Monday, March 28, 2016

#9: Argentina. The "Class."

I'm not sure why I never took the chance to study abroad in college. I've always been skeptical of the actual academic value of doing so (beyond the simple fact that living in a foreign country brings about inevitable "cultural" education), but nonetheless it's an opportunity which in retrospect I'm surprised I passed up. But all this made me jump at the opportunity for this next adventure: an overseas "class" in Patagonia on "outdoor leadership." I use the quoties with as much facetiousness as possible, as the "class" simply meant I had to keep a travel journal and plan out and pack a meal for twenty people in the backcountry. Well the travel journal was actually something I probably would have done anyways.... And as for the meal? Let's just say each bag of rice I packed in was worth about one credit hour.

Not since Spain had I been on a large guided group trip like this one to Argentina. Through Miami's Outdoor Pursuit Center, a group of twenty Miamians, my girlfriend and me made our way down south for a trip divided between Buenos Aires and Patagonia. The freedom provided by being out on my own has always seemed a much preferable alternative, but this trip was a nice change of pace, and if nothing else forced me to spend time in Buenos Aires which I imagine on my own I would not have considered. We took a few Spanish lessons, which were just enough to educate the girls in the group what to yell at the Portenos if they were groped in the subway and we got a fun two hour crash course in Argentine Tango, the dance I'd already spent an entire semester in college attempting to understand but still appeared as some sort of injured praying mantis when I attempted it. Yes, all of this probably falls into the category of "typical touristy things to do in Buenos Aires," but one does not simply come to this city to just enjoy the weather (which in January is incredible by the way). On account of its vibrant cultural life and trendy urban vibe, Buenos Aires is often called the "Paris of Latin America" - I can't much comment on whether this is true, but I'll just say if I ever make it to France, I hope Paris is enjoyable enough that it may live up to the name "the Buenos Aires of Europe," because as far as cities go, up to this point in my life it was certainly near the top.

After a memorable few days in Buenos Aires topped off (no pun intended) by a rooftop New Year's eve sendoff complete with champagne and Argentine tapas, the group boarded a plane for Calafate for the second half of the trip: Patagonia. A few hours in the air and we were deep in the south of the country. At 50° S, Calafate is about 1,000 miles from Antarctica (think L.A. to Denver) and at this time of year the sun didn't begin to set until 10:00 PM. Thankfully being there in the middle of their summer saved us most of the extreme conditions which can go along with being this close to the end of the world. We settled into a backpacker's hostel in the nearby small town of El Chalten and got ready for our few days in the backcountry of Los Glaciares National Park.

Though these were the same Andes I'd seen a few months before in Peru, the Patagonian version was of an entirely different variety. These were not like the Peruvian Andes: impressive mountains covered in jungle and rising from lush river valleys dotted with small villages and the occasional road or trail beneath them. Nor were they like the mountains of Colorado: the towering but slowly rising alpine giants that build out of the foothills to form the impressive but inviting range that is the Rockies. These were altogether different: they are as uninviting and inhospitable at their bases as they are at their peaks. Unlike anywhere else where one can approach a mountain gradually, these ones stand towering above you and forbid all but the most determined to even approach. They are guarded at their bases to the east by massive slowly moving glaciers and to their west by a barely passable expanse of frozen tundra. I couldn't help but draw the comparison between a mighty peak like Pikes in Colorado which has been emasculated by a road which takes anyone with a car to its summit and Cerro Torre, which on the other hand demands respect: to reach its summit you must endure a week long vertical climb up an exposed rock face after traversing across a crevasse filled glacier to simply reach its base. Climbing Magazine likened the journey to being mauled by a rabid dog, "unpredictably violent and outrageously inevitable." If Pikes Peak is the Kim Kardashian of mountains, then Cerro Torre is Mother Teresa, you're going to have to work at it if you want to seal the deal... she aint havin' just anyone. The last few nights of our time in the backcountry we spent in the climbers' camp near the mountain where those planning on making the trip up spent sometimes weeks just waiting for a brief clearing of the clouds to hurry to the rocks and begin their climb.

