Monday, January 28, 2008

Why I Almost Went Home

Today I almost booked a ticket home to the United States. I tried. If I could have, I would have.

But I didn’t. And maybe it’s for the best. Now, three hours later in the cool of the evening, a month of the austral summer in Patagonia seems preferable to February in Vermont.

In my hometown, the snow doesn’t melt until May – and then it’s black fly season.


Here is my daily schedule in El Bolson.

I wake up at about 10 am to the sunshine pounding my green Dunlop brand pup-tent. I throw off my down sleeping bag and try to get a little more sleep, but the sun is too hot, and eventually I stick my head out the door and take a deep breath of cool morning air. Usually the campground is quiet, and I am the first one up.

After a ritual morning sniff test of the clothes scattered about my tent, I get dressed, wash my face at the outdoor tap and ride my bike down the hill into town. Most mornings I stop for a Breakfast Super Pancho at the hotdog stand where the owner is almost blind, and his two young sons squint through thick glasses as they carefully count my change.

There are only two places with WiFi in El Bolson. One is Jauja, a restaurant in the heart of downtown that caters solely to the wealthiest of tourists and where the waiters never seem happy to see me. The other is a restaurant called Vatto a few hundred yards down the street.

Vatto is also expensive, at least by Argentine standards, but I have a perfect little table in the corner by a window and Federico and Sebastian and Lucia all shake my hand home-boy style when I arrive.

I refresh websites at Vatto from noon until 3, when I go hang out by the river for a few hours, returning to Vatto at 8, eating dinner and refreshing websites until midnight.

Then it’s back to the campsite, where there are usually a few dreadlocked kids from Buenos Aires singing shockingly good Jim Morrison covers around the campfire.

Then bed, until the sun gets me up again.

Three weeks in El Bolson and not once have I been above tree-line.


I didn’t pack well, that’s part of the problem.

I have wool gloves and a wool sweater, foul-weather gear, long underwear, thick socks, a heavy fleece and hiking boots. Patagonia is in the grip of a vicious heat wave. It’s been high 80s for the past two weeks and the days are 16 hours long.

I remember trying to decide whether to bring fishing gear or a camp stove and cook pots with me on this trip. I went with the lightweight spin rod and beautiful handmade fishing net sculpted from maple by an artisan from my hometown.

Last week I broke my fishing pole trying to jerk a lure loose from a snag. The net is a pain in the ass to carry around.


The main problem, though, is my sheer pig-headed stubbornness. I have the bad habit of being stingy about small purchases, especially regarding my own comforts. I could buy new sandals, but that would be a defeat, so I sweat around town in my heavy boots and socks. I could probably rent a nice little cabin in the hills if I spent a little money, but no, I will sleep in my pup-tent for 10 pesos a night.

I also know that I could just pack my bag and start walking up to the snowfields, but I’m behind on work, and even though I desperately need to clear my mind, I can’t bring myself to shirk responsibilities.

“Dude,” said the hydrologist from Steamboat Springs who was cooking oatmeal in front of my tent this morning. “Go to the high peaks. Elevation, man. Drano for the soul.”

Two days, I told myself. Two days to finish the guidebook assignment, then I’ll go to the mountains.


And so this morning I walked into town (the bike has a flat tire). It was hot, and Vatto wasn’t open yet, so I went to Jauja, had an 8 peso coffee and refreshed websites for 2 hours.

Then I went to Vatta, ate some empanadas at my corner table and chatted over Google until 3. Usually this is when I go to the river, but I was determined to get enough work done so that I could go to the mountains, so I moved outside to a sidewalk table and refreshed websites for an hour or two more.

An old man came down the sidewalk dressed like a gaucho, wearing a dusty black beret and pants with suspenders. He was a big man, and he was limping; sweat trails down the sides of his face.

He mumbled something to me through his white mustache, but I didn’t understand.

“Perdon,” I said, holding my hand in front of my mouth in an apologetic gesture of incomprehension.

“Sandwich,” said the man, pointing to the restaurant.

“Si,” I said. “Sandwich.”

The old man looked at me as if I was an eccentric but obliging little alien, then disappeared into Vatto.

“Wonder if they’ll give him a sandwich,” I thought. “I doubt he can afford one.”

About 10 minutes later the old man emerged holding a white ceramic plate topped with a toasted ham and cheese sandwich.

He looked at me and held out his hand for me to shake. His grip was firm and his fingers were dirty and swollen. Then he waved goodbye and limped with remarkable energy down the sidewalk.

