Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Heidi the Princess

I’m not sure when she became MY dog but the breeder had said that dogs know who is mom in the house, and when the kids left to go to college, Heidi and I were left here alone. I like to think that she thought of me as mom. A vet once said, “She looks at you with such trust”. You never think that a little animal can weave its way into your heart and family, and that when they are gone, a hole remains. It feels silly to mourn so strongly for a dog and I realize I never until today really felt empathy for those who told me their dog had passed. To live it is to understand what it feels like.
            Jen had begged for a dog since she was 6.  My little animal lover cared for nature’s living creatures with all her heart and soul.  She was the one who buried a dead bluejay in the yard and convinced us to deliver a dying squirrel to the animal shelter. I was a reluctant dog owner mainly because my childhood dogs were unruly and problematic.  My mom had many talents but training dogs was not one of them. Besides, my husband was not a dog lover.  His requirement for owning a dog was one that would not bark, shed, yap, jump or destroy the house. By the time Jen was 12, we had gone through the “pet” ownership of goldfish, lizard, and parakeets, starting with the least needy and working our way up.  The last and final test was caring for a friend’s Springer Spaniel for an entire month. Molly was gentle, kind and obedient, content to lay on the front lawn and watch the world go by. “This isn’t too bad”, we thought, “We can do this!” Thus began my search for the perfect dog.
            One had to know me to understand the amount of research that goes into making a purchase, and this acquisition that would remain with us for years and years required careful study. Remember now, no yapping, no barking, no jumping, no shedding, and even more importantly, no aggravating existing allergies. However no amount of research prepares you for spontaneity and the undeniably irresistibleness of a puppy. Word of warning – don’t go look unless you plan to buy. A neighbor told me about a friend whose brown lab had just had a litter of puppies.  I grew up with a lab; they are smart, lovable, and great family pets. I went to visit, and came home having left a deposit and taken pictures.  The kids were overjoyed and we named the puppy I had bought – we were going to call her Sienna.  Then buyers remorse set in.   This was not a nonshedding lap dog – this was a dog that would bark, dig holes, jump, shed and bring dust and pollen into the house.  It would grow to be my weight, capable of dragging me down the street.  It would eat enormous amounts of food and would poop all over the yard. My instincts told me it would not work but my mommy heart couldn’t bear to tell my kids that the puppy they had named was not coming home with us.  I felt terrible but promised that the search would continue and it would be for the best….terrible mommy.
            I narrowed my list to small dogs – there was a litter of Boston Terriers up near the Russian River-too far for me to drive alone.  I met King Charles Spaniels and I visited several bichons. One Chinese family had a litter born by “mistake” when the dogs of their two daughters ended up at home together and had a little too much togetherness. The parent dogs were hyper and yappy. I drove to Sacramento and saw puppy mill-like homes, homes that smelled of dog and parent dogs that were nutty. I saw bichons that didn’t look like bichons.  Then we met Penney. 
            Penney was a mom in Cupertino who had several bichons of her own. She bred her dogs very selectively and not often. The females, she sold to homes with contracts allowing her to show them; the males went to homes and were sometimes used as studs.  Penney’s house was a normal home and was immaculate; her dogs were calm and well behaved, and they were beautiful. Jen and I visited and the puppies crawled all over us but one settled in Jen’s arms and lay there sleeping and unmoving for over a half an hour.  This was our dog. But – the dog, a female, came with a contract. I signed my rights away - she had the right to show the dog on any weekend  and take it for the entire weekend(that could be ok, we could go away and not need to find a dog sitter and when we wanted to go away, she would sit for the dog), we had to keep her groomed at all times (that could be ok, Penny would show me how to groom and the dog would be beautiful), we had to have a litter of puppies of which she would keep all except one (that could be ok, it would be a great experience for the kids), we could not have the dog spayed (I was naïve and thought that could be ok too).  After all, this was the perfect dog- calm, loving, nonshedding, hypoallergenic and non yappy.  We were in heaven.  We named her Heidi.
