Obama’s Secret Service Needs a New Travel Agent

Posted by Amy

I am not sure which Tripadvisor page the Obama secret service was accessing for their trip to Colombia.  Hotels? Flights? Other?  Must have been other.

Although those Secret Service boys got all the press, we must say Colombia is a great place to travel (even for a family).  The days of drug cartel kidnappings are over, and there is a lot of optimism about the future.  There are a lot of Americans here on legitimate business and frankly the Secret Service scandal was a huge disappointment for the Colombians.  Here they were anxious to showcase themselves in the global media showing how far they’ve come and what a great place this is for international investment these days.  Instead all they got was a new reality TV show, Secret Service Gone Wild.

We spent a great couple days in Bogota and then a the weekend at the farm of our friends, Eduardo Uribe and his wife, Diana Gaviria and their three boys, Mateo, Felipe, and Alejandro.

Here are some of the interesting sites those Secret Service guys missed…

  1. A visit to the Museo del Oro – pre-Columbian gold!  These are the treasures those invading Spanish Conquistadors were dreaming of.  I don’t know my history  well enough to know how much the Spaniards absconded with, but the immensity of this collection shows why the greedy little buggers came for the plunder.  Glittery and shiny the Secret Service surely would have been attracted to this collection.
  2. The Fernando Botero musem.  A great collection of Botero’s work and his own personal art collection as well.  Those voluptuous bodies captured our attention for a good afternoon and the Secret Service could have certainly found a picture or two to gape at there.
  3. Bike Tour of Bogota.  We didn’t get to do this, but we tried.  The tour owner/guide wanted us to have our own guide because of the kids, but the guide never showed up.  Later our friend Diana, told us the tour might not have been so good for our family because they do make a stop in the red light district…but again, a perfect activity for those Secret Service boys.
  4. A meal at Andres’ Carne de Res (translates into Andres’ Meat of Beef).  This was a really fun restaurant out in the country.  Apparently this is a very popular weekend outing for the Bogota restaurant goers.  Andre started cooking as a roadside barbecue stand and has since increased to a 2000 seat restaurant.  The food is good, but the ambience is the real attraction.  Andre is a junk artist and everywhere you look are sculptures and pieces of art made of reclaimed objects.  Needless to say, David’s garbage picking desires were piqued.  This restaurant is all family friendly until about 9:00 and then it turns into a dancing on the tables all out party scene.  Something for everyone.
  5. The best thing we did during our time in Bogota was visit the Uribe farm.  Eduardo and Diana and their three sons Mateo, Alejandro and Felipe invited us to their farm in Subachoque about an hour and a half outside of Bogota depending on traffic.  We actually spent the night at Diana’s parent’s horse farm nearby where her dad bred the 1998 Kentucky Derby winner, Real Quiet.  The next morning we traveled down the very bumpy road to Eduardo and Diana’s own farm and spent the most amazing day relaxing while looking at the hills and eating the feijoa fruit growing in their orchard. Eduardo planted hundreds of trees that produce this most delicious fruit.  The sheep had just been sheared last week and the kids had a great time cleaning the wool, which quickly turned into an all out water fight.  And then the dip in the pond to clean off.

We will forward this itinerary to the guys in Washington so that their next trip is more wholesome.  Had they spent a little more time enjoying the physical scenery instead of just the physical….they would have seen that Colombia is a wonderful country to visit and is filled with wonderful people, scenery, and history.

Categories: Colombia | 1 Comment

Banos blog

posted by Rikki

Hi, it’s me, the Rick.  I know I haven’t written a toilet blog in a really long time, but I have 3 very interesting toilet observations for you today.  The first observation was the toilet from our campground on our trek to Machu Pichu.  I never used the toilet myself, I prefer to be at one with nature.   From what other people told me, this toilet was nasty.  From the outside, it was just a tent that our porters set up for us at every camp ground.  The inside was a hole with a lot of toxic waste in it if you used the toilet late in the morning.  It was probably best to be one of the first users in the morning. 