A few minutes later Sebastian came outside. “Where did he go? Did he take the plate?”

“Yeah,” I shrugged my shoulders. “I guess he did.”

And it was only then that I wondered – did the old man think I was buying him a sandwich?


The story of the old man and the ham and cheese sandwich isn’t really a big deal – a little sad, but not without its humor. The old man got a sandwich, and all the restaurant lost was a plate.

But for me, sweating in the heat, refreshing The New York Times Opinion page, it sort of encapsulates the frustration I feel at this point in my travels. The novelty of being in Argentina has worn off, but I still can’t speak enough Spanish to have a conversation. As hospitable as the Argentines are, I’m still a weird outsider, and the only place I really feel comfortable is at my corner table, eating expensive food and checking e-mail. An eccentric but obliging little alien.


I need a plane ticket to return to Buenos Aires from Ushuaia after my cruise to the Antarctic peninsula. This rambling rant is already long enough, so let me break up the story of this plane ticket into a basic calendar list.

1/21 – I book an Aerolineas ticket online for March 23rd. $140 USD.

1/22 – An e-mail arrives asking me to call the airline to pay for the ticket.

1/23 – I try to call the airline 3 times from a telephone kiosk. Each time I am put on hold for ten minutes, and then the call is dropped. Each attempt costs money.

1/24 - I receive an e-mail telling me my reservation has been canceled because I did not pay for the ticket.

1/26 - I book another plane ticket online. There is only one cheap ticket left, which departs on March 25th and arrives at 2 am to the wrong airport in Buenos Aires. This is the ticket I book.

1/27 – I receive an e-mail from the airline asking me to call to pay for the ticket.

1/28 – Morning:

I try to call twice. Each time I am put on hold, and then the call is dropped.


I try to call once more. After 10 minutes, I get through to an agent. At the same instant that the call connects, the fat woman from the kiosk counter bangs on the door of my telephone booth and says something apologetic in Spanish. I wave my hand and concentrate on the call.

The woman at the end of the line is patient, and we get halfway through the spelling of my name, passport number and credit card information, but every minute the fat woman bangs on the door. First she is apologetic. Then impassioned. Finally her tone turns angry and she bangs and shouts until I tell the agent I’ll call back and hang up.

“What!?” I say.

“Cerrado,” she tells me. “We’re closing for siesta.”


I try to call three times more. Each time I am put on hold for ten minutes, and then the call is dropped. Each attempt costs money.


After the deadline to pay for my plane ticket has past, I walk to the park, sit in the shade and think about things for a while. An old man wearing Aviator glasses walks purposely by, and just as he passes me, announces something to himself in English.

“Face the truth,” he says in a firm, triumphant voice. “Acknowledge that which is real.”

I go back to Vatto and e-mail my Mom:

I'm working to hard to enjoy the traveling and traveling too hard to enjoy the work. Plus, the more I think about Antarctica, the more it seems like exactly the sort of consumer travel experience that I loathe. Going there would be a dream - so many people have told me that I'm living a dream - but I want to live a life.

Her reply comes back quickly:

Yes travel can be hard, or become almost meaningless, when there's too
much, when it becomes a life style instead of an opportunity to inject
a change (educational or fun or both) into one's usual lifestyle, work,
life. Do you follow me?

One day to Bariloche. 24 hours on a bus to Buenos Aires. A red-eye flight to JFK. Jet Blue up to Vermont.

I could be home in 3 days, looking for land where I can build a cabin and plant a garden and have a bed, and a bookshelf, and a table, and a rug, and a kitchen, and a woodstove and maybe even a shower too.

I know that since my plane ticket home was booked with frequent flier miles, the return date is flexible. I go online and try to change my reservation. American Airlines tells me that I need to make a phone call.

I go back to the kiosk. The fat woman is filing her nails. I call the number. It is long distance, and expensive, and I am put on hold. After only 5 minutes an agent comes on the line. Suddenly. I feel intensely nostalgic for home.

But the agent cannot understand me when I try to spell my name. Finally she calls up my reservation.

“It was booked with frequent flier miles,” I say.

“Yes,” she says.

“So can I change the return date?”


“Are there flights available for the first week of February?”


“Can I book one please?”

click. click. click.

“No. You can change your ticket to March 1st. Your ticket is low season. You cannot exchange a low season ticket for one in high season.”

“Even with a fee?” I’m desperate now.