My time in Argentina was memorable for many reasons. First being that it was my last guided group tour. While I don't like the lack of freedom and privacy this affords, it provided for a great template when I inevitably began planning more on my own (in fact I've planned entire trips completely stolen from REI's group travel itineraries). It also was the first trip I'd taken with my girlfriend Jenn, a key test along the way of our compatibility as travel companions. If we failed this one, I'm honestly not entirely sure we didn't have a deal-breaker on our hands. Luckily we turned out to not just survive, but really enjoy each other's company (even earning the nickname "Jurt" from our hilarious group of friends... doesn't quite have the ring of "Brangelina," but probably beats "Kenn," I guess.) and from here on out, the "we" in almost all these stories will mean "we" as in my wife and I (things didn't turn out so bad as it happens).

At this point I had developed somewhat of a theme in my travels if you had not picked up on it: everywhere I'd been (with the exception of Amsterdam), was a place where Spanish was either primarily spoken or of much use (as in the case with Italy, where Italian is basically close enough to enable at least basic communication). I used to think that being well versed in the spoken words of the country to which you are traveling was a hugely important thing. After my Argentina trip, I began breaking myself of this notion, and have not been back to a Spanish Speaking country since with the exception of a few hours in Spain last year. As is the case with many aspects of American citizenship, there are perks to holding that blue passport and of being an English speaker: we speak the de-facto language of the world... and I've been to few places where knowing "please," "thank-you," and having a certain skill in the game of Guesstures did not provide for all one needs in the way of communication. So good-bye Argentina and Latin America. Don't cry for me.

Sorry. I had to.

P.S. Please bear in mind in the photos that follow: If you asked an Argentine they would tell you that to dance the Tango one must exercise as much passion as doing "the deed" itself. In the most PG-13 way possible I tried to capture such emotion in a few of these photos. Think "culture" not "creepy," but I'll let you be the judge.

P.P.S. My apologies for potentially offending any Coloradan - or maybe anyone at all who appreciates the outdoors - for comparing Pikes Peak to Kim Kardashian. There's also a joke in there somewhere about Pikes being the most prominent peak in Colorado and a certain Kim body part .. but I didn't want to overdo it here. I'm absolutely not too classy for that, though.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

#8: Peru. The Sacred Valley.

Quick housekeeping note: They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, if that's true these posts just got several thousand words longer. Or if you are like me, have just given you an excuse to skip to the pictures and be done with it rather than doing any reading. Whichever you prefer, from here on out rather than attempting to attach tiny thumbnails of pictures to these posts, you'll see embedded links to my photo-site. Eat your heart out. 

In the general theme of this whole series of 'the bucket list', Peru had absolutely been on the top of mine for several years. Throughout my childhood we had this ethereal photograph taken by one of my dad's friends hanging on the wall that always gave me wonder. It was not those crystal clear wide angle shots of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu that you will find on the cover of National Geographic (or to an extent, in the photos below), rather it was a simple shot of a mist covered stone circle erected by the Inca, off to the side in an area of the ruins that tourists don't even venture as nothing seems very special about it. It was in an area that the Inca used to hew the massive stones for the building of the city, but these stones are so perfectly placed in a circle they seem to indicate that there was a ceremonial purpose to these particular ones. This was my impression of Machu Picchu growing up: not the Disney World of impressive ruins and panoramic vistas of the Andes that most envision when they picture the place... but one shrouded in mystery and of unanswered questions about the native culture that seemed to have suddenly abandoned it hundreds of years ago. Why was almost no gold discovered at this site that was purported to be the luxurious home of Incan royals; they being of an empire that we know forfeited countless galleons full of it to the Spanish when they were conquered?  Why have only bones of women been uncovered upon its discovery? Did the men all go off to war to never return? What exactly took place on the (coincidentally human size) altars which seem to be designed and placed in such a way as to pay tribute to the sun and the surrounding mountains?

As a kid, I'd ask my mom about the picture. She'd tell me there was a mighty culture that was once there; kind of like the 'Indians' of North America, but bigger and grander and more mysterious. She'd tell me my dad often spoke of wanting to go but never did. He was always one who was enamored by native American culture: he could spend hours walking around a freshly tilled up field in Indiana just looking for arrowheads or any trace of the tribes that once lived in the area. He'd make his own tools in the way they would have been made hundreds of years ago out of rawhide strips, wood and stone in attempt to recreate the lives of the men and women who lived in America before we did. Everything about their culture absolutely fascinated him, and now myself as well. It was for him that I was now making the trip here and finally coming face-to-face with this mystery which I'd seen hanging on my living room wall since I was a child.