When we finally got to Machu Pichu, we were told where the public restrooms were.  They were located way up at the entrance.  There were no bathrooms on the Machu Pichu grounds at all.  We were not supposed to pee at all at Machu Pichu.  We had to wait until we went back to the entrance to go to the bathroom.  But, of course, my dad had to go.  He snuck off to a corner to do his business.  All of a sudden three security guards came rushing to him.  When my dad turned around he showed them the bottle he had used for his own portable potty.  When the guards saw his bottle, they were so happy he hadn’t messed up Machu Pichu.  No one had ever thanked my dad for using a pee bottle before.  We usually yell at him when he tries to do this on our car trips.  The security guards were probably thinking, this liquid looks a lot like Inca Cola.  (This is a famous pop in Peru that looks a lot like a dehydrated man’s pee.)

Looks a lot like a sample you leave at the doctor’s office, right?

My third toilet observation took place in Puno, Peru.  Puno is famous for having the highest altitude lake in the world, Lake Titicaca.  People live on this lakes on the floating islands.  The floating islands are man made islands woven from a reed called Totoro reeds.  These reeds can also be used to make boats and can even be eaten.  We were told that today, the people have made separate islands for the bathrooms.  Before they made the special bathroom islands, they used to just dump all their toxic waste right into the lake.  Did I mention the lake was called Lake Titicaca.  That might be how they got the name.

Dressed as the locals.

Thanks for reading!

Categories: Peru | 3 Comments

Shots of Argentina

Posted by David:

We’ve been gone from Argentina for a while now but we wanted to share some more pictures from our time there.

Stay tuned for a new “Toilet Blog” from Rikki.

Tango in Boca

Jose de San. Martin was the hero of Argentine independence from Spain and a fellow South American libertador with Simon Bolivar.  This is a great statue in the Retiro neighborhood near where we stayed.

Recoleta Cemetery

The Much Discussed Tomb of Evita

Some Delicious Treats

Portenos love their dogs but pay others to walk them. Watch your step.

Playing the ponies in Argentina.

Eva bought a great hat in the San Telmo neighborhood where they have a great art fair on Sundays.

Plaza de Mayo is an important place in the history of Argentina.  This is where the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo helped to bring the issue of the 30,000 disappeared people during the military regime starting in the late 70’s and 80’s.

This is the original government building in Buenos Aires

More beautiful buidings

Government Building

Evita is still as beloved as she was 50 years ago.

A Lion and his King

Kosher McDonalds. How strange is that?

Salt Flats

Horses on an estancia outside of the city.

Getting ready to go whitewater rafting outside of Salta, Argentina.

Loving the wet suites.

Colorful 7 Color Mountains outside of Jujuy, Argentina.

Count the colors.

Eating Llama (a delicious Argentine delicacy).

Small town near Jujuy with a great monument.

Salt Flats

Iguazu Falls…hard to show the massiveness of this waterfal.

Faces after lots of driving in rural Argentina.

Categories: Argentina | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Amazon – Tambopata Reserve

posted by Eva

The Tambopata River

Last week, we were in the Amazon.  We flew to Puerto Maldanado, then took a four hour boat ride up the Rio Tambopata to get to the lodge.

There are many plants used for different things in the Amazon, such as a fruit that can be used to treat cancer instead of chemotherapy, it’s called Nino.  There is also a plant called Cana Cana used when you have a cold or a fever.

Another cool plant is called Huito, it’s used for tattoos. The seeds of the fruit are the part used for making the tattoos.  You can dip a stick into the seeds and then paint the juice from the seeds onto your skin.  It goes on clear but in two hours, it is bright blue.  The tattoo stays on for ten days.

Huito fruit

Kids who live in the Amazon like to put Huito on their skin to prevent bug bites.  I got three tattoos, a tarantula on one hand, and a pirana on the other.  My third tattoo was a mustache on my finger.  Rikki got earings, jaguar footprints, and a watch.  Maya got a lightening bolt and a house.  My dad got a bicycle, and my Mom got an embarrasing sun tattoo on the back of her neck.  My Dad said it looked like a prison tattoo.  She said she liked it though.

When we get home, I can give you a tattoo!

More Amazon pics:

Swimming in the Amazon

Rikki’s Earings as provided by our excellent rainforest guide/tattoo artist Pedro

Maya’s artwork

Hiking through the mud

Eva’s mustache

The world’s largest rodent – the capybara

Beautiful Brasil nuts

Cool bugs!

