

Shopping for newest fashion

Under those circumstances females may be walking Brasilian beaches in 2025 with bottom parts consisting of one horizontal and one vertical thread and two top elements reduced to two independent pieces of precious fabric glued to their skin, barely covering essential parts.

I have already booked my solo trip back here for January 2025!

We may have found the crowd here a little bit rowdy, but we manage with the help of a pint of

Mixologist

caipirinha. A good caipirinha, my wife’s favorite drink, has to be made with Brasilian cachaça and only Brasilians can mix it right. Drinking this simple, yet strong sour sweet concoction always makes me think of the many terrible watered down margaritas I have been served in my life.

We are not keen to join the Brasilians in their holiday activities, but it is always fun to observe.

Local dudes

A little exercise before the next steak and beer.

Kids will be kids no matter how cold the water

Children playing in the waves.

Joy of play

And boys? What would you expect in Brasil, a multiple World Cup winner? They play soccer, dreaming of becoming the next Pelé!

And what about us? This is our last day. We have to have a last walk on our quiet Moçambique Beach. And the last swing in the forest on the way back home.

Never too old to swing

The time has come to enjoy a last romantic dinner on

On the canal

this beautiful island with lula grelhada (grilled squid), nailed

Yum!

with the last, at least for now, well deserved caipirinha.

Gramado Gram-A Small Slice of Europe in Brazil

I never expected to be cold in tropical Brazil in the middle of summer, but for the last few nights I was glad for the extra blanket at the foot of our bed.

Then again people do come from all over the country to the city of Gramado

Look Ma, Gramado!

to experience the winter atmosphere, including frost and a dusting of snow in the winter at the elevation level of 850 m (2,790 ft).

Mrs. and Mr. Claus

The other times of the year the stores and restaurants, the tourist board, and the whole city administration try their very best to convince the many visitors they have been magically transported to Italian Alps,

Panettone all year round

a Swiss chalet (with fully functioning fondue),

Including the alpine flowers

or a Bavarian mountain town.

Painted beams

And to the mix an entirely non European Gaucho culture from the pampas stretching out in the lower elevations of the state of Rio Grande del Sur.

and everyone’s shopping needs can be satisfied. Because when you have hordes of tourists, they will certainly need an assortment of appropriate souvenirs, gifts and items for home

You never know when you will need to chop your wheat

and garden

Snow White, 7 Dwarves and 1 Flamingo

clothing for work and leisure

I’ll go rope me some steers today

Seeing that we are NOT particularly interested in shopping, we very quickly realized that our only other option would be to spend our days eating through either mounds of meat and pasta, sampling chocolates at countless chocolateries (quite possibly the most per square foot of any town in the world) or finding something entirely out of character with this fake Europe concept.

In all fairness we do have to reference the fact that Gramado and surrounding towns have been established by German and Italian immigrants in 19th century who did bring with them their culture and language.

As a matter of fact our first morning in town we stepped into a bakery&caffe, immediately recognized by our lack of shopping bags as foreigners and greeted in Italian by the old proprietress in crispy white blouse. She was absolutely charmed by our entire vocabulary of 5 words of Italian and continued to check on us twittering in Italian and telling us how delighted she was she could converse (!) in Italian with us, as nobody spoke The Language around here any more. Secondly, on our last evening we went to dinner to a German Brewery where we not only tasted a wide variety of excellent beers, but also got an extra portion of sauerkraut with our meals.

This dinner was shared with our Brazilian Airbnb hosts, who abhorred sauerkraut, but were otherwise absolutely without fault and the most wonderful of people (in a sea of other very wonderful Brazilians).

New friends

Betti and Carlos were simply tops. They just recently moved from Sao Paolo and with their own two hands built a small B&B with 6 en suites and a breakfast area where the most delicious and rich breakfast was served including a variety of fresh juices and different breads baked daily.

Coffee with Love

By the time our 4 days were over we had all improved our language skills to such an extend that we had long conversations in Portuguese and English with only occasional help of Google translate. Lots of laughs over mistakes, too, of course. Who knew that my 5 private lessons on Portugal’s Algarve coast two years ago would be such a great springboard and in truth a lifesaver for travel in Brazil.

With summer vacations just finished, we were the only guests, so we had their undivided attention. In the evening Mirek played with their two dogs

With Nikki

and Betti tried to (unsuccessful) introduce me to the ritual of yerba mate té drinking.

Special equipment

OMG! I never tasted anything as intensely bitter and green!

When they heard we were looking to rent a car for a day and drive to the canyons, they immediately offered to take us with their own car. “Only if we can pay for gas and dinner!” we countered. Reluctantly they agreed and we spent the most wonderful day traveling together to the far flung and spectacular places

Fortaleza Canyon

that we would have had a hard time finding in the first place and secondly, and even harder driving to them on the pretty bad dirt roads.

We spent more time at the first of the two – Fortaleza Canyon, where we only met a handful of people. And it was lucky that we did, as they told us we had to wade over the top of the waterfall and hike on the rim trail to see the whole deep canyon and the whole length of the fall.

Huge fall

The day was just perfect with the white fluffy clouds in the blue sky. Every color was intensified, the green of grass and ferns,

the purple of wildflowers.

But what really stole our hearts was the many araucaria trees. These were Brazilian relatives of the ones we encountered in Argentina. Very different in shape, but impressive in their own special way.


Araucaria angustifolia, the Paraná pine or Candelabra tree or in our opinion Broccoli tree

At the second, Itaimbenzinho canyon we were first sidetracked from our trek by homemade signs for coffee and baked goods. We followed the path past some horses and cows

to a fairytale garden cottage

that hasn’t changed much since 1945, when it was built by a German immigrant couple. It was like stepping back into our grandparents’ home.

Pampa grasses

From there, full of caffe con leite, pastels de chocolate and old memories, we easily reached the edge of the canyon with more waterfalls.

Itaimbenzinho canyon

It was a long day with all our senses and our old brain overstimulated.

Life is beautiful far away from market crashes and deathly viruses

Closer to home we visited, what in our view is the best Gramado has to offer– Gramado Zoo. We are usually not into Zoos, especially after having had a chance to see so many animals in the wild, but many people, even a vet, told us it was the best Zoo in the whole of Latin America.