In telling the story of the trip, I'll let one of my older blog posts (which by complete coincidence, I wrote five years ago almost to the day) speak for me. It is the story of coming across road construction in the middle of the otherwise uninterrupted jungle landscape in the Santa Teresa river valley right outside of Machu Picchu. My thoughts of the whole experience haven't changed much since then, so I figured I'd just post a link rather than retelling it all. But I can't help but note if my dad were there he may have had more appreciation for how changing times can be bittersweet and that development can often spoil Mother Nature in irreversible ways; how there was a time when men behaved as if we and Earth were dependent on each other as we realized our fates were inescapably intertwined. This all may be putting words in his mouth, but I do know this for sure: at the very least he'd have certainly been walking through that construction site looking for Incan arrowheads.

What preferences put Peru at or near the top of my bucket list? That one's easy:

Affordability: 100/100
Architecture: 50/100
Cities 50/100
Culture: 50/100
Food: 50/100
History: 50/100
Nature: 100/100
Outdoor Adventure: 100/100
Relaxation: 1/100
Safety: 50/100

(spoiler alert: a few countries down the list are soon upcoming)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

#7: The Holy See.

I didn't get much time to sight-see in Rome, but on my first evening in the city I did find myself somewhat by chance walking west on the Via della Conciliazione at sundown. I didn't intentionally time things this way, but nonetheless, the timing was perfect.

It was about 6 PM when we made it to St. Peter's Square, and instantly the setting impressed.  And it should: the entire area was designed to make you feel as if you are in the presence of God. But that in and of itself doesn't set this place apart from any other Gothic or Renaissance era cathedral, the difference here is the colonnade. These sweeping set of columns four rows deep reach out from St. Peter's Basilica and meet you as you enter the plaza. This is Vatican City. The intended effect: the outstretched arms of God welcoming you into his own house. I'm not much for object worship, or placing undue importance to something that is made of stone and was just built by some dudes (those 'dudes' in this case being Bernini and Michelangelo), but man is this setting powerful. When combined with the sun setting right behind the cathedral, the reds and pinks reflected by the smooth stone of the plaza and the long shadows thrown out by the pillars, this made for a scene that I can't justly recreate in words.

I'm not sure if God literally met me there that evening, or the colonnade in those moments were actually His arms or just a representation of them (there's a little transubstantiation joke in there for you reformation scholars!), but whatever it was, it was a spiritual experience in the truest sense of the word. It's hard not to understand why thousands flock to this plaza to hear mass from a mere mortal and with this backdrop have no doubt in their minds that he is an envoy of God himself.  I've never been so emotionally manipulated by bricks and stone in my life; I was taken away, but I loved it all.

Of course, a post about the Vatican without mention of the inside of St. Peter's or the Sistine Chapel would be incomplete. After this quiet evening with only a few of us taking in this incredible structure by ourselves from the outside, I did return a few days later to brave the inside of the place. Yes, it was impressive. Yes, it was incredible to finally see in person what I'd heard about and seen in books since I was a child. But the crowds, the noise, the sheer hurried nature by which everyone scurries about made the serenity of the plaza at sundown a much preferable alternative. Maybe it also had to do with the guards (not the cool ones dressed like nutcrackers) who repeatedly in English had to yell "No pictures!" to the clueless and unresponsive crowd. I mean, every single person there has the mentality of: "I freaking traveled half way across the world to see this place, you'd better believe I'm getting a damn picture!" And the cycle continues.

As I became even more aware on my trip to Rome and my time on La Sapienza's campus speaking with skeptics and believers from all around the word, the Vatican and the papacy has been and always will be the source of immense controversy... but nothing at all is controversial about the Vatican itself. It's simply incredible, and to my untrained architectural eyes is one of the most impressive structures ever built by men. A fitting setting for such an important crossroads in the world's history.  