Categories: Peru | 7 Comments

Inspiring People

Posted by David:

One of the amazing things about traveling is the opportunity to cross paths with people whose lives couldn´t be more different than ours and yet for some short period, we end up in the same place at the same time and have the chance to share our stories (well, really it´s me asking a lot of questions and hearing their stories.  Occasionally I´ll add a tale or two about Skokie before quickly getting back to their story).  Here is the story of Flavio, our guide through the Andes Mountains on our way to see Machu Pichu.

Flavio is from a very remote Quechua village in the Andes where the families are subsistence farmers.  The houses are made from adobe bricks with with grass roofts.  Most villages like this didn’t have electricity until 10 or 12 years ago. The main language of these people Is Qechua, the language of the Inca people.  He was the last of 9 children and his mother died when he was 14 months old.  After his mother died, his father was not able to care for all the kids so the older children left and took the younger ones along and never returned.  Flavio was an infant and remained alone with his father who was an alcoholic.  Flavio said that he does not know how he survived alone with his dad.  He has very early memories of going to the neighbors´ house to be fed.

When he was 8 years old, his father told him that they were going to take a trip to Cusco which was the nearest city to their village.  Flavio was excited.  When they arrived in Cusco, Flavio´s father brought him to the home of a family he didn’t know.  They operated a restaurant in town.  He told Flavio that he was going to live with this family from now on as they could take care of him better.  What his father didn´t say was that he was now obligated to work in the family´s restaurant, ten hours a day, seven days a week for the next ten years of his life.  The family had six kids of their own but none of them worked in the restaurant.  The father regularly berated Flavio, occassionaly hit him,and told him that he would never amount to anything but a dishwasher.  In exchange for working in the restaurant, Flavio was able to go to school in the evening through secondary school and was also fed and clothed.  He recalls seeing his father once during those 10 years in Cusco as well as one of his brothers.  The rest of his biological family was lost to him.

After finishing school, he joined the Peruvian army and volunteered to be part of the special -forces unit who was fighting a war against the Marxist Shining Path Guerillas.  During basic training, he was severely beaten by an officer for being unable to hit the target with a rifle.  While recuperating in the base hospital, a captain came to visit him and asked him if he was right or left handed.  He had been trying to shoot right handed like the rest of the squad which was why he couldn´t hit the target.  Once he began shooting left handed, he was the best shot in the unit and was assigned to protect the unit´s captain in the jungle. It was during this period of his life when Flavio had to come to terms with a difficult dichotomy: on the one hand, he was told by his guardian and boss that he would never amount to anything more than a dishwasher and on the other hand he was being told by the Peruvian army that he was strong and in complete control of his destiny.  He chose to believe the army and it was a major turning point in his life.

During his time in the Amazon jungle, he lost 19 of his fellow soldiers to guerilla warfare, but somehow he survived.  After being ambushed during one mission, the surviving members of his unit were lost for more than 8 days in the jungle.  When they returned to their base, The  found that the army had pronounced them dead after 24 hours.  That’s how dangerous this guerilla war was.

After his traumatic time in the army, Flavio decided to learn English and go to school to earn a degree in tourism.  He succeeded in both and was eventually able to find work as a guide.  He has been leading treks all over Peru for 11 years and lives with his wife and two young kids in Cusco.

Only two of the six children of the restaurant owner actually have jobs while Flavio is thriving.He has been able to offer help (financial and otherwise) to his older siblings who he rediscovered as an adult. He is the first professional to come from his village and returns every year to give back whatever he can and offering thanks in spite of his 8 difficult years there.  I asked him if he is bitter at his father or older siblings or the people that took him in and made him work.  He said he has no hard feelings for anyone.  As hard as it is to understand, I believe him and find it incredible.

Categories: Peru | 3 Comments

Lares Trek and Machu Pichu

Posted by David:

Peru has been incredible for us.  We are on the tail end of our journey and are experiencing all the normal fatigue one would expect from a trip like this, but our experiences here have been so spectacular they have helped us continue our momentum.  Highlights have included a four day trek in the Andes to Machu Pichu, a four day trip to an ecolodge in the Amazon jungle four hours from the nearest town, and an incredible few days in the Colca Canyon region of Peru.  We are now in Arequipa and on our way to Lima and then onto Colombia for the last leg of our trip.