            Heidi came to us at 6 weeks, stayed in a metal pen in our kitchen, the floor covered with newspaper. We read many books. I was determined to have the perfectly trained dog; I was not going to have an unruly, ill mannered one.  Since I was home during the day, I tethered her to my waist with a leash and she trotted alongside me obediently. We had a crate which she loved.  At night she slept with Jen. It was blissful or maybe I have only memories for the good times.  Heidi loved plastic soda jugs and would run around the front yard chasing jugs that we would kick around for her.  At times during the day, she would get this charge of energy and would dash in a circle, around and around and around until she flopped down in exhaustion. The neighbors loved her, loved her so much that two neighbors bought bichons of their own.  At one point, an elderly neighbor asked me how many daughters I had because he would see the bichon being walked by 3 different girls during the day-one blonde, one brunette and one with black hair.  “No”, I replied, “There are three in our neighborhood”.
            We took her to Saratoga School for dogs and she was a star.  We taught her tricks and she learned readily – beg, jump, dance, crawl, high 5.  She even learned to wag her tail on command, something the instructor’s dog would demonstrate and a trick I was determined she would learn.  It was a big hit with guests.  She went with us to places that dogs were allowed and when not, she stayed happily at the kennel.
Heidi visited the snowy Sierras, rode in our tandem kayak sitting happily up front and getting smiles and waves from boaters. Heidi camped, burrowing herself deep in our sleeping bags to stay warm. She layed on a blanket while I read and Ray fished, spending many a weekend up at Baum Lake and Hat Creek. She jogged with me every morning for more than a decade, 3 miles up and down Los Altos Avenue.  We became such an icon that if I was running alone, people would roll down their windows and ask where she was. One shopkeeper came out of her store one day, the Fish and Chip place, to ask why Heidi wasn’t running with me. Some mornings, I could almost hear her groan when I told her it was time to go run, and she lay stubbornly on her pillow, wanting to stay and sleep.  One day, a few years ago, she stopped in the middle of the road and I knew it was time for her to retire from running.
            Heidi, to Penney’s disappointment, never became a show dog. It was partly my fault for refusing to put braces on her teeth.  Braces on my kids teeth was ok, but on a dog, no way. Heidi also was slightly bow legged and her paws angled outward. When she went into heat, she would throw up, and so Penney reluctantly agreed that Heidi should be spayed and so she never achieved stardom as a “best in class”.
            Though we like to think of her as such, Heidi was not always angelic. In her early months, after an evening with dinner guests, I found her in her crate chewing on what I believed to be her bone and come to realize in horror that it was the cell phone of one of our guests.  The antenna was beyond repair!  I was convinced that manufacturers of toilet paper and tissues must use some ingredient that lures dogs.  Otherwise, why would she go to such lengths to get a mouthful of toilet paper to chew on.  Wastebaskets were constantly overturned.  Even in the last days of her life, I found strips of Kleenex shredded on the floor.  Often, we would hear the noise of the toilet paper holder being spun round and round as Heidi went after her delicacy.  One time, she did a take and ran, leaving a long ribbon of paper that wound out the bathroom door, and down the hall, leaving us laughing uncontrollably.  I even made a baffle out of a plastic container to keep her from getting to the toilet paper. Heidi would often be caught, head in purses, digging for that wad of Kleenex that she was sure was in there, albeit at the very bottom.  She would jump onto the kitchen chairs to reach for dinner napkins.  At one point, when I met bichon owners on the street, I would inquire about their dogs’ habits and came to learn that this fetish was not unique to our dog.  She was also attracted to bird seed and the bag I kept for cleaning the birdcage.   Having eaten mouthfuls of birdseed presented for some unusual looking poop the next day.
            Then there was the chocolate.  Jen was scolded many a time for harboring this poison in her room.  Upon returning home and finding chewed up wrappers on the floor, I would proceed to call the vet with the amount I thought Heidi had ingested.  After several $75 stomach pumpings, they told me I should just do it myself with hydrogen peroxide in a bulb baster, squeeze it down her throat.  She never learned that cause and effect, but had many stomach pumpings in her life.

