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 Quito, Ecuador

 

 

A cab from the bus station takes us toward the center of Quito, where we will be staying for several days. With over two million residents, it is no surprise that this city has neighborhoods of normal busy-ness, where life goes on along graffiti streets with too many vehicles. I think we are driving through most of these neighborhoods on our ride today, and marvel at the new yellow school buses, the traffic lights that impose order and the general rush I notice in the streets. We pass through bleached-out urban spread and then up-up-up to the high plateau of historical Quito. 

Once we reach Hotel Casa Gardenia, in the center of the city and settle in, my impressions change. Urbane, international, less hurried, welcoming.

But all those descriptions of Quito – the bustle and the serenity – surprise me. 

The last time I was here, traveling in a pack of two or four or six hamburger-starved young Americans, we sought out Rusty Burger the moment our feet hit the last step of the bus. We ate hamburgers translated into the South American experience and called them glorious. We stayed at a ramshackle hostel that was often packed to the brim with Peace Corps volunteers – like ourselves – and young back-packing world travelers from countries I had never been to. The streets of Quito I came to know 40 years ago had been a mixed-salad of old cars, old horse carts, aging homes inside tall stucco walls, and newer buildings along one section of a street near the hostel. It was a small landscape that I came to know well. I visited the historical section of the city only once or twice, after I had eaten my fill of homesick hamburgers.

Today, our hotel, built into an ancient building, lies along a curving and narrow cobbled street, and is guarded from that street by a thick wooden door from Colonial times. But inside, a modern glass-and-chrome structure offers a massive picture window that frames the entire central square in one gorgeous view. A storm approaches as we check-in, then passes by, cleaning our perspective and setting up our visit to be just as new and refreshed as the view itself. 

Our location offers an easy walking-tour visit to old Quito. We start out holding a tourist map and head down, down the narrow street. It contracts so much at one point that we have to yield for cars. At another passage, the sidewalk has steps that simply dissolve into a gutter from the 1700’s. We walk through a tunnel of stonework from that era, as modern cars compete with us for space.

Then we are at the central square. People call it the Grand Square (Plaza Grande) and Independence Square (Plaza de la Independencia). Ancient stonework continues from the street, but the square itself blooms with color from plantings of flowers mixed with grassy sections and lush trimmed bushes. People are everywhere: walking along, and sitting on the grass and on benches. Massive two- and three-storey buildings line the square, each with a historical purpose: the cathedral, the presidential palace, a grand hotel.

The building that attracts us most is the Archbishop’s Plaza, and the reason we choose this place is predictable. We are in search of food. Inside this former residence of Quito’s archbishop is a beautiful warren of tourism. The interior of the building holds several patios, one with a quintessential fountain, another with a zigzagging covered walkway. There are hallways linking the interior patios and enough entrances and exits to confuse any visitor. And there are restaurants.

We have a hard time deciding which menu to choose, and end up taking a table on an upstairs outdoor patio and eat a wonderful humita ( similar to tamales.) Another rain storm passes as we eat, and the patter of the rain into the interior courtyard is exactly enough to bring a pause to the day, but not enough to change our plans.

After the meal, we continue walking downhill to the city market. The two-story concrete structure contains fruits, vegetables and every imaginable meat. Cascading boxes are hidden behind multi-colored produce: purple and yellow potatoes, orange- and white-speckled corn,  light red-skinned plantains. Because there are ingredients, there are also food stalls. Fresh juices, roasted whole pig, llapingacho (stuffed potato patties.)

There is so much more to see, and we have some days to catch our memories of this city we had loved. Forty years later, I am joyful at discovering this modern transformation of Quito. Eating hamburgers from home seemed important at one time. And maybe that is a good personal memory. But Quito itself is so much more than Rusty Burgers, and I am very happy to know that now.

