Walking Ushuaia, Argentina

I have been traveling through South America for a month at the point I reach Ushuaia, Argentina.

I think I know what to expect from the entire continent, in a general way. I’ve seen beauty and been shown gracious welcome. I’ve had the humbling experience of traveling by land through many border crossings and standing in line at two of those crossings for over 6 hours. I have braved city bus systems, fallen over several sidewalk irregularities, practiced my Spanish language, eaten food that did not agree, and enjoyed many meals that did. I have done all of that and am surviving – even loving the priviledge of being able to put my feet to the ground in places many people can’t imagine ever seeing in person.

But all my experience, as well as my abiding stereotypes, gives nothing to prepare me for this small city at the edge of the world. I begin my walk at the harbour, facing the downtown area and looking up to the surrounding jagged mountains.

I walk across the street to the visitor’s center. It seems no single nationality nor one language has a lasting claim to this place. I remind myself to speak Spanish, but I lose count at nine languages that seem common: Spanish, of course, and English, also German, Mandarin, Italian, the English spoken in Australia (!I know they can say the same about American English!), at least two Eastern-European languages (I think Polish and Hungarian?) and another tongue I can’t identify at all.

Across one street is the downtown area. It seems retailers find this place especially enticing, as brand-names from all over the world have built-up a presence here in this town of a bit over 50,000 souls. Hard Rock Cafe, for heavens’ sake, is here. It is apparent to me as I step into the city center – all two-square blocks of it – that something is going on here that should remind me that it is never a good idea to walk around with my stereotypes.

Whatever my expectations were, instead, I am greeted by: Upscale mountaineering retailers, luxury leather goods, specialty yachts, space-age small planes.

But even with the connection to the world’s marketers, Ushuaia remains a part of its pristine geography.  Even during this summer walk, snow is visible on the sharp peaks surrounding the bay, signposts warn of impending bear visits, the mirrored quality of the icy water reflects puffy clean clouds, penguins live nearby.

It all leaves me a bit out-of-sorts. I walk through the downtown and out into a more residential neighborhood. It is cozier here, and I find a bench on a pie-shaped park to sit and watch pelicans on the bay. I wonder what it is that has me so befuddled. I take a walk wherever I go; today should be no different. I am here today, and tomorrow venturing by ship to Antartica, but I find that Ushuaia is pulling my attention. On the cusp of viewing the continent that so few people ever see, it is this little city that makes me stop and think.

It feels more like home than I expected to experience in a place so far away from where I live. There is a California calm here, a confident idea in the streets that no town, anywhere, does life like its done here. I sit on a suburban bench, at the extreme southern tip of my connected continent, and I feel like I am living in the middle of California Cool. I think maybe that is not such a good idea.

But then, I remind myself, Ushaia knows itself better than I do. My own California calm takes over, and I decide to just let it be. Ushuaia seems to be doing just fine defining its own character, at its own pace. I’m the one that needs an attitude adjustment – and I hope I leave my stereotypes behind as I venture farther south.

 

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Walking Buenos Aires, Argentina

Listening to visitors pronounce ‘Buenos Aires’ is enormously entertaining. People from Britain say ‘Ahhhres’, giving the word the sophistication it deserves. People from the USA say ‘Air-rays’. It’s a simple switch for them: just adding ‘rays’ to the already familiar word ‘air’. Curiously, travelers don’t seem to confuse ‘Buenos’, but there is already enough intrigue about the city. Buenos Aires itself is even more entertaining to travelers than its name, and everyone should visit.

This is my second time in the city; the first being over 40 years ago. I don’t dance the tango, I don’t eat pondorous beef meals (though the person walking next to me might like to.) But, now as 40 years ago, I find endless ways to entertain myself. This is one city where anyone can feel like a Porteño – a resident of Buenos Aires.

Some cities are strategically breath-taking, placed in an area of great beauty, like Bogotá, Colombia. Others may be located in a convenient area, like Panamá City, Panamá. Some communities spread like wildfire, consuming geography without apparent logic, like my former hometown of Pasto, Colombia. And some cities, like Buenos Aires, plot their own thoughtful development with grace and beauty, replacing topography with a vibrant and classic style that begs people to visit and effortlessly impresses them when they do.

We arrive from Lima and I pull out our hotel information. I am not always good at selecting places to stay. We are thrifty sorts, and like to get as much for our money as we can, but while we look for safety and value, location of the hotel is always our first concern. Can we walk to the places we want to see? Are there restaurants and stores close by?

The taxi driver knew the hotel right away, without the need for an address, which is a credit to him, and gives me hope that this time, I picked well. It is a hot day in Buenos Aires, and we drive into a neighborhood with a canopy of green extending over the city streets. The taxi pulls up along a shaded sidewalk to a shiningly clean hotel with ornate stately features. Melia Recoleta Plaza. It is classically beautiful, and I decide immediately that if I only explore this one building while in Buenos Aires, the trip will have been worthwhile.