           Penny told me her dogs like to use their paws for functional purposes.  Heidi’s was being able to maneuver her pillow or a towel to a place that she wanted it to be.  Every day, she would use 2 paws and scoot herself backward until the pillow was strategically placed right in front of the door, or down the hall near one of us.  We would often laugh as she pawed and pawed at a towel so it was a perfectly comfortable lump that she could rest her head on.
Tom, our neighborhood dog walker, called Heidi a princess.  She lived the good life, laying on her throne – an armchair in the family room that had a direct view of the hallway.  From this spot, she could see 180 degrees and keep an eye on everyone’s comings and goings.  She would follow you from room to room but when you returned to the family room, she would take her place on her throne once more.
She knew when it was time to “go to work” and would spend her days at Abilities United, laying on a chair by my desk, waiting patiently for me, getting hugs and kisses from colleagues and our clients, many of whom were disabled. People often said that the mood in the office was calmer when Heidi was there and they called her a de-stresser. 
Heidi helped the kids, especially Jen, through their teen years. Many a tear were shed into her fluffy back and licked by her warm tongue; she was there for all of us when we had a bad day or needed a shoulder to cry on.  She seemed to understand her role – it was to comfort, to love, and to share in our joys and sorrows. 
            Bichons can be picky and Heidi was no exception.  A lab that eats everything, she was not. If the fixins were not to her liking, she preferred not to eat it. Good and tasty food was a simple requirement and in her last days, we tried a myriad of foods including fresh turkey, roast pork, baked chicken, all to no avail. She would be interested one day, reject it the next.  The refusal to eat was part of the kidney ailment but was also her demise.  Feeding my family was something I took seriously and did well, and her not eating was distressing but there was nothing I could do about it.
            As she aged, I began to realize that the process very much resembled how my father was aging.  There were good days and bad, and as time went on, more bad and good. Gradually I watched her decline and lose interest in those things that used to excite and please her.  Suddenly, she stopped coming to us when we called her.  She stopped barking when the doorbell rang and I realized she was losing her hearing. Her eyes still looked at me with trust and love but I could see them clouding; she could no longer see in the dark.  Heidi began to sleep very deeply and would startle when I touched her.  One day, she had an accident and was sleeping on a soaked towel.  That was when the vet diagnosed her with kidney failure.  Drinking copious amounts of water, peeing a lot and refusing to eat were the primary symptoms.  We did an iv fluid treatment to filter the toxins from her body.   It made her cold and she trembled that night, but it kept her going through the holidays, and she was able to enjoy the company of her family.  A month later, her symptoms returned and I knew I had two options – prolong her for a few more weeks only to have her be miserable once again, or set her free and say good bye.  It is an agonizing decision, one that you are never sure is the right time.  My decision made, I came home to find her perky and following me from room to room. It just about broke me, but the vet reassured me it was the right time. She had lost so much weight, she was all bones.  Not being able to eat, she threw up sometimes several times a day.  She walked slowly and with great effort. It was time and it was the kindest way to give back to her all that she had given to us.
            The years pass way too quickly and though she lived an extraordinarily long life, it was not long enough. How did a decade and a half go by so fast? How could this young feisty puppy become a senior in what seemed like a flash of time? Heidi lived for us, did what we asked and gave so much in return.  She made a place in each of our hearts and even the dad who couldn’t understand how dog owners could be so crazy about their pets, couldn’t bear to let her go. Dog owners have a special bond and I am grateful for the many people in my neighborhood that Heidi has led me to meet. She brought a smile to everyone she ran into and even on her final day, a postman who was rushed and bustling, saw her and a smile lit up his face.  Heidi, you will be missed but you will remain a part of us forever.  Your throne will remain and you will be there in spirit, and I will always hear your little claws pattering down the hall, and see your face in the front window when I drive away.  Your spot next to my bed is empty but the memories of you laying next to me will never go away.  I will see you on Jen’s bed, snuggled up next to her in the morning.  This is your home you will live on in spirit, under a tree in this yard that you once roamed. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