 

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Walking the Plank

 

Shipwreck! Like a bold-font heading from the more excitable history books, full of swashbuckle, flashing swords, hook hands and bandanas, my friend Brian spoke the words. “A shipwreck in our own neighborhood, did you know?” His voice – adventurous, mischievous, pirate-like – made me reconsider the location for my usual afternoon walk. Instead of heading out to our nearby beach, I’d start-up the car and drive four miles north to the Estero Bluffs. Along the cliffside, I might walk into a fantastical relic of history. For it was there, several days past that a fishing boat went astray.

The long trail from the parking lot off Highway 1 to the bluffs has changed since my last visit. I remember sunshine, tall sparkling yarrow, cow’s parsnip and stout reeds of grass. Today’s view takes in a flattened and stick-filled landscape, surprisingly dry with the ocean so close.

Thin, empty reeds stretch up from the grasses, now brown and appearing as if Mother Nature has brought out a brush and combed the strands of pale ash blonde against the earth. The ocean hides. Even the sound of the waves lurks behind the stingy landscape. Today’s sun casts its warmth onto the unseen tops of the cloud cover. Gray sludge fills the sky. I strain toward the promise of warmth through the clouds, but there is little feeling at all. I walk in the absence of heat and of coolness. It’s almost a sense of suspended weather: not hot, not cold, not breezy, not still.

I walk the dry path, avoiding the long and deep crack of moisture-deprived soil and dodging the millions of snake holes. Where are the snakes? With so many holes, there has to be a population of snakes that this flattened grass and thin tall reeds cannot hide. In the earlier lush of spring, when creatures that wanted to hide were given their heart’s desire, I had stopped to watch a long, fat, dappled snake worm into its hole. But today, with an unaccommodating landscape, I see nothing that moves. Neither snakes, nor the friendlier ground squirrels, nor even any insects.

And then, suddenly, there is a boom from incoming ocean fronting an off-shore rock, the crash and crash again riff of the tide, and I step to the edge of the bluffs. The drop-off to the water is immediate, thirty feet or more. The earth gives way here and there, and I step back, remembering that me and quick drop-offs do not peacefully co-exist. There is a trail close to the edge and another a safe ten feet away. I choose the safer route, even with the possible companionship of snakes.

To the south, over the crest of a bluff, I see the very top of a fishing boat mast rocking in the tide. I have seen fishing boats before from this path, but to the west, plying their trade in the deep water, miniatures along the horizon. But this one leans against the cliff, bumping into land with each incoming wave. Too close. It shouldn’t be here and doesn’t belong. But there it is – the wrecked ship.

For twenty minutes I walk toward the site. I am losing Brian’s cheerfulness, and wish he was here to remind me why this was a good idea. Along the way, I pass a small feeding frenzy. Pelicans and cormorants and sea gulls lunch on the usual menu. A seal raises its head from a nap, looking sweet and innocent. And well-fed.

There are two people standing near the shipwreck, looking, but not approaching. For the entire time I walk toward the tragedy, they stand paying their respects. For, suddenly, that is how I see the whole situation. Not an event from long ago, nor a paragraph in a history text. But a tragedy in a neighbor’s life. I remember a simple texted comment made by someone after the newspaper article: How did this boat get where it is? And another comment in response: Poor Piloting. As sudden as the boom of wave against rock, I remember that life isn’t about simple answers. Too often even the best pilots are lost.

Against a backdrop of unruly fun and whimsy, I am brought back to life’s unrelenting rules. We all walk the plank of life. I feel I should erase the exclamation point I put on the end of someone else’s tragedy. Shipwreck.

Walking with Vultures

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very good vulture

When I was teaching, I would often ask students to classify nouns, adjectives and verbs. Thumbs up for a word that had a positive feel, thumbs down for the negative. Infrequently, there might pop up a word that was neutral, but – think about it – many words we use have a good/bad reputation. Vulture? Definitely negative.

But I keep encountering them in nature. They glide by me, sometimes far up in the sky, sometimes quite close, and I have decided that I can form my own opinion on their goodness. To me, they seem totally thumbs-up.