Hearing that many animals were actually rescued from traffickers or nursed back to health from traffic accidents, we decided to go. Dr. Mariela, whom I know through a volunteer project in Cambodia, and whose sister incidentally owns the Zoo, arranged for us a private tour by the biologists on staff. Poor guys, what they probably thought will be a quick VIP walk through, turned into the whole afternoon of Q&A in a mix of Portuguese and English. Tachi, Marcus and Andre did a marvelous job, they even treated us to a close encounter with a falcon

Mirek and Caracara Plancus

and an owl.

Smiling

It has been my wish for a long time to go to Brazilian Pantanal region, which is a notoriously hard and expensive proposition. Now we had a chance to see many Brazilian animals up close in large, well built enclosures. We were especially impressed with huge and tall aviaries where birds could even fly and nest on top of trees. The colors of some of them were just brilliant

and we figured they must have been the inspiration

behind the local state flag.

Our visit would deserve a whole blog on its own, but let me just share a few favorite Brazilian animals.

Jaguar, the name originating from local Indian language meaning The one who kills with one strike.
Bugio Preto (Black Howler) monkey
Spider Monkey uncannily reminding us of the Avatar movie

I could go on and on but let me serve you with the last piece of information: Brazil is a country with the most biodiversity in the world. We didn’t expect to find so many tropical species in the Mountains of Gramado, but we are sure glad we did.

We might have not enjoyed Gramado for the same reasons as other visitors, but we couldn’t have had a nicer time and it was much to do with the warm-hearted Brazilians we met along the way. Now we jump on an overnight sleeper bus to Montevideo, Uruguay.

Three Days, Tres Fronteras: Waterfalls in Argentina, Brasil, and Paraguay

Map of the Iguazu Fall

It was a friendly Argentinian waiter in Puerto Iguazu serving us a very tasty local fish called surubi, that gave us the idea of crossing into Paraguay. “My grandpa was from Paraguay,” he said. “He actually faught in the war with Bolivia.”

“Do you ever go to Paraguay?“ we asked.

“Sure, you can cross by the local ferry. There is another waterfall there. It is called Salto de Monday. It is not so very big like Iguazu, but it is very beautiful and there are no people there.

Just don’t go in the afternoon, in Paraguay it gets a bit dangerous later. “

We looked at each other and we knew, we were both crazy enough to do it. It wasn’t in our plans, we simply wanted to spend a few days finally seeing the bucket list Iguazu Falls. But after the first day on the Brazilian side being underwhelmed by the falls and overwhelmed by the crowds and the heat, we welcomed a little adventure out of the ordinary. That night we were googling “crossing by ferry from Argentina to Paraguay” and coming up with little helpful information. “We‘ll go down to the ferry dock in the morning and see,” said my ever willing to wing it husband. Thank goodness for Maps.me to show us where it is.

Ferry terminal

In the morning we caught a taxi and headed for the ferry with a quick stop at Plaza Hito Tres Fronteras for a special photo op.

Great Fronteras

Then we bought a $2 ferry ticket, had our passports stamped and joined a few locals crossing over.

Little Ferry

There wasn’t much of a schedule but once we were reasonably full with a few returning Paraguayan cars we left with the help of a little tug boat called Gaspar.

Little Tugboat that Could

It was a quick crossing; first floating in Rio Iguazu between Argentina and Brazil, then pushing into the confluence of incoming Rio Paraná. It was pretty fun to stand on top of the ferry and have a 360 degree view of the three countries,

watching the approach of the Paraguayan flag on the other side.

As we disembarked, the few taxis waiting there were immediately filled by people in the know and disappeared towards the big city. We got our passports stamped (a new country for us, but we have seriously lost count by now) and crossed over to a covered bus stop in hopes that there might be some bus coming along. A man sitting there asked us where we were going. When we explained we wanted to get to the Saltos de Monday he sprang in action. “I will ask my friend if he can take you,” he said and walked across the street towards the checkpoint. Mind you, this was all conducted in very rudimentary Spanish, but luckily taxi and transport and green bucks are international words.

He returned with a large Guarani Indian in tow, dressed in a tattered red T shirt, who quickly agreed to the price of $20 for the return trip and took us to his car. But wait, where do were do we sit?

Teddy Bear Seat

And how do we know he will take us to the falls and not some back alley? As if he felt our discomfort, he pulled out his ID to show us he was legit. Jesus Hernandez Martinez might not have functioning back seats in his car and might be missing a few teeth while owning only one holey red T shirt, but he is a jovial guy, who likes to laugh and wants us to enjoy our time. With the prospect of big payout he stops at the only gas station in this desolate border town and fills the car with a few $$ (actually a few ten thousand Paraguayan guaranis) worth of gas.

7 km ride

“Tranquilo,” he says when he drops us off in front of the entrance to the waterfalls. “Take your time, I will wait for you here, I have nowhere else to be.”

It is easy to get in. We buy our tickets, to our surprise, with our credit card. There is nobody in front of the booth (of course everyone is queuing up at Iguazu), and only a few young couples taking a romantic outing to the falls.

Romantic selfies

We walk through a little park and to the waterfalls lookout. Despite seeing the mighty Foz de Iguaçu the day before we find this small 45 m high waterfall quite impressive. Especially since we can get really, really close to the roar of the cascading water dizzyingly disappearing deep down, down, down…

The Little Brother

The panoramic elevator taking us deep down to the very bottom of the fall brings us even closer to that falling water. I actually feel more excited standing (or jumping for joy)

Getting wet

next to this waterfall than when I jostled for a peek at the far off Iguaçu with thick crowds of sweaty people in all state of undress.

Hundreds deep line at Brazilian Foz do Iguaçu

At least the Brazilian side of the falls is modern and well organized.

Butterfly: Spanish Mariposa, Portuguese Borboleta

Everything works well, the free busses and elevators move people along different panoramic points and the walks to the viewing platforms are well constructed and not too long.

After getting our fill of the Monday falls, getting back to Argentina is a breeze, as always when you know where you are going. Jesus Fernandez Martinez makes sure to get us back on time for the just departing ferry.

Back on familiar ground we call a taxi and head for the Argentinian side of Iguazu falls. Of course, the Argentinians have been telling us their side is more beautiful. I will let their nationalistic pride uninjured, but I must say it certainly is much more disorganized than the Brazilian side. There is a lot more confusion and waiting around and the facilities are more run down.

It is now the height of the hot afternoon with the temperature of 36 degrees C and 100% humidity. Altogether there are 275 falls along 2.7 kilometres. You can spend the whole day hiking different trails. We don’t have the energy left for more than one long walk, so we head to the crowning glory of the falls – Gargantua del Diablo=Devil’s Throat. We first have to wait for the small, slow moving train to take us to the very last station (reminding me of the American classic children’s book Little Engine That Could). Then we have to walk on a very long elevated path over some very calm waters, that belie what waits ahead, and past some small shady groves of trees.