BA and home

We spent the morning walking the streets of Palermo, winding our way through the botanic garden and then back to the hotel.  Our flight isn't until 9pm so we lounge in the hotel lobby and I walk the streets nearby one last time.  Thames Ave. is quite nice, with boutiques and cafes.  They are making an attempt to clean up the area and I see several newly painted buildings in bright colors.  Amazing how the color gives character to the neighborhood.  I hope they continue to repaint the rest of the buildings.

We leave for the airport and prepare for our journey home.  It has been an interesting adventure, learning about the culture and economy of Argentina.  We were not victims of scam nor theft and wonder if the stories have been overplayed.  When asked, the locals seemed to agree it has not gotten better, so perhaps we were lucky.  In any case, we  found the Argentinians we met - cab drivers, waiters, hotel personnel, shopkeepers etc. to be friendly and kind people.  It is amazing how well we got by on just a few words of Spanish.  Gestures work well, and the language is not too difficult to figure out.  The country is so sparsely populated and the landscape changes quickly and is very beautiful.  What we saw in scenery was spectacular.  We were told that the weather is normally not so good, so we assume we were fortunate in that respect.  I think life for Argentinians right now is difficult.  Inflation is at 34% and the cost of living is high.  We found clothing and food to be comparable in price to the US but Argentinian wages are much lower than ours.  It seems to be a land of animal lovers as dogs roam all over, and seem to be happily coexisting with people, whether owned or stray.  Infrastructure needs are great as sidewalks and roads are in need of repair.  We've enjoyed our 2 weeks and have many stories to tell, photos to share, and advice to give!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Return to Argentina

Today marks the end of our journey.  We wake up to an email from United saying our flight has been delayed.  Thanks to Ray's status on United, we learn that we have been taken care of and rebooked on a better connection that goes through Houston.

After getting cash and gas, we return the tin box car to Hertz and are back at the airport for our trip to Buenos Aires.  A young man in line tells us he has had clothing and sunglasses stolen out of his luggage on a prior trip.  He advised not checking in too early so as not to give baggage handlers time to rifle through your stuff.  He tells us about his adventure, he had just finished scaling mt. Fitzgerald Roy over a period of 4 days, impressive!

Our flight is uneventful and our ride through BA goes through some charming streets.  We return to the Esplendor Palermo Soho, where they have also upgraded us to a nicer room.  We walk a few blocks to a neighborhood restaurant serving Spanish food, and have their seafood paella.  On our way back, we stop at the Chinese owned small grocery store and learn that they are Mandarin speaking.  We've been there several times now, buying apples for Ray.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Glacier View

It´s another beautiful day, blue skies, a slight chill in the morning air turning warm by mid morning.  We wake a bit stiff but surprisingly not sore.  On the agenda today is a boat ride to Glacier Viedma.  The girl at the Poincenot Hotel is again quite helpful in providing information.  Reservations are necessary for the tours, run through Patagonia Adventures.  They have only one space left but after checking, are able to accommodate us both.  It appears that several tour operators use one boat operator.  Bus transfer to the dock is 80 pesos per person round trip for the 20 min. ride to Bahia Tunel.  Bus leaves at 11:15, boat leaves at 11:45.  There is an afternoon trip at 2:30.  We will do Viedma Light, which is a boat trip only, no glacier trekking.  The boat holds 30 people, bringing a group to the glacier, and picking up an earlier trekking for their return trip.