Here are some thoughts on our trek to Machu Pichu:

When we arrived in Cusco (HQ for the Incas), we were naïve enough to think that we could simply arrive in town and book an Inca Trail Trek.  We were mistaken and it was a fortunate mistake as the Inca Trail would have brought us all to tears.  It´s a tough trek for fully grown adult Tai Bow instructors.  Thankfully, we were not nearly organized enough and were able to book an alternative trip instead, called the Lares Trek.  Lares would take us higher than the other treks but was supposed to be a bit less strenuous.  Next we had to decide if we should go with a group of up to 10 other people or do the trek alone as a family.  We assumed, rightfully so, that the kids would do much better in a group than just with us so we signed up for the trip and headed straight back to the camping store to buy more long underwear as it gets pretty nippy at 15 thousand feet above sea level (that´s about 4,750 meters for those of you who have gone metric).

After three days acclimating to the altitude, we met our guide, Flavio, and the rest of the participants.  It was a short informational meeting but it gave us a chance to ask questions and meet the others.  There was a group of three 19 year old girls from England, a 23 year old woman from Vermont, a single Dutch woman, a 25 year old brother and his 16 year old sister from Cape Cod (their mother was planning to hike but decided not to at the last minute), and us.  Along with us would be Flavio, our guide, a second guide, a chef (seriously) two porters, and two horsemen (the horses schlepped our backpacks, all the food, tents, and lots of other stuff through the mountains).

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We met the group at 7AM and found that the three English girls were having trouble with their ATM card and were unable to get enough cash to check out of their hotel.  The group wasn´t able to wait for them to deal with their bank.  They  were going to have to miss the trip.  Amy and I offered to give them the money they needed to check out of the hotel so they could join us.   They were very grateful to us.  We loaded in the van, drove to their hotel where they paid their bill and checked out and were on our way to the trail head in Urubamba.  These three girls ended up being great friends to us and to the girls that we couldn´t have imagined them not being part of the group.

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Suffice it to say, the trek was challenging with high altitude, wildly varying temperatures, and difficult terrain.  We walked through a very remote part of the Andes where we only encountered two other hikers on our first day.  Passing through two villages, we got to see local people who speak Quechua instead of Spanish (Quechua  is the language of the Incas) and live as subsistence farmers growing Quinoa, corn, and potatoes.  Here are some pictures from our trek:

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Categories: Peru | 11 Comments

Argentinean Busses

Posted by David:

We have used just about every mode of transportation that I can think of on this adventure, but our travels of the last week were extraordinary.

After five weeks of language classes in Buenos Aires, we decided to take some excursions to the northwest and northeast in Argentina.  We were heading for the town of Salta City in the Salta Provence (one of 24 Argentine provinces) and then venturing out from there to Jujuy, the salt flats, and some places in between before moving onto Iguazu Falls and finally back to Buenos Aires where we planned to fly to Lima, Peru.

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There are plenty of flights to all of these places but we had been hearing about the wonderful long-distance busses in Argentina that are more like planes than busses complete with seats that turn into beds, food service, and movies, and we thought it would be fun.  So we bought the tickets.

I haven’t had stellar experiences on ultra-long distance bus rides in the past.  I once took a bus from Tel-Aviv to Cairo.  Smoking was mandatory and as you might expect, the windows of this bus were sealed shut.  There was also a video monitor above each seat, which blared a continuous loop of Arabic music videos at an ungodly decibel.  I was traveling with two friends and the one that sat next to me vomited the entire trip.  Two other very memorable long distance hauls include a 24 hour train from Cairo to Luxor which was very similar to the above mentioned bus trip, and a 48 hour Amtrak ride from Chicago to Seattle in which my friend, Eduardo, and I were seated next to a woman who berated and slapped her young kids for most of the journey.

Our first bus  ridewas 20 hours, our second bus was 26 hours and our third bus was an easy 18 hours!