Peek a boo!

There the utterly exhausted and sunburned to a crisp tourists are trying to gather strength. I must wonder at the stupidity of humankind. There are families with tiny babies, apathetic in the heat, young shirtless blond Germans and Scandinavian guys turning violent pink, women of all ages with thighs and cleavage burning hot, hot red with beginning of blisters. There are old people with aluminum walking sticks and wheelchairs, but without hats straight off the cruise liners that look like they will fall down or over the railing and into the falls at any moment. A great ploy by their relatives, who signed them for the cruise and the Iguazú Falls extension!

In the little groves local fauna happily finds refuge from the burning sun.

We have done a tour of an animal rehabilitation center the day before, but the tour was in Spanish only, so besides yellow or red beaked Toucans I don’t know any birds’ names.

I do know the coatimundis (or coatis for short)

Nap Time

that gather around places where tourists stop and especially delight the children. “Look, ma, coatie!” I want to join them, yelling out loud. I know they are just your basic relatives of our raccoon trash bandits, but they are awfully cute with their stripped tails , especially the little babies.

Baby Coati

When we finally make it to the top of the falls the sceptical me has to admit they are spectacular.

Argentine Iguazú

Any other falls anywhere in the world fail to compare. Niagara or Victoria, not even close. I wonder how the first white people to see it, felt. It was in 1541 that local tribesmen took Adelantado Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (imagine living with this name today Mr. Cow’s Head) to the falls they called very non poetically Big Water.

Enormity of Scope and Power

He was a Spanish explorer that had his unusually large share of misfortunes and shipwrecks. Surely he must have fallen on his knees to pray to his Christian God, the Creator. Heathens that we are, we admire Mother Nature and soft rock that my husband, the engineer, says is responsible for the falls.

Very hard to capture in words the power and majestic force of the falls and rocks. The poet in me wants to put it in verse, but my languages by now are so mixed up that I am at a loss.

You don’t have the power to make rainbows or waterfalls, sunsets or roses, but you do have the power to bless people by your words and smiles. You carry within you the power to make the world better. – Sharon G. Larsen

Blue, Blue Lakes of Patagonia

How many lake photos is enough? One more…

Before I start singing praises to the beauty of the famous Lake country or the Wild West of Argentina I need to give you some advice on a challenging topic of transportation or more precisely renting a car in Argentina.

When we arrived to Argentina for the first time in the fall of 2002 with our children in tow, we were secure in our conviction that a reservation with Hertz will procure the high standard of service one (used to) expect from a well know travel brand.

Ah, Hertz! You keep breaking my heart.

Well, we were wrong, very wrong. Our middle sized car to transport five people turned out to be a Match Box size of the car seating less than one and half malnourished Pygmy from Amazonia with only one piece of luggage, an elegant office leather case filled with ten sheets of legal size paper plus a small gold Mont Blanc pen. Not much more! Fortunately for us, we were met by an Argentinian friend at the BA airport who was so disgusted by the service we received he made us cancel the reservation then and there, took us home and handed us the keys to his big car.

Frustration

You’d think we learned our lesson. But no, hearing lots of horror stories about car rental in Argentina we made another reservation with big name Hertz in Bariloche. It is all just a franchise name on a shingle these days so upon arrival we went through highly anticipated exercise with Hertz airport office staff, rather entertaining to fellow renters. It was the reconciliation process between what they think we deserve and what we think we should get according to English print on our Hertz confirmation email. All arguments lost their weight and validity as the reality set in on discovering that Hertz (and the other rental car companies as well) had only one size of car anyway and only in either white or a few different shades of grey to chose from, and even those in short supply or awaiting return from the car wash.

Our assigned car was white,

Really big trunk

a little bit bigger than the Match Box of 2002 (good) and we did not have any kids in the back seat (even better). After listening to a comprehensive warning on not leaving anything in the car when parking anywhere or even stopping for a pee break (lest the car gets broken in) we compressed our duffle bags into the trunk, and refreshing the fine memories of our teenage years driving manual stick cars in Europe, we settled for what was offered. Before you would count to ten we were on our way into the sunset to discover the beauty of this land and have, now a very late lunch with a new Servas friend Brenda. What a treasure to have planing advice from a local, and someone who really knows her backyard well.

With Brenda and visiting German Servas member Peter

Bariloche is a natural center of this region spread on the shore of one of the largest lakes here AND headquarters of the National Park with the same name of Parque Nacionál Nahuel Huapi. Do not even try to memorize it. After a week spent driving around it, I still do not remember it. Like many others. But the Park is about 85 years old, the first N.P. in Argentina and the most visited, thus bringing to Bariloche a huge tourist crowd to ad to 100,000 residents.

NP Nahuel Huapi from Cerro Campanario

So we quickly decided to leave Bariloche behind and get further into the countryside where nature prevails over the number of tourists. First, going to the north we drove to the Land of Seven Lakes between Villa la Angostura, a much smaller, cosier town, at the northernmost reach of the Lago Nahuel Huapi and another N.P. Lanín. There are definitely more than seven lakes and rivers lining up Ruta 40, a famous highway running full length of Argentina from Tierra del Fuego on the eastern sides of Andes to the Bolivian border.

As the traffic on Ruta 40 became less dense, it made it much easier to stop at frequent miradors (view points) for picture taking

Notice blue cap!

or having a late picnic lunch on the river bank.

Dessert first

The higher end lodges and hotels were replaced by plentiful campgrounds on more than breathtaking lakes

To jump or not to jump?

like this Lago Traful

serving at the estuary of the Río Pichi Traful their young backpacking and hitchhiking clientèle, (that we often tried to cram into our car)

We love to meet young people and share our wisdom 😉

in a natural Salón de Té with their drink of choice – mate té, an old indigenous Guarani Indian crop grown from special tree leaves.

We know that nothing can beat the beauty of Iguaçú Falls (see our next blog) but you simply could not neglect the local falls

with wide variety of birds making you unhappy that you have not developed sufficient birdwatching skills. Not having a big shot camera with even bigger télé lens would be to our disadvantage, but our trip’s artistic director easily bridged this gap by mastering her latest iPhone model.