“Impossible.” She says without a trace of sympathy. “Do you wish to book for March 1st?”

“No. Not right now. Thank you.”

“15 pesos,” the fat lady at the kiosk counter tells me, smiling sweetly. “Chau.”

And with that, I walk out into the sun.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Pretty Good Odds...

The Traveler's Notebook is a wicked cool travel website edited by my good friend David Miller. They're running a promotion now - subscribe to notebook content for free and get entered in a contest to win a plane ticket to anywhere in the world, anytime you want to go.

I've talked with David, and though I can't spill exactly what the number of subscribers is, let's say your odds of winning that ticket are good. Good enough that there's no reason not to subscribe to the notebook. The content is top notch, and who knows, you might just score a free ride to Tokyo.

Check out The Traveler's Notebook.

(No telling if David will follow my example and get naked when the notebook hits 1,000 subscribers...)

Friday, January 25, 2008

BNT Hits 1,000 Subscribers!

Watch the celebratory video, complete with whiskey, beer, bikes, bailey's and my pale white ass and blacked out jiggly bits.

Brave New Traveler

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Naked Introverts and Walking Parties

My new piece at BNT explores the personality types of people who are drawn to travel writing. If you've ever considered writing about your travels - or even if you just like to read travel narratives - I think you'll have a good laugh.

6 Types Of Travel Writers


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Peter Delevett Is Walking On The Moon

Wonder of wonders, I've got a new link up in the sidebar. Maybe that's a first step to tackling the project of moving my blog and homepage to a new wordpress platform...time will tell.

Anyway, I've just discovered a travel writer with an excellent ear for language and a wealth of stories to tell. Peter Delevett "lit out for the world’s flip-side with a broken heart and a bulging pack" a few years ago and is working on distilling his round-the-world journey into a book-length travelogue.

Check out these excerpts:

"We are at Tokyo Disneyland when I drop acid for the first time. I start to feel it at the border of Fantasyland and Tomorrowland."

"Eyes embarrassed behind his glasses, he reaches into a briefcase and hands me what I can tell is a prized possession: a glossy color photo of a .357 Magnum, cut out of some gun enthusiast's magazine. The picture is as lavishly shot as any pornography, light dripping off the long black barrel. While I stare at this, not sure what to feel, the Chinese kid says to me the only English words I've heard from him or his friends: "America," he says, pointing to the gun. "Very beautiful."


I first became aware of Peter's writing by reading "The (Full Moon) Party's Over", his excellent dispatch at

For more of Peter's writing, check out his homepage:


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Travel Wisdom From Alvaro, Colombian Cyclist Exraordinaire

Today's article at BNT is a collection of wisdom from Alvaro, the Colombian cyclist who I met in El Bolson.

Alvaro and I worked on the article together, a slow process of translation and distilling meaning.

I love the result, and I think you will to.

Read "Colombia To Patagonia"

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Photos From El Bolson

Many friends - and some strangers - have asked for photos of the people I describe in the story "Sharing One Trout With 23 Argentine Hippies".

Here they are.

Alvaro, me, La Mendocina

La Mendocina and I.

Pierre is the lucky Frenchman who ended up with La Mendocina.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

New Story!

"Sharing One Trout With 23 Argentine Hippies" is up at Matador. Its got sex, its got drugs, and its got Lynrd Skynrd too.

Give it a read!

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Traveling Warrior: The Story Of A Soldier In Afghanistan

When I lived in Hokkaido, I became close friends with an American named Mark, from Illinois. We did a lot of hiking - and partying - together, and Mark sometimes told me about his brothers, who are both serving in the military, one in Iraq, one in Afghanistan.

Both have had very close calls.

Mark wrote a really heart-felt, informative story about his brother's experiences in Afghanistan. It's important for all Americans to read, regardless of your opinion of the wars and our foreign policy, in order to develop a sense of empathy for what our friends and family are going through over there.

Here's the link to the article:

Traveling Warrior


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Lago Puelo

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A little help...

In the few months since I signed on as contributing editor at the online travel magazine, editor in chief Ian MacKenzie and I have published dozens of essays on authentic travel and built BNT into the most popular non-corporate travel magazine on the web.

Like all magazines, a key measure of our success is the number of people who subscribe to our content. Right now we have about 950 subscribers - but we're aiming for 1,000 and are launching a campaign to get there.

