Thursday, November 29, 2012

Oh, Christmas Tree

We decided to skip the crowds of people at the malls on Black Friday and got in the Christmas spirit by chopping down our own tree. The coastal mountains just south of San Francisco are dotted with beautiful tree farms, where (for a fee) one can chop down their own tree.
A overwhelming choice of Christmas trees.

We decided to visit Skyline Ranch Tree Farm because it is one of the few organic farms. As we entered the property, we were given a bow saw and instructions on how to cut down a tree in a manner that would allow a new tree to easily grow in the former tree's place. It took us a while to find the perfect tree for our cozy apartment. Once we located it, Quarup got right to work.
There's a first for everything.
Can't get any fresher of a tree than this.

Deciding between a plastic Christmas tree and a real tree was an easy choice for us. We are not allergic to trees, we love the smell, we like supporting local family owned farms and encouraging the preservation of local agricultural land. Laure was especially excited to find an organic tree farm since she's become weary of the chemicals in products she brings into the apartment. We’ve also forgone the fake garlands and settled on the unruly real stuff made from tree clippings. Our place smells amazing.

SF has an amazing curbside composting program that expands for a while after the holiday season. For a few weeks in January the city will pick up real Christmas trees and properly compost them. The byproducts go back to local farms and are even used at the wineries in Napa and Sonoma.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Dia de los Muertos 10/02/2012

Last week, we went to Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in San Francisco.  Here is a short description from
Dia de los Muertos is a traditional Meso-American holiday dedicated to the ancestors; it honors both death and the cycle of life. In Mexico, neighbors gather in local cemeteries to share food, music, and fun with their extended community, both living and departed. The celebration acknowledges that we still have a relationship with our ancestors and loved ones that have passed away.
In the San Francisco version of this holiday, there are many artists, musicians, and people dressed as skeletons in the Mission neighborhood. It also contains a parade-like procession where different people play music and some people walk dressed as skeletons.

A scooleton.
Esqueleto Mexicano.
Lively couple
A group of mourners.
Today's version of Dia de los Muertos first originated in the 16th century as a blend of the Aztec month long summer celebration of the dead and the Spaniard's Christian holiday named "All Soul's Day." During last week's procession, artists performed Aztec traditional dancing and music.

Aztec drummer.
Aztec traditional dancing.
Aztec with impressively long feathers.
Apart from the parade, people were mourning and celebrating Dia de los Muertos for several street blocks.

Skeletons hovered over people.
A large but friendly monster.
See a video of this awesome celebration. 
The music makes us want to go to carnaval in Brazil.

Another important part of the holiday were the altars that people make in homage to their loved ones that passed away. Some altars were very elaborate, and others had a lot of space for anyone to write notes of remembrance.

An altar in classic Dia de los Muertos style.
Some altars were elaborate and gadgety.
Altar built with skateboards.
Notes to those that passed.
More notes.
A note to Quarup's father.
The mood was overall very positive and upbeat. People remembered their deceased friends and families by celebrating their happy lives instead of focusing on the sadness of their deaths. That is a great attitude to have.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 9/15

Our long layover for this vacation was in Rio de Janerio. It was Laure's first time visiting the city and she wanted to visit a couple of the famous landmarks.
See an even closer view of our interactive map.
Christ the Redeemer's view of our route in Rio.

We departed the airport heading straight the mountain base of Christ the Redeemer. Before arriving at the base of the mountain, our cab driver showed us Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí. It is the spectator bleachers for Rio's world famous Carnival parade. With luck, we hope to one day watch the parade from these bleachers.

The tram that brings tourists from the base of the Corcovado mountain up to the Christ the Redeemer was sold out until 3:30PM. Our layover in Rio was only 9 hours and we did not have three hours to spare sitting around. We decided to take advantage of a private shuttle service up the mountain that departed immediately. On the way up the mountain, the shuttle stopped at a gorgeous vista point of Christ the Redeemer and the harbor. It was a beautiful day to soak in the beauty of the Rio's harbor.
Beautiful day and an amazing view.

The shuttle continued up the mountain until we reached a government run shuttle stop. At this point we were required to purchase a ticket for the government run shuttle that would bring us the rest of the way up the mountain to the base of Christ the Redeemer. The ride to the top of Corcovado was relatively quick and efficient with shuttles frequently running.

It was the middle of the afternoon on a gorgeous spring Saturday and Christ the Redeemer was unbelievably crowded with tourists. We quickly took the signature photos and headed back down. The line to get on the government run shuttle was long and the second line to take the private shuttle the rest of the way down to where we started was even longer. We spent well over an hour waiting in line. We would not recommend anyone to take the private shuttle. It was overpriced and extremely slow at getting customers down from the mountain.
Checked another item off Laure's bucket list.

"Hanger" (anger that is set off by extreme hunger) was setting in so we took a cab to Ipanema for lunch. After calming the monster in our stomachs with Brazilian pizza and a caipirinha, we walked around the neighborhood and along the beach. It was a great afternoon to watch footvolley, snack at the food stalls and enjoy an outdoor bossanova performance. We eventually made our way to Copacabana to check out the tourist night market and professionally constructed sandcastles before heading back to the airport.
Pizza and a capahina to calm the monster in our stomachs
Laure's first time watching footvolley.
Beach side filled churros.
Bossa Nova along Ipanema.

A return trip to Rio de Janeiro is required. There are still a few more sights Laure wants to see, like the top of Sugar Loaf and a samba performance.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Iguazu Falls, Argentina and Brazil 9/14

From Buenos Aires, we took a long 21 hour bus ride to our next destination, the Iguazu Falls at the border of Argentina and Brazil.
See Google Earth KML file.