Happy to see so many healthy bumble bees

Pleased with our progress we landed that day in the real jewel on the Ruta 40, a beautiful and the absolute cleanest clean town of San Martín de Los Andes. In spite of disappointing foggy weather next morning

View from our B&B

we pushed nevertheless further north on unpaved roads stretching our minicar’s durability

Rugged

and hoping not to loose some essential parts such as wheels, or non-essential parts like suspension (no biggie, after a mile or two on those kinds of roads you do not feel like you have any suspension, anyway). We proceeded ferociously towards the Parque Nacional Lanín. It was named after its main attraction, almost 12,400 feet (3780m) high Volcán Lanín,

White caps on blue

which appeared just like Fata Morgana with its carved pyramid shape on the horizon over Lago Huechulafquen

All shades of blue in one place

(another local name difficult to read, correctly pronounce and memorize, tell me about it!). We did not try to reach its top, it would have taken us more than three days of strenuous effort and we would have had to shed more than 35 years off our shoulders (yes, on February 21, almost to this day 35 years ago, we succeeded in our attempt to reach the snowy top of Kilimanjaro!). Still we were rewarded by a garden like place at the base of the Volcán with a cozy Mapuche Indian church

Birch trees surprise

with a coolest carved rendition of Nativity scene!

On it you can find all local flora and fauna including in the back the fantastical tree, we have never seen in the wild, only planted in the city scape or a botanical garden.

It is a national tree of Chile and it’s known scientifically as Araucaria Araucana but you may have heard it being called Monkey Puzzle tree or Monkey Tail tree.

One of the old ones

Easily (actually extremely slowly) growing over hundred feet tall it is qualified as coniferous

Monkey tails

but I would hardly call this green stuff on its branches needles; leaves seem to be a better fit, no matter how hard they are. What a treat to see a grove of these trees!

Our follow up trip on the comfortable boat crisscrossing one of the Lago Huechulafquen far reaching arms could not be spoiled even as the weather did not fully cooperate and soon hid the snow capped volcán behind the clouds.

A lovely blue Argentine flag

We were so excited that nothing could stop us from crazily celebrating our trip on the nearby pedestrian bridge over a clean mountain river.

Blue jump

We knew we were in gaucho country as we started to pass estâncias. But then we started seeing people on horses all spiffed up in their best gaucho outfits. It is a yearly Puestero – a gaucho fiesta. What an amazing timing! Of course we have to stop! Let the pictures speak!

My kind of travel heaven
Lots of women, too, of all ages
The youngest gaucho

After three beautiful fun filled days spent north of Bariloche we decided to turn south and further into Andes even if it meant leaving the decent comfort of the paved Ruta 40 and more miles driven on bumpy mountain roads. We wanted to reach the base of glacier covered Cerro (Mount) Tronador where our leader hoped to secure with her charm a last minute room in Pampa Linda Lodge.

Is there room at the lodge? Yes!

The plan was for her to ride a horse as high as she could towards the ice fields of Cerro Tronador with me following her on foot while feeding us both with trouts I would fish for in the mountain streams. Well, it did not work as planed as we overslept the crack of dawn horse expedition departure to Refugio and no fish could be found in icy waters of mountain streams and lakes this high up.

Notice the black ice glacier on bottom the blue ice is hidden in the clouds.

Nevertheless we did have a lot of fun even if the weather was changing by the minute.

One minute
Next minute
Repeat

In this part of the trip we learned an invaluable lesson about Horário enforced on certain mountain roads imposing one-way traffic in prevailing direction. We had no clue, of course, and were very surprised to find cars driving on our! side of the road, blinking their lights at us, and gesturing in unmistakably unfriendly ways! That was a hard lesson, indeed.

Then we were chased by the clouds

Ah, the vistas!

further south to the town of El Bolson, known as hippie capital of Argentina in 1980’s. There are still plenty of hippies left. They do all sorts of hippie things like making jewelry and jam, carving trees

A sculpture in Bosque Tallado, mountain sculpture park

or setting up great coffee shops and charming, artistic B&Bs.

That floor, that floor!

Close by is a cabin where Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of of 1960’s movie fame

Ah, those two!

settled in 1901 with $32,000 ($2,500,000 today) of booty from their last American bank robbery. After Pinkerton detectives tracked them here, they ran away north to Bolivia where they found their end in the shootout with a platoon of Bolivian army in Santa Cruz.

We did not rob the bank, just enquired at the local Western Union office about moving some emergency cash from our home bank account to pay for our frequent visits in our favorite El Boson watering hole called Jauja (pronounced Hauha, huh?!)

Dried flowers and hand painted lamps

Quality of their coffee

and helado (ice-cream) was unmatched by anywhere else in Argentina!

As we left Patagonia for warmer pastures the view from the plane bid us a blue goodbye!

Buenas Noches Buenos Aires

Happy voices and laughter are wafting up to our 13th story Airbnb as I wake up from the heavy jet lag induced sleep. It is 7 am on Saturday morning and it is not that people in Buenos Aires get up early on weekends, they never went to sleep yet. It is still the continuation of the city wide party that started Friday night. The Portenos, as the inhabitants of inner Buenos Aires are called, really take the Latin partying to another level.

Spontaneous dance parade

For once it is actually helpful for early birds like us, to have jet lag, so we can keep our eyes open for the late dinners and other fun activities planned by our new Argentinian friends.

Good wine and good friends

Our trusty Servas International, the peace building organisation we have told you about many times before, comes into play again. Our main Argentinian contact is Ana. As we have exchanged plenty of emails and WhatsApp messages I know she is a glass artist, and a great organizer. (We will join her and Servas Argentina on a group trip at the end of our stay). Her husband is a screenwriter and film critic so we have fun discussions of art and movies. When we are not discussing the challenges of Argentine economics, their and our politicians, and life in general.

Ana and Mirek in her home in front of her glass piece.

It is a rather strange, but auspicious coincidence that we have chosen our Airbnb not only in the same Palermo Soho neighborhood, but only a few blocks away from Ana’s home. It is great, because we will see each other more than once. The morning after our drinks and dinner together I am walking through absolutely deserted streets to Ana’s studio for an Intro to Glass class. I am joining her regular students and feel a bit intimidated, but as there is no glass blowing involved I quickly find a chair

and settle into choosing and cutting some glass pieces.

“It is not so much the artistic accomplishment,” says Ana, “it is more the experience of creative process, and totally clearing your head for a few hours!”

Then she bursts into laughter, her wild laugh cascading around her head, just like her black jaunty curls. It is a nice surprise when a day later she brings me the pieces “baked” in her studio oven.