If we reach 1,000 subscribers by the end of February, editor in chief Ian MacKenzie will celebrate by taking 3 shots of whiskey in quick succesion, I will strip naked and jump in a river and our advertising manager, Laura, will do some crazy karate moves. All celebrations will be posted on the website, so if you want to see me naked, please help us hit the magic 1,000 mark.

Subscribing to BNT is free, and can work two ways. You can subscribe to our newsletter and get a weekly roundup of our travel articles, or you can add a little BNT window to your homepage through an RSS feed. Trust me, it's easy, and we won't spam you.

Help us hit 1,000 by clicking here! Thanks so much.


Monday, January 14, 2008

The Happy Trout Dance

Photo by John Arendshorst


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Notes From The Ruta 40

Notes from a 32 hour bus ride up the Ruta 40 from Southern Patagonia to the Lake District.

The 9 pm bus to Bariloche is idling at the Calafate terminal. It’s January 8th. At 5 am on the 10th, I’ll disembark in El Bolson, the Promised Land.

Forty days I’ve traversed Santa Cruz province. One month of guidebook work, interspersed by two blessed wine-soaked weeks with friends from college. It feels good to be finished, good to be free, good to be on the road again…

I just wish it didn't have to be the same damn road.

Back in my favorite Calafate guesthouse over one last Quilmes, Pablo asked how I was getting to Bolson.

“The Ruta 40,” I said ruefully. “For the second time in ten days. Crazy.”

Pablo laughed. “Not crazy,” he said. “Fucking stupid.”


The 40 is the loneliest road this side of Siberia, running along the eastern edge of the southern Andes through barren Patagonian steppe. It’s a once in a lifetime roadtrip experience. And here I am, doing it twice.

Not that I was awake the first time. It was New Years Day, the last night with my college friends; we drank wine all day by a waterfall, ate sirloin steaks for dinner and skanked until dawn with the local ska/punk band of El Chalten - a trekking village (pop. 700) at the base of Mt. Fitzroy, the peak whose stylized silhouette forms the Patagonia clothing brand logo.

At 8 am I caught the bus and slept hard against the windowpane, waking up at each lonesome stop – at crossroad gas stations, at an Estancia that was actually called La Siberia – until we reached the town of Perito Moreno, which can’t have changed much since 1974.

In Perito Moreno I slept in the backyard of a benevolently insane retired policeman named Raul. He cooked me dinner, put on his old uniform and marched in circles around his tiny hut, saluting and shouting out commands. If you go to Perito Moreno, stay with Raul. Ask anyone in town for directions. Trust me.

As much as I wanted to continue north to the Promised Land, I still had to cover a few towns on the coast for the guidebook, so instead of continuing up the 40 I went east, across a landscape of utter desolation, then south, catching a string of early morning buses, camping in fields and writing peppy descriptions of penguin colonies and rundown hotels.

Puerto Santa Cruz was the last stop. I arrived at 4 am – the last sliver of moon hung over a ridge, 4 planets encircling it like a necklace – Mars the ruby, Venus the pearl, Jupiter and Saturn: two brilliant tiny diamonds in the early morning sky.

I couldn’t find the campground, until a policeman in a checkpoint booth said he’d accompany me there. I made camp, laid out my sleeping bag and lay awake for a while, listening to horses shift around and songbirds greet the dawn.

Two nights I slept in Puerto Santa Cruz. For a while I tried to go to an Estancia. When that plan fell through I drank coffee for a while, then switched to beer, then went and meditated by the river. It was 6 pm and bright as noon. The bus south left at 5 am. I went to my tent and tried to read Darwin and tried to sleep and failed at both activities. At 3 am it started to rain. At 4 am I packed up camp and trudged a mile to the bus station. My boots were caked in mud, and the tired lady at the counter told me the bus was full.

“I’ll see what I can do when the driver comes,” she told me.

The driver arrived in a gleeful mood, drinking mate and smoking a cigarette, practically dancing into the ticket booth. Together he and the lady counted the receipts. Then they counted them again. Each time they got the same number: 58.

“Sorry,” they said. “It’s impossible.”

Maybe it was my face, or maybe the driver was just in a good mood, because he made a gesture that said “what the hell” and beckoned me along. I squeezed next to him, riding shotgun with my rucksack on my knees, and man, it was beautiful as the sun rose pink on gray over the plains.

At Rio Gallegos I checked my facts at the provincial tourism office and made a decision: I couldn’t backtrack up the coast again – I would go west to Calafate, gateway to the glaciers, where I have friends, then cross into Chile and take the ferry north. A good plan.