I look forward to walks with my vulture friends. Perhaps because I live where many creatures live (and die,) vultures entertain me each day on my afternoon walks. They have become my most reliable walking companions. I love to see the long spread of their wings as they hover over the sage. I had never known the effortless grace of their flight before my walks on the beach. They make me notice them with a persistent presence and a command of the salt-sprayed fog.

img_4968As I walk, they seem to play in the sky. And frolic on the land. Maybe they don’t see things that way, but as I have come to know these friends with feathers, I see their antics. Dipping and swaying with air currents I will never explore, they share with me their freedom. One came so close, I heard the push of a wing as the vulture coasted inches over a dune, just one more trick to make me wish I could be as playful in the air.

Beach weather can change fast, and even when the winds come up and blow the sand, I walk and the vultures glide. The spraying sand doesn’t seem to change their daily romp along the coastline. Nor mine.

They scavenge, but so do I. Maybe they pursue habits that many think of as grizzly, but can’t we just as easily thank them for keeping our trails and walkways clean? There’s a good side to picking at the bones of life, a sort of nature’s way to keep house.

Walking with nature can be surprising, but my walks with vultures have taught me lessons about what we must see and accept. I am grateful for their company, even when vultures are doing what comes naturally. My beachside walks have treated me with a new respect for the word Vulture. Thumbs all the way up.

 

 

Walking Botanical Gardens

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I’m taking a break from the Nordic cruise, which we took in the early spring. Here’s what the Central Coast of California is looking like lately.

I’d passed by the San Luis Obispo County Botanical Garden in El Chorro Regional Park several times a week for the past 4 and 1/2 years. The hillsides this time of year are dry and golden, the oak trees giving plenty of shade. It was past time to take a walk in the garden, to try to identify those pesky volunteer plants that survive my gardener’s neglect. It was a quick 6 mile drive inland from the coast. Off came the sweatshirt, on went the sun hat.

Entering through a cheerful purple bridge over a dry creek bed, the buzz of the bees and the stone steps pulled me into the garden. Even in this late season, after the driest year I remember, there were flowers that lingered.

Plants were labeled, so I began my study, searching out species I’d seen but couldn’t name and verifying names I thought I knew. These botanical gardens are so helpful – I love their handy identification tags and descriptions. I walked around clucking with surprise at names I would never have guessed (propeller plant?) and humming with agreement at the more familiar (so many types of aloe!)

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California Fuchsia
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PomPom
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Strawberry Bush

All the species are adapted to the dry California climate. Like these:IMG_6276

And some blossoming plants served a higher purpose, helping a special little creature steal the show…

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almost camouflaged

…and keep stealing the show…

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again and again.

One of my favorites, an aloe plant, surprised me. This one was huge and stood up from the ground, showing me a new variation on my old favorite.

 

On the way out from the garden, I came across the peskiest plant in my yard, one that keeps finding new places to sprout. Now, instead of inventing bad names, I know what to call it.IMG_6319

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Next up: more of the Nordic cruise

Walking Oslo, Norway

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Some of you may remember that I, a girl born and raised in California, spent a year in Ukraine. It is a lovely country with wonderful people, but it is cold in winter, and winter is very long. It’s the kind of cold that Californians like me simply do not understand and seldom can tolerate. I certainly had my fill of cold after one year and was quite happy to go home.  And now, I visit Oslo.

It is often cold in Oslo, and was during our visit. One thing that surprised me about this city was the abundance of nude statues. I’d heard of the very famous ones in The Vigeland Park.

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Circle of friends
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The Monolith

But others were in evidence all around the city. Every time I saw a nude statue, I thought, “Burrr. Someone put a coat on them. A scarf. Mittens. A cap with ear flaps.”

There is something about cold climates that make me very one-minded. I was glad to see the many sights of Oslo. The downtown square is beautiful and the walk to the park is invigorating. There are nice places to shop. I bought fleece-lined slippers.

There are many lovely neighborhoods,

and walking streets to enjoy, as long as you have the proper outer wear.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that as happy as I was to be in Oslo, I was just a bit happier when we left.