Crossing the border was relatively easy as Quarup was traveling with his Brazilian passport and Laure still had her Brazilian Visa from her last visit. If you are planning on visiting as an American citizen, it is best to get a Brazilian Visa ahead of time in the U.S. or arrive a day or two early in Iguazu to get it there.
See Google Earth KML file.

Argentina and Brazil each has its own Iguazu park that is worth visiting. From the Argentinian side, you can get really close to the waterfalls and enjoy the nearly overwhelming views. The Brazilian side offers more panoramic viewpoints that allow visitors to see most of the mile wide waterfalls. We decided to stay at a hotel for two nights in the Brazilian side, which allowed us to leave our bags there throughout our stay while we visited both parks.
Astonishing view at Garganta del Diablo.
Laure at Garganta del Diablo.
The falls seemed to go on forever.
The Upper Circuit took us to the top of many waterfalls.
The Lower Circuit took us to lower viewpoints. 
We decided to visit both parks in a single day, which turned out to be fairly easy by planning a little the previous night and hiring a driver. The two must-dos in the Argentinian side is to see the views from Garganta del Diablo ("Devil's Throat") and to take a boat ride, where the boat takes you about 20 feet from where the water falls. The rebounded splash and roar of the water was enough to dwarf us and remind us power of the waterfalls even at such distance. It gives us goosebumps to imagine the violent crash that would occur to any poor soul that got a little too close to the edge of the falls.
The boats got exhilaratingly close to the falls. 
We were completely drenched after the boat ride.
On the Brazilian side, there is more variety of outdoor activities such as rock climbing and more exposed hikes. It also has its own boat tour, although we heard it is not as exhilarating as its Argentinian counterpart. The one must-do in the Brazilian side is to walk on the paths along the river shore and take in the panoramic views of the waterfalls.
The Brazilian side provides wide views of the falls.
Catwalks allowed us to taunt the gods by walking all the way to the edge of the falls.
We also saw a lot of wildlife in both sides of Iguazu. We were particularly tormented by raccoon-like animals named coatis that kept trying to steal our food.
These cute pests named coatis love to steal empanadas.
Keep an eye out for centipede-like creatures.
Butterflies were abundant in the early spring.
Check out Quarup's butterfly.
Back when we were planning the trip, we did not originally intend to visit Iguazu. We added this side trip just before we bought the flight, which really paid off because the falls were so grandiose and astonishing that we will never forget the experience.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Buenos Aires, Argentina 9/9 - 9/12

From Mendoza we flew directly to Buenos Aries. Instead of staying at a traditional hotel, we decided to use airbnb, which is an alternative service where travelers rent out a room or apartment from a local resident at a competitive price. For this leg of the trip, we rented a studio apartment in the quaint yet urban neighborhood of Recoleta. The tree lined streets were full of boutique shops, cafes, and residents walking their designer dogs.
See an even closer view of our interactive map.

What surprised us the most about Buenos Aries was the resemblance to large Spanish cities. Many of the buildings were designed in an European style and the majority of the people looked Spanish. We learned that after Spain invaded Argentina, the Europeans decimated the native population so thoroughly that they never really mixed much.

We explored the city primarily on foot, heading first to Evita's grave site. Buenos Aries has several art galleries and we wished we could have visited more than we did. On a few occasions, we showed up at galleries that were closed. Our favorite exhibit we did see was Art of Contradictions. Pop, Realisms and Politics. Brazil – Argentina 1960 at Fundación PROA. The exhibit contrasted the differences between popular art in socialist-leaning countries versus its counterpart in capitalist countries. A few of the pieces really got us thinking.
Paying our respects to Evita
Coca-Cola vs. Che Guevara.
"A guerrilla fighter does not die to be hung on a wall."
"Order and Progress"
Claudia Andujar

Of course we had to experience Argentinean tango while in Buenos Aires. Tango got its start largely in the immigrant community in the lower income area of La Boca. It was later taken to Paris, where it evolved into a more sophisticated dance before it became popular again in Argentina. Although La Boca is still mostly lower income, its two block historic center has become a huge tourist hot spot featuring street performers, cafes, restaurants, and souvenir shops. It was fun to watch the street performers but the vibe was pretty artificial. La Boca reminded us of Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 back home: a historic area that played a major role but over the years became a tourist trap devoid of local residents.

Today, most porteños (i.e. Buenos Aires residents) dance at Milongas, which is what they call the tango clubs. Since we did not have any tango background, we took an hour long introductory tango lesson with a mixed group of travelers from throughout South America. The package included dinner and a show. Although the performance was geared towards tourists, it was still very authentic. The dancers where extremely talented and the performance was well choreographed, in contrast to the street dancers we later saw in La Boca. The performance was purely tango, which is what we wanted.
Tango on the streets of La Boca.
Our first tango class.
Professional tango performance

We used the remainder of our time to wander the streets and eat at cafes and small local restaurants. There were not too many famous sights too see, which was fine with us because that left us more time to eat.
El Cuarito's famous pizza.
Street hot dogs with a choice of dozens of toppings.
Traditional mate

On our last morning we took a four hour bike tour. We learned that biking has become a important aspect of city planning and a lot of bike lanes have been added in the past three years. Even coming from one of the top American cities for biking, we were very jealous of Buenos Aries' expansive network of protected bike lanes. Even so, our bicycle guides wished there were even more bike lanes. We biked to multiple spots in Buenos Aires, where the guides pointed out important buildings and explained the historical changes the city has undergone. Our guides also shared their perspectives on government politics and their country's future. We recommend anyone who knows how to ride a bike to take a similar tour.
City bike tour.
Loving the protected bike lanes.

We departed Buenos Aries by bus from the main terminal. Its long corridor contained several restaurants, cafes, stores and even a barber. The bus terminal quality surpassed those of some small international airports.