I choose to sit on the upper deck, the fresh breeze blowing in my face  as the boat rapidly approaches small then large icebergs.  So beautiful they are,. floating in the aquamarine lake.  Close up, they are translucent blue and emerald, like crystalline formations.  Viedma is 378 square miles, the biggest glacier in south america.  The face is 131 ft. tall and 2.5 miles wide, stretching19 miles in depth. We spend 30 riding out, 1 hr. cruising the icebergs and the face of the glacier itself.  The tall face is whiter than I had imagined and unlike Perito Moreno, we don´t hear much calving. They tell us that this glacier has been quite stable and has not retreated in several hundred years.  Glacier Upsala which can be visited on a 6 hr. boat ride is retreating at more than 600 ft a year!

Most of the guests are young and almost all leave to go on the trekking adventure.  I take more pictures than I will have time to do anything with but can´t resist the beautiful lines in the rock formations and ice structures. I imagine floating through bright blue icebergs in a boat and how magical it must be.

After returning back to El Chalten, we lunch on waffles at Wafleteria and then Ray goes in search of rivers.

We see the trail head to Laguna Torre, another 7 hr. round trip hike that takes you up to Cerro Torre. The trailhead is off the main road and down across the steel bridge.  Finally at 5, it is time to head back to El Calafate. The jagged peaks are blue along the highway, what they call the loniest highway, and at sunset, the rolling hills turn golden yellow. We arrive at Hosteria Roble Sur where they have upgraded us to a suite, then have a fabulous meal at La Tablita, a parilla serving grilled meats.  According to Fodors, it is the best in town. It is way too much beef but quite tasty - tenderloin, buttery soft and Argentinian chorizo, which is not as spicy as Mexican chorizo in sf.  Matter of fact, the food here is not highly seasoned or spiced, and there is a distinct lack of fresh vegetables everywhere.

There are many couples there, young and old and I realize that we have seen so many young couple, in love, gazing into each others eyes, reaching across the table for each others hand.  Reminds me of being 20 something, how quickly we become 50 somethings, but fortunately still with a glow in our hearts!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Long Hike

The town of El Chalten is small, and with character.  There are 500 permanent residents but in the summer, over 60,000 people descend on this  trekking capital of Argentina, and the starting point for the northern part of Parque Nacional Los Glaciars. The main street consists of hostels, hosterias, small restaurants and adventure operators.  During the day, it empties out and at night, dogs roam and many people are walking up and down the street.  It appears that many of the guests are tourists, young hikers and climbers. We hear many languages spoken here, English, French and Spanish. It is quite convenient to get around without a car as most adventure companies offer bus service.  There are 2 daily bus transers from El Calafate to El Chalten, and vice versa.  

The information on the internet is sparse regarding the hiking options. The girl at the Poincenot Hotel is much more helpful.  There is one major and most popular hike which goes to the face of Mt. Fitz Roy.  You can start at El Chalten or take a bus to El Pilar where you hike up or ride the gondola up to Poincenot. We starts at the end of Av. San Martin and do the 400meter climb through the woods of lenga trees just starting to turn color.  We imagine how fiery red the hillsides will look in a few weeks. The open areas give us a teaser of the jagged mountain peaks and the trail quickly rises above the Rio Blanco river valley.  After about 3 hrs. or about 4 miles, you reach the base camp of Poincenot where there is a campground.  At this point, the trail rises quite steeply for about a 1-2 hrs climb. The trail has large steep boulders and gravel; it is a hard climb, one of the toughest we have ever done. Even though we are climbing without backpacks and at low altitude, I find the top painful, whether from the fear of the height or the tall steps or just the difficulty of the climb, I don´t know.  I am about to suggest we quit, when a couple, on their way down, encourages me to take one step at a time and keep going.  Thank you!   The view along the way is stupendous, over the valley and lakes. Through openings, you get a teaser view of Mt. Fitz Roy.  The trail gets steeper still.  At the top, there is yet another hill to climb for about half and hour, after which you reach the ridge.  Below is an emerald Laguna de los Tres and the face of Fitz Roy looms in front of you.  It is an incredible sight.  You can hear the glacier calving as you sit and contemplate this enormous glacier.  Glaciar de los Tres spills downwards to the shore of Laguna de los Tres, a glacial tarn, 

The hike down is much easier than I had feared, fortunately. The walk back though is much longer than we had thought and in total we hike 15 miles in 11 hrs - 4 of which were spent photographing and resting.