The hotel has taken over a structure that was once a rooming house where Eva Peron lived. With curving staircases, gleaming wood accents, polished marble tile floors, this place acts as a living museum. Placards placed on framed photographs tell the history of Peronista Argentina. In black-and-white, next to the period architecture of the building itself, a history lesson begins before I unpack my bags in the room.

The area of Recoleta is home to our hotel. Even if tourists didn’t need to visit Evita’s grave in La Recoleta’s cemetary, they should come to see this neighborhood. The graveyard itself is a walking history tutorial, with cultural lessons displayed on tombstones. Decorations and poetry add details. Outside the cemetary, the shaded streets and the welcome of the cafes make walking a simple pleasure here. Carrying our map, we are stopped several times by residents who offer help with directions. One recommends that we visit the artisan fair in the park. We do, and find a huge gathering of craftpersons and shoppers. We are entertained for hours. Since I have decided that visiting Buenos Aires requires more than seeing the interior of the hotel, I now wonder if I really need to leave La Recoleta. The area is peaceful and inviting, surely sufficient for any visit.

But I do explore farther. El Ateneo Grand Splendid is just outside La Recoleta. In 2019, it was named the most beautiful bookstore in the world by National Geographic. When I walk into the store from the sidewalk, I wonder about the hype surrounding this famous place. I like bookstores, and have high expectations for the well-known ones. This one opens up from a fairly normal city street. It’s fine. But number one in the world?

And then I see the interior and understand. It’s so filled with architectural beauty that it’s difficult to focus on the literary works of art. This is just one more spot in Buenos Aires that can occupy an entire visit.

Of course, there are more. The walk to a popular shopping street, Calle Florida, from our hotel is a long one. In the heat, I wonder if my insistance on walking everywhere is wise. But how else do I see the sights I want to see at the pace I want to see them? The reward is in the shops along the street and the vendors with their goods on the sidewalk. And, of course, along the way, we stop in the shaded parks near the Casa Rosada, where the city’s political history has unfolded.

Every neighborhood we pass through and each restaurant and shop we enter, we encounter friendly, helpful Porteños. When we take a short break to sit in the shade of Plaza de Mayo, twice people approach and offer help with directions and recommendations. It seems to me the people of Buenos Aires want us to visit and enjoy the city they very obviously love.

That is the lasting impression I take with me from our second visit. I can stop worrying about pronouncing the name right. The important thing to remember is that Porteños love their city. This emotion spills out to welcome visitors like myself. 

Walking Otavalo, Ecuador

 

It’s been 40 years since my two feet walked this ground. The cement umbrella-ed artisan booths are still here. An aura of tranquil living impresses me – now as before – and it runs counter-point to the dramatic setting. Clouds still curl over the mountains. Something about the high-altitude air makes visitors feel they’ve never been clean before. But surrounding the market I remember from years ago are now rows and layers of canvas-covered awnings that expand the market to two or three times the size it was.

If you visit Otavalo, today as 40 years ago, it is likely for the artisan market. I had made the trip several times from my home in Colombia as a young woman in my twenties. I ate huge pancakes and drank my first kefir and orange juice in a hippie restaurant just across the square from the booth where I bought wool yarn for the blanket I would crochet. The hippie restaurant is no longer there, but before I venture out too far, my husband and I eat in a fabulous modern cafe. Then we set out to follow our memories. Will I find the same style of woven wall art that, 40 years later, still decorates our home? Will I find skeins of rough wool yarn, so natural that bits of dry grass and seeds are part of each creation?

Ruanas are still for sale, and as numerous. These long, sometimes very thick wraps of woven wool that have slits to fit your head through were ever-present and worn by everyone when I lived in the region. When I bought my own, from this outdoor market in Otavalo, and learned how to wear it with ease, I had finally felt at home with my South American experience.

Five times today, I circle the market, walking to relive my past. I stroll the rows across, and the rows up and down. I get lost in a tangle of tables where people sell items they no longer want next to the alley where you can buy sewing machines that were already second-hand when I was last here. Finally, I buy a new ruana, stash it in a bag, not sure if it is really the one I want, but knowing I need to go through this ritual.

On the few days of the week when there isn’t a market, the square in the middle of this town is empty, aside from the concrete circles with the odd umbrella covers. To me, these circular remnants are a wonderful touchstone, one thing that hasn’t changed, sturdy and reliable. Everywhere else I walk on this market day displays how the world has changed: cell phones and a million chargers for sale on top of a plastic folded table, warm wool sweaters and gloves and hats that are knitted by machine, wall-hangings in colors so bright I know there is modern chemistry in their dyes.

I want to buy some natural yarn, and think I will start a new project while we travel. I pick a craft woman, one among so many, and enjoy the back-and-forth of negotiations. The price is so good that I want to buy more than I can pack into my carry-on suitcase. I need a crochet hook, and can’t remember the word in Spanish. I try to describe what I want. The woman understands and takes me at a run into an alley where, in a brick-and-mortar shop, everything I could possibly need is for sale. The yarn I buy is soft and so warm my fingers are soothed just by the touch.