Except, when I got to Calafate and asked about the ferry it didn’t sound so great. $370 USD for a three nights in a cramped bunk and a whole lot of looking at mist…all I wanted was to get to the Promised Land. The quickest way was the 40. The bus left that night. Fuck it. I bought my ticket.

And here I am. A pale band of light on the horizon is all that’s left of the day, which means it’s almost midnight now. No moon tonight. If the clouds clear there will be marvelous stars. Friends and family – it’s good to have you along for the ride.


10 am the next morning. I got a little sleep last night, but mostly just shifted around trying to stay warm and comfortable.

I’m in the seat directly behind the driver and his music is playing pretty loud. At one point last night he was playing Jay Z, and maybe that’s why I had such a weird dream – of loading up a van with strippers and cocaine and driving to Las Vegas. Out of character for me, but a lot of fun while it lasted. I wonder if I twitched during the night.

Classic Ruta 40 country now. Flat Straight Dirt Road. Dull yellow plains on either side. Crack the back, stretch the legs, squeeze out a silent morning fart and swig some water. 19 hours to go.


I remember the last time I left Perito Moreno. As the bus pulled out of town I took a look down Av. San Martin and said to myself, well, I’ll never come here again.

10 days later and there I was, walking down San Martin, going to visit Raul while the bus detoured to Los Antiguos.

Raul was watering his vegetable garden when I arrived. He’s about 60 years old, short and solid as a rock, with huge biceps, a squashed face and the bright, hopeful eyes of a sincere little boy. He was thrilled to see me again – “El Escritor! El Escritor!” (the writer! the writer!) – he kept saying, ushering me into his hut for coffee.

Raul was born in Perito Moreno to parents of Lebanese descent. From what I could make out from his monologues and the biography in a poetry collection published by the Perito Moreno Cultural Center, Raul served in the army and as a policeman, at one point was committed to an asylum in Buenos Aires, eventually escaped and returned to his hometown.

Raul is justifiably proud of his guestbooks – tattered volumes filled with thank you notes from Israelis, Canadians, Austrians… “If you’ve just arrived, don’t be afraid,” began one note. “Raul is the sweetest man in the world. Let him make you tea, and listen to his stories.”

For the second time in ten days I wrote a note in Raul’s book and said goodbye. As the bus pulled out this time, I just sank into my seat and smiled. 14 hours to go.


Long shadow light on the steppe. 25 hours and the scenery hasn’t changed, but at least the road is paved now. We stop for a 10 minute break at the roadside. I run a few wind sprints and do some sun salutations, pressing my palms into the asphalt and feeling the burn in my the muscles of my legs. 9 hours to go.


The bus swerves and I jerk my head up from my book in time to see a skunk disappear under the front-right tire. “Mierda,” says the driver. He gropes under his seat for a spray bottle and fills the air with a rose scented mist that makes me sneeze. 8 hours to go.


Midnight, totally dark. That’s a change from yesterday – a couple lines of latitude means shorter days. 5 hours to go.


The Promised Land turns out to be a Petro Bras gas station and it's pouring rain. I pull on a fleece, and a windbreaker, and a wool sweater and my rain suit over it all, hump my pack over to a campground and sleep like a dead man until 2 in the afternoon.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Williams Patagonia

Here are a few photos from Christmas and New Years, when 5 of my best college buddies came down for a visit.

I feel so lucky to have such wonderful friends.

Perito Moreno Glacier

Fishing and Beer

Hiking to Mt. Fitzroy

Near Lago Roca on Christmas Day


Friday, January 04, 2008

Alone On The Patagonian Coast

Last night the 9 hour bus across the Patagonian steppe dropped me off at Puerto San Julian at 2 in the morning. The town is an industrial port city without much industry, laid out on a grid by the brown and barren shore. I lugged my rucksack through the streets, past a memorial to the Malvinas (Falklands) islands war and by a shuttered clothing store called ´Runaway´.

Eventually I found a campsite, and slept until 11.

Now I´m in town, at an Internet cafe. Obama won Iowa I see - that´s wonderful, I hope he can maintain the momentum.

I hope I can maintain the momentum too, at least a little while longer. I should be finished with the guidebook work in a week or so, and then plan to head North, out of the wind, to a farming valley called El Bolson.

5 of my best friends from Williams were down here visiting the last 2 weeks - wonderful times together, but now it´s lonely again.

I´ve got a new article up at BNT, about hitch-hiking.

Click here to read.