We end the day with a fine dinner at the Microbrewery, the apple pie is excellent.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Glaciers, and travel to El Chaten

We had plans to leave the hotel early for photos and return for breakfast, but the girl at the hotel was not convinced we would make it back by 10:30 so we wolf down a quick breakfast at 7am, then head out to catch the early morning light at Perito Moreno glacier, which is a 1 hr. drive out of town.  The roads are quite empty and we try to beat the tour buses out there.  This is the southern part of Park Nacional Los Glaciars.  Most of the visitors go out on a day tour, or a tour package.  Driving out is actually a nicer option as you can spend as much time as you like.  The weather is perfect with blue skies and no wind; it is a photographer's paradise.

The area has huge catwalks that lead down to the face of the glacier.  I read that during the summer, the crowds can get so thick you have to look over people´s heads to see the glaciers.  Now, there is hardly anyone there and we watch as the glacier calves and pieces crash to the water with an impressive loud crashing boom.  It is an amazing spectacle and we could easily spend an entire day watching and waiting.  The pieces of icebergs float out on to Lake Argentine. The photography is amazing, the crevaces so bright blue.  The face of the glaciers rise up hundreds of feet.  In older photographs, you can see that there used to be an arch where tour boats would pass through.  The glacier used to come across to the catwalks but it has retreated back to reveal a span of water hundreds of feet wide.  We walk to the far end of the catwalk and get different perspectives.  This experience has been one of the highlights of this trip.  The top surface of the ice field looks like peaks of dirty meringue.  We reluctantly leave, knowing we still have a drive ahead of us in order to reach El Chalten by dark.

We return back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and head into town for gas, then on to El Chalten.  It is a trip that takes 2-3 hours. Much of the landscape is barren, but you can see Fitz Roy in the distance, and there are some interesting terrain along the way. We have the road to ourselves and arrive in El Chalten by dark.  Unfortunately, the hotel I booked, Hosteria El Pilar is 17km down an unpaved road and we don´t think this car can make it so far.  So we end up not staying there and finding an alternate place, the Poincenot, right in the center of this tiny town.  Dinner at the Microbrewary is cheap and satisfying.  I have the locha, a local stew, and Ray has homemade ravioli, yum!  As we wait for our food, we try to make sense of the hiking trails and which one we should take tomorrow.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Aerolingus Argentinas and El Calafate

We leave the hotel by 7 after a quick breakfast. The only people in the dining room are a group from India. We are flying Aerolingus to El Calafate today and I have read about their horrible on time record and service, so we hope that our flight leaves on time. We have only a one hour layover between flights.  We end up in line behind the group of people from India. They are with a tour group, and are from Australia, also going to El Calafate via BA. We chat with them and all agree that it is silly to have to fly all the way back to BA and then flying back south to El Calafate since El Calafate is only a few hours south of Bariloche.  Security rejects Ray´s fly rod and wants him to check it in.  Knowing that fly rods get lost when checked in separately, we come up with the great idea of wrapping green plastic over my suitcase with his rod holder secured to the side.  Hopefully it will make the journey safely.

The flight is completely full and we arrive in BA on time only to find that our connecting flight has been DELAYED from 11:30 until 2:30.   We manage to pass the time watching the baggage carts on the tarmac, and identifying my suitcase. Ray stands watch over his fishing rod.  This flight is also full, delayed by almost another hour on the tarmac due to congestion.  Sure is congested, suddenly all the planes at the airport are taking off, all before ours.