Reaching out for the arms of God. Also,
before I knew what 'camera shake' was.

Monday, March 7, 2016

#6: Italy. The Mission.

In or around the year 50 AD, the missionary Paul sailed to Italy to visit the nascent churches which had sprang up in Rome. These tiny churches scandalously called Lord a rebel from the far eastern provinces. Rome was no stranger to tolerating the beliefs and customs of its conquered subjects, and this was no different in Judea, where the governor Pontius Pilate anxiously watched on as a splinter sect of the generally submissive Jewish population threatened to throw a wrench into the whole arrangement and destabilize the region. With detente in mind and the power of Rome at his back, he had the leader of this sect sentenced to death, and thus sheltered Rome the possibility of having to commit extra troops or unduly worry about this province which was important only in that it provided important coastal sea routes to Egypt, the bread-basket of the Empire. 

In one of the more mysterious turn of events in history, these small churches, once violently persecuted - its people being burned in the Colosseum for sport or lit as torches at night as substitutes for light - not only continued to surreptitiously operate, but grew. Refusing to worship Roman gods, these Christians continued to worship this martyred Jew until 380 when the Christian faith became the official religion of Rome. END: shortest ever synopsis of early church history.

For thousands of years since, Rome has been the geographic center of Christianity - which made it odd how now, in 2007, I was going to Rome on a missions trip to share Christianity with the Romans. It is this curiosity that likely resulted in the many skeptical stares I got from folks when I shared that I was going on a missions trip to Italy. "Isn't everyone Christian there?", they would say. Or, "convenient excuse for an Italy vacation! *wink, wink*." (Yes, I really got that) True, every Roman has grown up in the shadow of the Catholic church, but what became clear in my conversations with Romans was that this has only served to reinforce their already favorable or unfavorable sentiments towards the church.

At La Sapienza University in Rome, myself and a group of a few dozen Miamians set out to talk Jesus with college kids. Most conversations went one of a few ways: "Oh, yeah... I'm Catholic so I obviously know Jesus. Plus my parents would kill me if I wasn't." or, "Have you read a single news headline about the church lately? You'd have to be crazy to adhere to that dogma!" or even, "Forget about Jesus, what do you think about Silvio Berlusconi? Man is that guy a character." As for the latter, I failed to do my research so I reacted with a chuckle and a clueless stare, but as for the other comments, it was clear that everyone in Italy had an opinion of the Church. But not many had really spent a lot of time giving thought to what that meant about what they thought of Jesus.Yes, He's the dude that Mary is holding in that really famous sculpture in the Vatican... but who really is He? And why should I care? It would seem that a city whose Christians once so genuinely followed Jesus that they did so to their deaths had somehow lost its way.

They say that you learn just as much about yourself as you do others in situations like this. I have to say, on flight home as I was reflecting on my experience in Rome, I couldn't help but liken the city's story to my own: once zealous in my newfound faith, proud even the point of persecution; then outward expression, erecting cathedrals, being known openly as a Christian city; but then growing complacent... its cathedrals still tall, its God still just as powerful, but its pews less and less full - its people having grown accustomed to tradition and being content with going through the motions. It was a worthwhile comparison to consider, and one which still convicts me to this day.

As a history nerd, I was beside myself being in Rome. No place in the world has shaped so much of the course of events that we find ourselves in to this day, and one can just aimlessly wonder across the city and every few blocks stumble upon buildings and places of monumental historical significance: the tomb of Augustus, the Pantheon, stone prison cells from which books of the Bible were written, and the list goes on. Most of my time here was spent on the campus of La Sapienza, a good clip outside of the city center - here Rome seems much more like a real city: people on their way to work or to class, making a quick stop at the coffee shop bar to grab an espresso and a canoli... businessmen reading the paper, ignoring the tourist crowd and going about their day. It's hard to get this side of Rome with all the touristy things to see (which you really can't avoid, nor should you. Because, well... "When in...", oh, forget it... ), but Rome remains a city with a vibrant sense of life if you care to find it. Just do yourself a favor and skip the Pantheon view for dinner and head down that next alley, you may not have a violinist at your table (collecting tips), but you'll thank yourself later, and your pasta will not be made with Ragu.