Art is everywhere in Buenos Aires: in and on museums,

in galleries, and on any available flat surface, large

or small

“No parking!”, says the pretty lady

You will also find art in any public square, where a myriad of craftspeople and artists set up shop.

I can’t resist and buy just one beautiful hand carved necklace. It won’t take any space in my luggage, I will keep it around my neck!

It should come as no surprise that a simple ice cream window display can turn into art!

Even the public works are colorful. We loved this rainbow pedestrian bridge

leading to a park full of relaxed people enjoying their sunny Sunday, listening to music lying on the grass.

We tried our best to avoid tourists and touristy places. We did not go to visit Evita’s grave in Recoleta cemetery (we did 20 years ago and figured it hasn’t changed). Neither did we stand under the Casa Rosada balcony where she gave her famous speech. We were quite satisfied with this rendition.

We only drove past the famous Teatro Colon, but did go into two well known museums: MALBA (Museo de Arte Latino Americano)

and Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Both were wonderful and both held a special surprise. Besides grand works of art from Latin America and Europe they each also had a small, well curated room of pre Colombian art treasures.

We have a soft spot for “primitive” art! We love to see how these old patterns have been passed down through the centuries (the same textiles the figure is dressed in are still woven today) and how these striking, powerful human figures influenced modern artists.

Upon recommendation of our new friends we found a small Fundación Proa in La Boca, and were delighted to walk through a fun exhibition by British sculptor Anish Kapoor. You all know him for his reflecting Bean/Cloud in Chicago. Even though we like modern art we are often baffled by many contemporary pieces that fail to speak to us. (Perhaps you can relate?) But Kapoor is whimsical and thoughtful and engages the viewer on many levels.

Fun reflections in Double Vertigo sculpture
When I am Pregnant

Walking back through the colorful streets of La Boca

Another feeble attempt at a selfie

we can’t help but wade through the throngs of tourists, so we make the best of it by taking their photos.

Getting away from the crowds we come to a more serene environment of the old Buenos Aires

We feel transported back to Europe.

Especially when at the end of the day we find ourselves in front of a classic white Catholic church.

Ah, but the night is still young! How about a tango lesson? Courtesy of another Servas member Jorge, a tango teacher, who invites us to his home studio in fancy Retiro area. Mirek begs off due to his bad back, but I put on a brave face and shake off my two left feet.

Not willing to take advanced lessons 😉 we instead agree to meet next evening at Plaza Dorrago for some tango action. First we get a drink (ok, actually a bottle of Malbec) at a tango restaurant with a show put on by a friend of Jorge,

Jorge explaining that tango is like a knife in the hearth

then we go out to admire the courage of regular folks– tango aficionados, young and old, that regularly come out in droves to practice their steps in the square late into the night.

Tango is synonymous with Buenos Aires, so it is encountered in many shapes and forms throughout the city, be it traditional

or more contemporary.

What else is synonymous with Buenos Aires and Argentina? Beef steak, of course. We surely will get more than our fair share of it on this trip,

and certainly must agree that

P. S. Traveling in Argentina is at times challenging, not in the least for weak WiFi, so putting together our blog posts requires additional patience and time. Your words of encouragement and remarks in comment section are therefore even more appreciated.

Travel With a Pinch of Good

When planing travel I generally don’t like going back to the same places (too many new ones on my bucket list) and I really, really don’t like traveling in groups. There is one exception that more than perfectly proves the rule. I absolutely love the different groups of roving philanthropists I travel with every January to Cambodia to visit villages, schools, and projects supported by the Cambodian Community Dream organization, which I have been involved with for more than ten years. They all have different dynamics, but are always comprised of exceptional people that are smart, interesting, generous, and fun. They are full of questions and observations, wisdom and emotions. This year was the best ever. It is a physically and emotionally intense 10 days, that leaves me exhausted, stimulated, and inspired.

Cambodia is, of course, most famous for the spectacular Angkor Wat temple and one could certainly spend ten days just exploring the many archeological sites, browsing the handicraft markets, being driven in a tuk-tuk from one tasty meal to another, drinking cheap beer, and popping in for an inexpensive massage every night. A tourist paradise. Oblivious to the real Cambodia, that awaits just around the corner from the Pub Street lights and other touristy sights.

Bright and early we spill out of our van and in a pleasant morning temperature head over to the school canteen to help serve breakfast, starting with the littlest preschool kids. We watch them wash their hands first at the water station and then kick off their shoes to sit down in long rows, patiently waiting for their tray with their daily meal of rice, veggies and protein. It is the protein: chicken, pork, eggs, or beans that lacks in their diets at home and makes all the difference in their growth capacity, physical and mental. We are continually amazed at the discipline, politeness and responsibility the Cambodian children exhibit. After they are finished with their meal, they go and scrape any leftovers into a slop bucket and then wash and rinse their trays in big basins of water. Those of us with children or grandchildren look at each other and concur that our kids can’t/wouldn’t/definitely don’t do anything like this. Most likely they complain about what they don’t want for breakfast and leave a half eaten mess on the table.

Then we watch the little munchkins brush their teeth with verve and enthusiasm, rinsing their mouth and then feet with a cup of water. Then we smile at them marching to the classroom for morning exercise and learning. There are 30 plus in the classroom and everyone participates. How many teachers, assistants and parent volunteers takes to get a much smaller classroom under control back home?

And so continues our morning from observing English classes to engaging with students in the library. We read big books aloud, build with Legos, draw with chalk and create with paper. Big smiles and happy faces surround us everywhere and all the time. Everywhere we go, we are greeted warmly by old friends. We also visit with the families in the villages where participants on our trip meet the recipients of their generosity, who can now use their donated latrines or water wells. No shared language is needed to make a human connection. Just a warm smile and a touch of a hand. Surprisingly this group has energy to spare. They are happy to travel to distant temples, swinging on jungle vines. In the evenings we jump into tuk-tuks and explore the city. There are museums, markets and galleries galore. Or for the more spiritually minded a water blessing by the local monk can be arranged. We try our hand at cooking our own Cambodian dinner, or enjoy a private traditional Khmer dance performance. Our meals are a time for reflection and discussion, but also celebration. It sure does us good to make new friends while we are doing a little good in the world.

PS. Looking forward to the January 2021 Travel with Purpose. Join us!