We fly over very flat and brown terrain, with a single river flowing southward and land at the small airport in El Calafate.  The ride by cab to town is 30 min. long and we wonder why they built the airport so far away from this tiny town.  Were they expecting super growth?  The Hertz office in town is a small place and the cars are soooo old, old Chevys, ours has many dings and scrapes, and the knob to the air vent is missing.  It is basically again a tin box on wheels.  Isn´t there any quality control with Hertz franchises? The Hosteria Roble Sur is outside of town, on a hill overlooking the lake and quite nice.  We eat at a local Argentinian restaurant serving traditional stew and lamb pie.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Starting out early, we drive the unpaved road from Junin to Parque Lanin.  As it is gusty and cold, we decide to do a driving tour instead of hiking. The park is a total of 146 square miles and filled with Araucaria or pehuen trees, which resemble artificial Christmas trees. Lainin stands at 12,385 ft, a dormant volcano.  The terrain is barren except for these trees.  Ray checks out the river and then we head out.

We are on our wa back to Bariloche via Route 40 which takes us south through a landscape that is as varied as California´s in a span of just a few hours.  We drive from the grassy plains to a river valley with mountains on both sides, and then to an area that has tall sandstone columns and formations.  It takes us almost the entire afternoon to drive down and we arrive at the intersection that leads to the town of Villa Traful, 30 km down an unpaved road.  We go a short distance and decide not to proceed, but then feel we must as the guidebooks say it is an absolutely beautiful town.  It is almost dark when we reach the overlook and it is indeed a beautiful setting, a lake with granite cliffs that come steeply down to the water´s edge.  Alas, we missed the sunset over this town, but as it is getting dark, we head back out the dirt road and toward Bariloche.

We have reservations at Villa Huinid, along the shore of the lake.  We pick up McDonalds for dinner and discover their hamburgers have no ketchup, mustard, onions or pickles.  The hotel is beautiful and sits across the street from the lake. What a pity we have to leave early the next morning to catch our flight back to Buenos Aires and El Calafate.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A View of Lanin Volcano

Lanin volcano is a majestic sight from the picture window of the dining room at Spring Creek Lodge.  Although Lanin is not active, it is a reminder of the strong forces of nature and the other volcanos in nearby Chile that continue to erupt each year.  Can something so innocent looking spew forth so much ash as to create area wide devastation?

This morning's photography is satisfying as the early rays of sun cast orange beams on the mountains and clouds of mist erupt from the ponds.  Tall thistles, some still bright purple stand tall among others that have withered with the autumn temperatures.  Frost sits on the boards of the footbridges and I hear the sounds of an unfamiliar bird call.  The dog with no name scampers behind me wanting to be petted.  After hours in the chilly air, I am more than ready for the scrambled eggs and hot coffee that await me.  Ray is fishing today with a guide and I have the day to myself which I will fill by reading, photography and walking among the ponds and paths of the property. Their 2 black dogs are friendly and protective, following me as I walk, and waiting for me when I stop.  Batman and Humpy are their names. They are well behaved except for their barking at night. The third little brown wire haired terrier apparently appeared 3 days ago.  He is the one with no name but seems quite happy to have found this new home. Dogs in Argentina are free to roam, and maybe because they are given the freedom to roam, they are better behaved.  I haven't seen any on leash except the dog walkers in Buenos Aires.  They all seem to know to stay out of the street and mind their own business.  Matter of fact, all the animals roam free, the horses, guanacos, etc.

Dinner tonight at the lodge is is grilled pork, onion bisque and tiramisu. Ray is happy as he caught over 20 trout and had a good day on the river. Tomorrow we head back to Bariloche.