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This is me in Oslo. Do you see the ear muffs? I wore triple layers everywhere. The hood went right back over my head after the photo. Next up, St. Petersburg.

Walking Moldova

tanya'sdachaand all 059If you live in Ukraine and travel to Moldova, you are warned by people who care for you. The borders are contested, they say, and crossing them can be a problem. The Moldovan people are not friendly, there is no place to stay, it is such a small country, why do you plan to go? At this point, you wonder about your plans, but since you want to go to Romania, and Moldova stands in your way, you go.

And never regret the visit. The bus ride from Odessa is through rolling hills that become lined with vineyards the closer you get to Moldova.

At the border, the bus driver collects all the passports, hands them to an official-looking man, who hands them back to the driver in a short time, who then hands them to the woman sitting closest to the driver, who opens each passport to the photo page, and gives them back precisely to each traveler on the bus. It seems everyone but you knows the routine, and you are grateful you are in the company of people who know what to do.

You pass through village after village of beautifully-organized streets with one-story houses that are well-cared for, each seemingly with a new roof that gleams in the sunlight. The houses, all rectangular tile-roofed and designed simply with rows of windows along each side, have tidy gardens that surround the houses and grow flowers and vegetables. You see fruit trees as your bus passes by, thinking maybe they are peach or apricot.

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Boksol – Train Station

When you arrive in Chisinau, you are delivered to the front of a beautiful train station. You walk around the interior, dazzled at the architecture. Just before you begin to worry about getting a taxi and finding a hotel, a driver waves you over to his taxi. You wonder what language to use. Perhaps neither your sad attempts at Russian nor your English will be appreciated. But your concern comes to nothing as the taxi driver knows better than you where you belong, and verbal language is not necessary for communication. He talks the entire way with hand motions, and you understand a good deal of it. Very quickly he delivers you to “Hotel Cosmos”, really the best place in town for travelers like you.

The hotel is a humorous short story come to life in plaster and crackle-mirrors. You remember reading that the hotel has certain floors that have been renovated, and that it is essential you request one of those floors. But you can’t at the moment recall: is the 4th-7th floors to be avoided or the ones you should request? Regardless, you are given a key and directed to the elevator. When you arrive, you decide it is to one of the newly renovated rooms, but wonder about some of the furnishings.

You have a view out the window that helps you get to know the city, giving you a nice introduction to places you want to walk. Most people would not consider Chisinau beautiful, but you feel its charm as you take your first, tentative walk around. Just outside the hotel, there is an enormous concrete street corner that seems to be more a monument than a street corner, with steps and a statue, and that ends in a busy traffic round-about.

Which way should you walk? You let the traffic pull you up the hill, and walk toward the modern shopping area. You see all the usual stores and the glass and steel architecture, but there are also lovely overhanging trees that make your walking pleasant.

There is a group of people setting up for an outdoor concert, and people beginning to bring a dinner to sit and enjoy. You begin the walk back to the hotel, searching for food along the way, intrigued by a sign that seems to be advertising burritos, Mexican style. You follow the signs and your appetite and wonder about tortilla chips in Moldova.

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time for dinner

No need to worry. Up a concrete ramp way, across the traffic circle from the hotel, you sit in an authentic-looking Mexican restaurant and order burritos. They come with tortilla chips and salsa, and you are very happy. It’s not that you wouldn’t have wanted a Moldovan meal, but that it’s nice to see a bit of the western hemisphere well-received so far from home.

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busy

The next day you walk toward the farmers’ market. Along the way, you see the more typical eastern-Europe cityscape, with tall apartment buildings, each apartment with a small balcony dangling from the living room. You see a mass of electrical wires and a mish-mash of vehicles crossing the streets. And at the market, you walk past stall after stall of all those luscious vegetables and many fruits that you saw growing on your ride into the city.

A woman walks up, greets you by grasping both your forearms, talks in a language that is not quite Italian, and pats you on the shoulder as she leaves. The woman completes what the city has begun. You feel you have been welcomed to a country that is very pleased to have you pass through.

 

Linked to Restless Jo’s Monday Walks