Home for the Holidays

“Ah, you are back!” cried a friend, spotting me at a holiday Cookie Exchange party. “When are you leaving again? I really miss your blogs!”It has been more than a month since we returned to California and I have been planing to write a blog about the challenges of reentry home after a long travel. But we have been busy with mundane tasks of bringing our home and garden up to date after two years of benign neglect. I am pleasantly surprised in the good shape it really is. The walls don’t even need to be repainted, nor the carpet replaced. There are of course plenty of minor repairs and the frustration of finding someone to do it. The garden is an overgrown jungle and some of the plants have died. It takes time and energy to just get appointments with the handyman and the gutter people and the gardeners.

We were really lucky first with a year of Airbnb rentals and then another year renting our home to a most wonderful Australian family. Even though Airbnb got a lot of bad press lately, personally we have great experiences from both sides as hosts and as guests. I have left a guestbook at home and came back to many hearth warming messages from families that stayed affordably at our house and had a chance to join in celebrations of weddings, graduations or grandpa’s birthday party. There were also many international travel elders that found a comfortable home away from home in our house. I got a special kick out of a Swiss family traveling around the world with their two young boys and checking out their travel website. We in turn had met wonderful Airbnb hosts around the world that helped make our travel not only more affordable, but much nicer and deeper.

What strikes me almost immediately upon returning back home, is how exhausting and time consuming (and totally under appreciated) domestic work is and how liberating it is to travel. Free of the everyday drudgery of chopping onions for dinner, scrubbing pots and pans, cleaning bathrooms, vacuuming carpets, standing in line for groceries and sweeping leaves, that keep on falling in the garden, one has time and energy to devote to exploration, physical and mental. Thinking and processing of old and new ideas, meeting and conversing with scores of new interesting people, adding spontaneous stops on the way as the days unfold with vigor and energy fueled by lovely meals someone else prepared, slipping into comfortable beds someone else changed (and washed and ironed).

Because of all that time on our hands in our exploration luxury we discover many places that even the locals don’t know. And because our travels are much about connecting to people we find it especially entertaining to show or tell locals of secret places we discovered on their turf. “Oh, I didn’t know there was a restaurant in that old building.” or “I haven’t been to the museum since the school excursion.” Haven’t climbed past all 12 Stations of the Cross on the pilgrimage route to the little church, haven’t seen the restored ballroom in the chateau, haven’t taken the ferry to the nearby island, haven’t been to waterfall in the woods.

Lest I come across as a judgemental prick, let me admit that in nearly 30 years of living in the Bay Area we haven’t been to Alcatraz once. It will be there later, and anyway, it is too much of a tourist attraction.

Life gets in the way of fun and exploration; there are bills to be paid, windows to be washed, cars to be taken for oil change. We will save Alcatraz for later, the expensive Egyptian Mummy traveling exhibit for when we have more money. Taking a whole family to a museum or ballet performance in America should begin with a stop at the bank to ask for a loan.

Reconnecting to friends back home over a home cooked meal has been the fun part of reentry, especially those interested in travel. Because they will ask questions beyond “What is your favorite country?” We can discuss and compare shared experiences and ponder logistical questions of long term travel.

There is a big difference in going on vacation and traveling long term. When going on vacation you just need to lock your front door and go. Of course, if you don’t have plants to water and pets to feed. Still, remembering the old days of vacationing, I realize how different is the mind frame of short and long term travel.

For those deep in the workforce – it takes time to dig yourself out of the hole of work problems. The first few days are spent letting go of worry and responsibility and then as the departure back home approaches the planing for all the tasks awaiting you begins and spoils the end of vacation.

For those deep in the domestic duties crowned with primary responsibility for wellbeing of little ones – family vacation might liberate you from cooking and cleaning, but the mind is still in the trenches of counting the kids and keeping them safe (and fed and hydrated and slathered in sunscreen) in a new environment with unknown dangers.

Traveling long term you can let go of many things quickly. For me the liberation is in having very few possessions in my travel bag and not being inundated with negative news.

One day soon after our arrival back home, my husband asks me, “Why are you so crabby?”

Surprisingly I don’t negate it, nor go on a tactical offense. I know it is true and the answer dons on me immediately. It is exactly what I was most worried about on our reentry. Despite not watching TV we are immediately sucked into the ugliness of US political news and the international conflicts as well. When we left two years ago, it was bad. I felt compelled to join in protests and organizing some community resistance. It gave me some measure of hope. Then we left, thinking it can’t get much worse. Coming back now and seeing how much worse it did get and how much lower our humanity has sunk, is disheartening. I used to be angry, now I am dismayed and hopeless. Not only for the state of politics, but the state of community discourse as well.

To stay connected to our home community I have been reading NextDoor postings on my email. NextDoor is a great platform and a resource for local communities with recommendations, safety alerts, and community discussions. What I noticed though is a gradual deterioration of civility in communication. People have opinions on everything and some of the comments are downright nasty and turning into personal attacks. I always felt blessed to live in a “nice”, “progressive” community, but I am not so sure about it anymore.

Driving has been a shock, too. The traffic has doubled, if not tripled and the behavior has deteriorated. I have been flipped and honked at for stopping on a yellow light instead of driving though. People won’t let others merge or will take the parking spot you are waiting for.

I am always freaking out that my husband will get into an argument over such actions and someone will pull a gun on him. Because guns in America are everywhere and mass shootings a regular occurrence. Of which we are reminded often in the foreign lands, where people can’t comprehend that American children are murdered in school with regularity. Sometimes those admonitions come in lands with a very strong military arm or experiencing war conflicts with their neighbors. It would be funny, if it wasn’t so sad.

Back home I am asked if the countries we go to are safe and all I can respond is with: Do you feel safe in the US where people get shot at school, at work, at the hospital, at Walmart? It doesn’t happen in any of the countries we have travelled to for the last two years.

Driving to San Francisco and around Bay Area it sure looks and feels a lot let safe. Not that there are people running around with guns, but man, there are so many more homeless encampments on sidewalks and disheveled mentally unstable people walking around speaking to themselves or yelling out loud. There are daily reports of car break ins and mugging and home invasions and they are not happening to strangers in newspapers, but to people we know personally. Perhaps our girls worry about us gallivanting to the ends of the world, but we also really worry about them, living in San Francisco.

I can’t help noticing how filthy the streets are, how much trash lies on the sides of the freeways and how neglected the roads are, full of potholes and overflowing gutters. Having just come from Istanbul, it is shocking, there the freeways were spectacular; new, clean, and enhanced by planted trees, shrubs and flower beds.