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For the most part, the busses were really nice.  The seats reclined enough so that you were almost in a prone position.  They were double-decker and we always got to sit on the second level, which was cool except for when there was a lot of wind and it seemed that the bus might tip over.  The bathrooms were, well….they were bathrooms on a long distance bus.  Use your imagination and then multiply times two and you’ll get the idea.

On the first leg of our journey, there was a man sitting a couple seats in front of us who snored.  Before the bus ride, Amy worried about a lot of different bus-related scenarios.  What if the bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere? What if there is a traffic accident?  What if the road gets closed by one of Argentina’s many manifestacions (protests)?  She forgot to think about the likely scenario of the snoring man who may be seated in front of us.  I am told that I snore, but I am sure my body is not capable of making the sounds that came from this man.  He produced a continuous and brutal head throbbing noise that came from a place in his body that was most certainly controlled by aliens.  It’s hard to believe that this man was able to stand up and walk after producing this sound for more than 8 hours.

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There was food served but it made dormitory food look incredibly tasty and beautifully presented.  After the meal and before “bedtime” we were offered champagne or whiskey.  It was a nice touch but a bit incongruous with the overall experience. Having the movies was nice but unlike the movies shown on a plane where you choose to watch the movie or not by plugging in your headphones, everyone had to listen to the soundtrack.

The kids did great.  Amy and I aged about 10 years each but I will say that I was able to read a lot more in one sitting than ever before.

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The second bus ride was the longest, 24+ hours, from Salta, Argentina to Iguazu, Argentina.  In addition, we had one transfer and an hour and a half layover.  I don’t remember much about the trip other than it was incredibly long and I found myself wondering whether having a catheter, although incredibly uncomfortable, I’m told, may have improved the overall experience.

The third ride from Iguazu back to Buenos Aires was only 18 hours and the bus was a notch above the other two we had taken.  The seats were more comfortable and the movie selection was pretty good, and the bathroom was clean(er).  The time went by quickly and I had a fun conversation with a young guy from New York named Ron Golan whose father had emigrated from Kabul, Afghanistan to Israel, fought in two wars in the Golan Heights and changed his last name to Golan in honor of the battles.

The kids did great on all three rides.  Amy was a trooper, as always, and I tried not to complain but really wished we had flown!  I do believe that it’s all in the journey, but I must say that long distance bus rides may not be included in my journeys in the future.

Categories: Argentina | 8 Comments

When David Gets a Cold

posted by Amy

I hope I am not jinxing our family, when I say that overall this year, we have been incredibly lucky in staying healthy.  But every once in a while, we do get a little bug that gets passed around the family unit.  No one likes to be sick, but to this date, I have never seen anyone do it so well as David.

David is quite sure when he gets sick, that he is the sickest that anyone has ever been, anywhere in the world.  Of course he is able to appreciate the difference between the common cold and a life threatening illness, but to rephrase, when he gets a cold, he is sure that he has the worst cold than anyone else has ever had in the entire world.

It is always helpful to David if I can manage to catch the bug first.  That way I have suffered some of the minor aches and pains and inconveniences associated with this bug and can build up some small amount of empathy when David eventually gets it too.  But, that also works against poor David when he gets sick, because I know it is not necessary to spend two days stricken in his bed.

Another aspect of David’s associations with his unhealthy self is his quest for a cure.  David is willing to try anything to get over his cold.  He believes in cultural emersion for finding a cure.  Most recently in Northwest Argentina, David gladly accepted a medicinal tea bought in a small pharmacy on top of a mountain.  The tea contained various herbs and probably was very soothing and helped him stay hydrated, but I am not sure it ended his suffering any faster.  In Phu Coc, Vietnam when David got the stomach bug that several other travelers staying at our hotel had also had and repeatedly told David, “It takes 24 hours, you will feel fine in 24 hours.” David laughed at the idea of waiting out a whole 24 hours.  He dipped into our traveling hospital bag and took the antibiotics we brought with us from home for just such a stomach bug.  He was better in 24 hours.

In China, there were the pills containing ground tiger bones, totally illegal in the open market, but easily bought if you know a guy.  In Peru, the recommendation to help ease the pain of altitude sickness is to sip coca tea or chew on coca leaves, two or three in your cheek will do the job.  If two or three are good, twelve or thirteen must certainly be better.  It’s okay, we don’t see any mandatory drug testing in David’s near future.