We walk to the odd-and-ends section of the market. My husband searches through tables and tables of screws and bolts, ancient watches, and finds a coin from last century to purchase.

It’s all a wonder: the stroll, the shopping trip, the search for memories.

I pull the ruana from the bag and put it on, walking away from the Otavalo artisans, comfortable again in this place of mists and mountains and forty-year old magic.

 

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Walking Back Home – Pasto, Colombia

 

 

It had been our plan for forty years to someday, somehow return to a place we had called home. The city is off most travelers’ maps. It’s never been on any magazine’s list of desired places to visit. And it’s so far off the North American travel radar that I wondered if even we, having known and loved this place years ago, could find our way back.

Of course, it is possible to go. There are paved roads passing through, and airlines fly to a near-by airport. Wikipedia says 500,000 people live there now. Five hundred thousand? How did that happen, I ask myself? I remember a very small city with a Colonial-style town center and unpaved streets running up toward the hills that circle the town. I remember the isolation, the unpredictable roads and the difficulty of getting there. I remember the Trans-America Highway, which runs past the town, being closed twice a day for the parade of cows going to and coming back from the grassy pastures along the sides of the Galeras Volcano.

Could we tolerate the travel that it takes to get back to our old home? The roads can be dangerous. I had ventured out many times by bus and remembered well the steep drop-offs and the hair-pin turns. Though I never experienced anything of the sort, travelers are now advised against nighttime journeys in this region because of robberies and kidnappings. Since moving away, I had laughed at seeing the regional airport on one infamous list: most hair-raising airplane landings. It was time to find out how far we were from our younger selves, who had reveled in this place so long ago.

Pasto, Colombia. Could I take a walk back home?

I start at Bogotá’s airport, with an eager pacing stride back and forth while waiting to board the flight. It is 766 km (476 miles) from Bogotá to Pasto; air travel is the best way to cover the distance. And yes, when we land, both my husband and I recognise how close to the drop-off edge of the run-way we come.

Many of the turns in the road on the long ride from the airport are familiar. The most significant, just before we get into town, appears ahead and I feel like I am 24 years old again. I know this spot.

But then we take the turn, and a huge city reveals multi-storied, cemented, squared-off apartment complexes littering the hillsides. Suddenly I am lost, and I wonder how on earth things have changed this much. I have been gone a long time.

The taxi leaves us off in the historic middle of town. This part of Pasto, I know. I take my rolling suitcase in hand, heave it over the familiar cobbled roadway and walk up to our residencia. The colonial facade is exactly the style I remember, sitting along a street that is exactly the same as I walked forty years before. I push open the double wooden door and am welcomed into an open interior courtyard. This is the Pasto I recall. We leave off our travel gear and head to the streets.

The annual Blacks and Whites Carnival (Carnaval de Negros y Blancos) is taking place all around us. I walk into the streets with hundreds of other Pastusos and am enveloped with a sudsing of white foam. Yesterday, black oil paint would have been streaked onto my face by the fingers of friendly strangers. Today, salsa music blasts from boom boxes on the open trunks of cars parked on the side streets and everyone – EVERYONE – holds spray containers of white foam, randomly dousing each other with the wet white powder. No one gets angry at this overly-intrusive act of joyful aggression. I walk among the crowd and begin to relive my past.

Down the street, I see a familiar corner, and head that direction. It’s funny how significant the simple things in life are in restrospect. I walk up to the super-market where we shopped so long ago. Not the central park monument or the large governmental buildings, but the place where I bought my bread draws my attention. It has the same concrete steps, the same railing, the same street sign. But the store has a different name: ‘Sarin’s‘, as I remember, is now ‘Exito‘.

On the sidewalk, I buy bottled water from a woman who might be the daughter of the flower salesperson from forty years ago. I walk farther along the street, trying to escape the crowds, and come to the corner where I used to turn on my way home.

Along the way, I recognise the two-story wooden building with the garage-like doors. I remember the two-toned colonial home that was on the street before my own. But as I walk to where I thought I used to live, things seem to have changed. We didn’t have addresses back then, but before we left for Colombia this time, I thought I had found my old home on Googlemaps. But suddenly, it isn’t where I thought it had been. Maybe I should walk to the next block.

But the next block isn’t familiar either.

I retreat to the town center, where only the names of the stores have changed. Here, I can view the town as I remember it from the safety of the residencia‘s tiny balcony. The festival goes on in the streets below me, now with a thousand friendly revelers, and I have a momentary feeling of having found my old home.

I have five more days to find the exact house where I lived. But as I step closer to the edge of the balcony – music so loud my head pounds with the beat, the cobbled streets now completely white with the powdery wet spray – it doesn’t seem I need to feel any closer to my once hometown of Pasto.

 

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