But then Turkey is ruled by another autocrat, that half the people despise and half adulate. What is it with this whole crop of old mean men suddenly coming to power everywhere, good old Europe included? And what is it with people that vote them into power? And what is it with women in particular, who don’t mind the prospect of reversal of the progress we have made? I just don’t get it! These very same women who look down on Muslim women for wearing a scarf, are supporting these icky old men who are blatantly disrespectful and downright nasty to women? Somebody, anybody give me an answer, please!

If there is one country that bucks the trend it is New Zealand with the phenomenal, inspiring young female prime minister Jacinda Ardern. She is my hero and my hope. Too bad we are too old to be starting anew in a far, far off land.

Coming home for the holidays: Thanksgiving and Christmas is the best time for a return. Though this special time also brings forth another thing that I don’t appreciate. No, not just the obnoxious, loud Christmas tunes playing everywhere, but the big capitalist push for consumerism and gift giving. Shop, shop, buy, buy and get it delivered overnight. Or not, as what I read is, that wholly 1/5 of all packages get stolen from in front of doors or mailboxes. The spirit of the Season, indeed!

Still the holidays are to celebrate the family and with family and we are so lucky that all three of our girls live in one place and not scattered around.

Thanksgiving has never been our favorite holiday because we don’t particularly like American football (always watched on Thanksgiving), nor the traditional huge turkeys baked to oblivion. But there are some fun side dishes to enjoy once a year like tangy cranberry sauce, mashed sweet potato (with marshmallows and brown sugar?), pumpkin pie. If someone else even makes it for you, how could you not say yes!

To return the favor our family invites our oldest daughter’s family in law to a traditional Czech Christmas. The ubiquitous turkey is replaced by two ducks. According to Czech tradition fish has to be served for Christmas Eve dinner, karp specifically. It is in our case Americanized into salmon.

But the crowning glory of our Christmases has always been Mirek’s marvelous potato salad, each year decorated differently.Then there is a sweet reunion with our four legged friends.

They have excellent memories and their tails wag happily when they see us again.

We now have 3 grand pups to spoil. And you know who is the one who spoils them the most! When we pet sit we like to take them for a long walk at a nearby reservoir. At least there I feel the old sense of Americans being very warm and friendly. Many say hello and ask about the breed of the dogs complementing them lavishly and we do the same for people with their dogs walking towards us on the path.

Someone asked us what we miss most on the road. I know my husband will say “my bathtub”, but I can’t come up with a single thing. What surprises me is how easily I can slip back and forth. I walked into our house after two years and felt immediately at home again. “That’s because you immediately spread your shit all over the place,” says my husband. Yeah, I am perfectly happy to travel with a small duffel and then I come home and quickly cover all horizontal surfaces with boxes of tea and flowers and bottles of wine and holiday cards and small treasures from the road.

And guidebooks and maps to plan more travel. What I like most about being home is plenty of time and a place to plan the next adventures. 2020 is shaping to be another great travel year!

Istanbulites Light up Our Istanbul Days

The more we travel, the more we are convinced that people are (mostly) good everywhere. But some are even gooder (no, not better) and Turks have always been on the top of our Good European People totem pole, followed closely by the Portuguese.

Our delightful encounters with Istanbulites only enforced our long standing perception. Every day we had warm conversations with people dusting off their English, sharing their opinions and recommendations and if we had no common language, waves, nods, and warm smiles. As many conversations started with “How long are you staying in Istanbul?” our response, “One month,” floored them and excited them. Ah, you are no fly by night tourists! When we added that we have been coming for the last 35 years, they were tickled pink. “Oh, I haven’t even been born then!”

We had a daily check in with our wonderful house manager Hatiçe, who reigned from her downstairs office surrounded by computer, iPad and two smart phones. Within minutes she would pull up a ferry schedule or secure a dinner reservation. She accompanied me to the real neighborhood hamam and was amused when I ordered the works, including the coffee grounds scrub. With hair still wet, we met our significant others at their favorite sidewalk kebab place for some unusually spicy and delicious kebabs. Her funny boyfriend Ergul was Kurdish by birth but could not speak Kurdish anymore, because his parents wanted the kids to assimilate.

We had a lot of Kurdish connections. My tarot reader Baran’s father was Kurdish and his mother Jewish. I don’t know much about tarot and this was my first time I had a reading, but he was the nicest tarot reader ever and only told me all the good things, predicting wealth, fame and grandchildren in near future. 😉 Told me I kept picking the very best possible cards. I asked him how he came to be a cafe tarot reader. He said he was on a volunteer stint with UNESCO in Iraqi Kurdistan and narrowly escaped a road side bomb and a bullet that pierced his bus window. It was after that trauma that his mind became really sensitive and in tune with people’s destinies.

Another Kurd we visited was a carpet seller in our favorite Dhoku carpet store in Grand Bazaar. We came across this store many years back when we brought our three girls to Istanbul. Our then 11 year old daughter took one look at a small green patchwork carpet and declared she had to have it. She was going to pay us back with her savings and future allowance money. She still has it 17 years later and can be proud of her pick as the company has become quite famous in the world of interior design by promoting the unusual reworked traditional carpets. Over the customary complimentary little glasses of strong tea we chatted about life, nationalism, politics and family. He complained that his three little kids spent way too much time on iPads. He admitted that there were way too many carpet stores in Grand Bazaar and most of their own sales were now actually online. “We, Turks, work too hard,” he said, “always a-hustling, morning till night, striving for profit, not having enough time for family and friends.”

“I much prefer the lifestyle of our neighbors, the Greeks. They take it easy, they are not stressed. They work a bit during the summer tourist season, and then they relax.”

Funny enough, two years ago we had been on a small boat island cruise through Greece and Turkey and we could certainly compare their attitudes and lives. Whereas in Turkey, if we came to a store two minutes before closing they would enthusiastically start showing us their wares, offering us a special last sale of the day price and a cup of tea, whereas in Greece they would ignore the browsing customer or worse – chat with the seller next door. In one of the museums on Rhodes they actually started shooing us out half an hour before closing time. When we complained, they explained their work shift ends when they get home, not when the last visitor leaves. And they needed the extra half hour to close up and catch the bus. I kid you not!

Well, lest we be generalizing too much, our carpet seller was quick to point out that Turkish Anatolian farmers happily espoused the Greek lifestyle, letting their wives do all the work on the farm and in the home.

Just looking at the Turks walking by one can notice a big variety in body type, facial features, hair color and eyes. Modern day Turks are quite a mixture of peoples that have been absorbed into the Ottoman Empire.