But the family does suffer when David gets sick.  Suddenly, the rest of us have to ask questions to waiters and tour operators, taxi drivers and random people on the street.  On our most recent trip in the mountains in Salta, Argentina, David felt so bad that he decided to sit in the back of the car our tour guide had rented to show us the region.  I had to sit in the front and make conversation.  Sure, I could handle the “where are you from originally?” and “how old are your children?” parts.  I could even ask a few well -informed questions regarding the political history of the region.  Where I froze though were the questions such as, “Well, tell me exactly why you got divorced.  And while you are at it, please give me the health history of your maternal line.”  I also, can’t talk about cars.  I don’t know anything about cars and see them more as a mode of transportation rather than a topic to fill hours of desert terrain.  Apparently, my pathetic attempts to made conversation with our tour guide was actually the best remedy I could ever find to David’s cold.  After the first rest stop, we changed seats.  David sat shot gun and took over interviewing the guide.  We quickly found out that he has a fiancé who lives in Poland and he is soon going to move there to be with her.  We learned the details involved in their meeting and all the job possibilities available to him in Krakow, including giving Spanish language tours of Aushwitz.

You will all be happy to know that we are currently feeling good and ready to tackle the final legs of our trip.  David has committed to staying healthy and we are all working on the art of asking questions, just in case.

Categories: Argentina | 3 Comments

The Classroom Commandments

Clase de espanol

Posted by Maya:

The way I see it, there are four basic classroom rules:

  1. Be at school on time
  2. Raise your hand if you want to speak
  3. Always ask the teacher before you leave the room to go to the bathroom
  4. Do your homework

The last time I was in a formal classroom was 10 months ago, but I am pretty sure that I remember those four rules from school. They are the four things that teachers tend to be the most fussy about. They have been enforced in nearly every class I’ve ever been in, from kindergarten to seventh grade. But apparently, these rules do NOT apply to adult education.

Maybe I should explain: We’ve spent the past month in Buenos Aires learning Spanish at a tiny, gorgeous school called Amauta. Since I was the only teenager enrolled at the time, I had the option of doing class with Eva and Rikki, or being in an adult class with my mother and four or five strangers. I chose to be in the adult class, and I have really enjoyed it. I went from knowing absolutely nothing in espanol to being able to communicate. Of course, I can only communicate with preschoolers, but it’s a start.  I’ve also really liked getting to know my fellow students at Amauta, my Spanish school.  We’ve met people from Australia, Alaska, Japan, Germany, Romania, Switzerland, Brazil, Sweden, Idaho…. The list goes on and on.  However, I was shocked to learn that nobody in my adult Spanish class remembered The Four Classroom Commandments.

I thought that it was ironic that I looked out of place raising my hand in a classroom. True, it’s one thing to have a discussion with six adults and another to have one with 27 thirteen-year-olds, but I just couldn’t avoid raising my hand! Also, for the first 3 weeks of class, I was bewildered by people who would get up and leave the room without asking the teacher. By the fourth week, I was more comfortable, and I even did it once or twice myself, but it still felt wrong, like somehow I was betraying every teacher I’ve ever had. It took me awhile to get used to people walking in the door nearly an hour after class started. I just chalked that up to the relaxed Buenos Aires atmosphere.

I was able to adjust to the breaking of the first three Commandments easy enough, but the last one, Do Your Homework, proved more difficult. I was absolutely shocked by the amount of people in my class who winged it when the teacher had us read our assignments out loud. “What would your mother say?” I wanted to shout. That is, until my own mother pulled the same trick. I just couldn’t believe it! Didn’t my classmates, including my mom, want to be prepared?

While the lawless Spanish classes did have some appeal, I think I prefer classrooms with rules. Though it is nice to be able to go to the bathroom whenever I want.

Categories: Argentina | 6 Comments

Cycling in Buenos Aires

Big Wheelin’ in Buenos Aires

Posted by: David

Buenos Aires is the perfect cycling town.  Wide streets, flat as pancake, and great weather year-round.  There are some but not tons of people on bikes here and the city has installed some bike-only lanes and a nice path that connects a major swath of the city.  Strangely, not as many people ride as you may think.  Many of those that do ride, use a very simple, single-speed beach cruiser type bikes cost a little less than $100 U.S.  They are perfect for this city.  Most Argentineans I speak to here say that cycling is so dangerous and that the drivers are too careless and there’s just too much traffic.  But I have found that the traffic here is no worse than in any other major city in the world including Chicago, New York, Paris, or Rome and cycling here has been great.  I’m a much safer cyclist than car driver anyway so I may have a warped perspective.

Classic Buenos Aires Cruiser

There are quite a few delivery cycles here that are used by pizza parlors and grocery stores.  I also saw a couple of old guys on cool old bikes with grinding wheels attached to the frame.  They have traveling knife and scissor sharpening businesses.  They stop and put the bike up on a stand that elevates the rear wheel so they can pedal the bike in place like an exerciser, and then use a belt that goes from the grinding wheel to a flywheel on the back wheel to power the grinder.  I was told that years ago, these guys had a particular song that they sang as they rode through a neighborhood that would let people know it was time to get their knives sharpened.

Thankfully, I’ve been able to get in on the bike culture here as I bought a used big wheel unicycle ( 29” diameter wheel) when we were in Australia and carried it with us to New Zealand and onto Argentina.  It’s smaller than the 36” wheel I ride in Michigan but it’s very easy to travel with and it’s still super fast (I can keep up with the average bike rider).  Our second day in Buenos Aires, I found that there was going to be a Critical Mass event.  These happen all over the world, including in Detroit.  It’s a grass-roots, quasi-anarchist movement not dissimilar to a flash-mob (a sort-of spontaneous but choreographed dance that manages to just happen in an unlikely public place with seemingly absolute strangers joining in) where at a set date and time, tons of people on bikes of all kinds gather and take to the roads forcing vehicular traffic to a standstill.  I showed up on my big wheel at the Obelisk in Buenos Aires at 4PM on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.  After an hour or so, a bunch of people began circling the Obelisk on their bikes.  The group continued to grow and grow until several people branched off and began to ride away from the Obelisk with the rest of the group following.  At this point there were probably over 500 cyclists.

Riding the Big Wheel in Buenos Aires during Masa Critica

There was no set route but the group rode and rode and at each intersection, several participants would stop and hold off the oncoming traffic.  There were times when taxi drivers became irate but for the most part, people were very cool.  There were several places where the entire group stopped at huge intersections with large apartment buildings on either side.  People were out on their balconies and the group began to chant, “AGUA, AGUA,” and suddenly buckets of water were raining down on the crowd of riders.  It was awesome.  I was a fairly normal sight compared to the long-curly haired man in rainbow unitard pulling a child-trailer with a fully- grown woman inside, or the guy on a bike that was probably 20 feet long.  There was a guy with a cool old folding bike that was selling raffle tix for $$20 Pesos each and was planning to pick the winning raffle ticket at the end of the ride. I was the only unicycle and people really liked it.  Everyone wanted to know where I was from and if it was hard to ride the unicycle which they call a monociclio.  It was hugely energizing to ride through the streets with this mob of cyclists, see the city, and enjoy the pure joy of being outside and pedaling with others.  I rode for more than two hours that day and the huge group was still going when I broke off to go home.

I’ve ridden the big wheel around the city at other times too and to Spanish class.  It’s been a great way to see things that we don’t see from the public bus or taxis.  It’s also fun to see other people out on bikes and to talk to them.   The streets and sidewalks are pretty good and it’s been a good challenge navigating the massive amounts of garbage and dog waste that accumulates here.

Buenos Aires has done what many other cities around the world have done by making bikes available to people all over the city so folks can get from one end of the city to the other by bike without actually having to own their own.  Everywhere we have seen this program, there is a fee for the bikes but in Buenos Aires, it’s FREE, or gratis as they say here, for citizens of the city.  The bikes are basic but perfect for getting around and it seems as though the program is well used.

I hope that in 20 years I will come back to Buenos Aires and see a city with tons more bikes, and fewer cars, as it truly is the perfect cycling city.

Categories: Argentina | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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