The ones that you might not have heard of are Circassians. They were people of the Caucasus like Armenians or Georgians, but as a nation they did not survive, because of the Russian occupation and policies. Circassian regiments were famous in sultan’s army and Circassian slave women were very admired for their beauty, spirit, and elegance. No wonder many became wives or favorite concubines in sultans’ harems in Turkey, Egypt and beyond. The Servas friend we met one afternoon for a gallery visit and dinner exhibited all the attributes of a “Circassian Beauty”, including the customary dark blonde hair and green eyes. Arzu Nur told us her grandfather was a Cherkez (Turkish for Circassian) fighter who worked closely with Ataturk. She had been a shipping trader for most of her life until a hearing loss in one ear took her on a different path.

Not sure if this lady was of Circassian descent, but she surely was beautiful and made beautiful hand knitted designs in a tiny store that I loved visiting. It was interesting to talk to her about her business and how she was empowering many Turkish village women knitting her delicate designs and making an income at home. 

She had grown up in Germany and came back to have her own family in Istanbul.

Close by her store Nananko Knits was a fancy Sofa Art & Antiques. On my first visit the owner gifted me a yellow envelope. I took it with me to lunch and as we waited for our food to arrive I opened the envelope and pulled out a handful of Turkish poems he had translated into English.

As I started reading the first one ‘I am Listening to Istanbul’ by Orhan Veli, the waiter arrived, took one look at me and started reciting the poem in Turkish. He quickly called over his boss and they were both really touched that I was reading a famous Turkish poem. What a magical moment of connection! Some weeks later as I was walking down the street in our neighborhood I ran across the owner of the antique store. I told him the story of the reciting waiter and now it was his turn to be touched.

That area of Beyoglu was a fun and funky place with lots of great corners where many fashion photographers found their inspiration. I always had fun photographing the photographers and then one day decided to jump into the shoot. The models and the photographer were all good sports, the ladies posed and the photographer took some shots on my iPhone. How nice is that?! Sometimes I simply found my own models. At the most funky dark fantasy designer leather shop of Emino Tillo amongst the chain mail and candelabra, and old treasure chests worked a handsome young man. Would you mind posing for me in some cool outfits? Not at all… It must have been a slow day or he was just simply another oh so nice young Turk. In an altogether different area we found a traditional archery store and the owner Hasan who spoke perfect American English, because he studied at Georgetown University. He showed us around and explained everything even though it was clear that we were not on the market to buy a bow or a set of arrows.

It didn’t take long to find our favorite coffee shop and of all the staff at Coffee Brew it was a young woman who concocted the best capuccinos. We stopped there nearly daily and she was always happy to chat and recommend a cocktail bar or a restaurant.

Another young Turkish woman that was a delight was Nisa. She stepped in when we were looking lost searching for the right ferry to take us to the Asian side. “I am taking the same ferry, just follow me.” On the ride across the Golden Horn we chatted about her studies (psychology) and her desire to study for 6 months through the Erasmus program in Europe. Turns out we were all planing to go to the Princes Island the next day and she introduced us to her friends and showed us around the art Biennale that was on one of the islands. A few days later she came over to our place for the terrace sunset view with a visiting friend Jenn from England, who was on her way to India. What a hoot talking to two young women from such different backgrounds, one a practicing Muslim, the other a practicing Free Spirit! As the sun went down Nisa said, “Why don’t you join us for dinner at my parents’ house, my mom is cooking up a storm?”

So we jumped on the bus and travelled to the modest apartment of her family. What a lovely home cooked feast and what a lovely family. At the end Nisa’s mom gave me a lovely scarf to remember her by and her dad, who was an air condition repairman, pilled us all into his van and took us to a well know Boza drink (fermented bulgur) shop. We were lucky to have another home cooked dinner at Mirek’s former colleague’s house. Melis studied civil engineering at Stanford, where she met her future husband, who was also from Istanbul. What a lucky find! Well, the parents were not quite as enthusiastic as she was Muslim and he Jewish. But love conquers all and they have been happily married for more than twenty years and have two children! Her husband is a descendant of Sephardic Jews who came to Istanbul in 15th century after expulsion from Spain. It is incredible that some Jewish-Turkish families still speak Ladino, a Jewish-Ottoman language with Spanish sentence structure that has barely changed from that time. We conversed in English, but their cook could only communicate in Russian. Turns out she was from Moldova of Gaugazian minority. She could not believe that just a few months back we drove through the tiny Gaugazia when we made our foray into Moldova on our Balkan driving adventure.

Sometimes no words are needed to communicate. Or let’s say the language of art was the communication tool between my traditional paper marbling teacher Nurala and her beginner student. I found her little studio on a walk through Balat neighborhood and watched her work with some Syrian refuges. They helped translate for me when I inquired whether she would teach me also. She said yes and the next morning I was back for a private lesson. For an hour she helped me make my first marbling paper masterpieces. Even though we could not talk, it was so much fun! We sure did a lot of talking when we finally met in person the owners of our fabulous Airbnb: Zeynap and her mother Salmin. Zeynap has studied in US and worked in New York for many years.

“What made you come back?” I asked.

“She did,” she answered, laughing and pointing at her mom. “One evening I was talking to my mom on the phone. Everyone had gone home, but I was still in the office. My mom said, ‘What kind of life is that? You are rotting in the corners of New York!’

“So I came back to Istanbul with my very new American boyfriend who loved it here and became my husband.”

With two small children, an educational consulting business and a large Airbnb house to run Zeynap surely had no time to rot in any corners! Luckily her mom was of great help to her. She used to run a gallery in Ankara and had an impeccable taste and great knowledge or art and history. She took us for a tour of the neighborhood and showed us all the historical houses.

Lastly I have to mention a great couple, even though they are not Turkish. I met Hilary and Don from Portland, Oregon in the Georgian mountains. They had taken a gap year off in the middle of their careers to travel the world and we had many notes to compare. They told me they were finishing their year in Istanbul and I told them to make sure to let us know when they arrive as we were going to be there at the same time. They did and we spent a few days together exploring Istanbul. And eating and drinking, of course!It is really special to meet up again with traveling friends that share your passion for travel and discovery. I am sure we will see them again sometime somewhere. Once the travel bug bites you, you can’t help but long for more adventures. Istanbul is a fantastic city to explore and enjoy, made even better for the diversity and vibrancy of the people. It feels like a very happy place, full of life and joy. As proven by this random group of people dancing one evening undeterred by the light rain.