Monday, March 11, 2013

7 lakes

Today's agenda is to drive north through the Ruta de los Siete Lagos, 7 lakes route, which will go past San Martin and to reach Junin de Los Andes by dark.  This is part of the Circuitos Grande.  As we head out of town on Rte 237 we pass the Rio Correntoso, the world's shortest river at 984 feet, flowing from Lake Correntoso to Nahuei Huapi.  Further north, we see lake after lake, surrounded by heavy forested mountainsides.  The pristine surroundings are void of power lines, boats, signs and houses.  The paved road quickly ends as we see workers building guardrails and stone walls.  In a few years, the road to San Martin will be a regular highway;  for now, we bump along through the dust for about 30 km feeling adventurous.  We stop to check out rivers and streams, and run into the couple from San Leandro by the side of a trail.  By late afternoon we reach San Martin, a resort and ski town as lovely as the guidebooks say, built around a central square. The buildings are modern and cohesive, giving it the look of a well planned resort town.  The streets are quiet until 5 when the stores reopen, and suddenly throngs of cars and people appear!  We have our daily helado, Ray gets his fishing license while I check to make sure the fishing guide, Dario, he has booked is legit, and we head back out to complete our journey.

The terrain changes from thick forests to desert scrub brush then to grasslands with fields of cattle--grass fed beef perhaps?.  The town of Junin de Los Andes is small and primarily residential, workers' shacks then newer apartments and small houses.  The paved road ends and we turn onto a dirt road for about 10 km, and reach a wooden gate of Spring Creek Lodge.  It is an oasis among the dry landscape, set along the Chimiquien River.  The bright blue cottages sit on green grass and framed by mountains on both sides, with Lanin volcano at the end.  The hosts are attentive and dinner is superb- pumpkin muffins stuffed with eggplant purée and followed by huge steaks.  We are surprised to meet a couple from Palo Alto, both educators, and also supporters of POST no less!  We share travel adventures and give them the name of the bistro in Buenos Aires.  Either it is a small world, or the Bay Area is filled with adventurous travelers, for we never fail to meet others from Silicon Valley when in faraway places.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Circuito Chico

The clouds are orange at dawn and the skies are clear; the air is crisp and clear.  What a beautiful sight!  I immediately head down to the lake to take pictures and we decide to drive back up to the panoramic point.  How different it looks from last night!  You can see out past several lakes toward Chile.  Below is the Lao Lao hotel.  The blue of the sky matches the crystal blue waters.  The hotel manager encourages us to take the gondola at Cerre Otto which takes you up to 4,600 ft. and we spend several hours up there, me taking photos and Ray taking photos for other people.  He makes many people happy today.  From the top, the 360 degree view is breathtaking.  The lake district is a favorite vacation spot for skiers in the winter and tourists in the summer.

We then drive to the National Park office for Parquet Nacional Nahuei Huapi in Bariloche proper.  It is closed-yes it is sunday.  We head to Villa Los Angostura, 50 miles NW of Bariloche on route 231 and check in at the Hosteria El Establo before going exploring. The Hosteria El Establo is a tranquil bed and breakfast on the edge of town built of logs and with a huge great room where breakfast is served. Thinking about going to Villa Traful, we decide it is too far down an unpaved road and opt instead to drive west in the direction of Chile.  Further down the road we see more and more evidence of the Chilean Puyehue volcanic eruption of 2011 that left 3-4 ft of ash in places, wiping out homes and roads.  The river is a gray landscape, stopped in time, with dead trees and no signs of life.  On the lakeshore, we come across an unusual sight.  The rocks are as light as paper and the surface is a sheet of floating pebbles.  At first sight, you would think it was mud or sand, but upon closer examination, you see it is a solid mass of pebbles sitting above 2-3 ft of water.  As the wind blows, the mass moves, breaking up in spots.  It is such a curious and fascinating phenomenon that we spend hours there.  We then drive over to the guardhouse, not sure if it is a park entrance or border checkpoint, and turn around.

It is dark by the time we return to Villa Los Angostura and our restaurant choice is poor, as it is the worst pizza ever.  We end with pretty good gelato, "helado", which is piled high on a cone, and buy enough chocolate to take home. At the chocolate store, we meet a couple from San Leandro also buying chocolate.  Bay area residents are everywhere.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Hertz, are you for real?.

We are excited to be continuing our journey to the Lake District.  It is a 30 min. ride to the AEP airport near the city center, costing 50 pesos. As we stand in line at the BA airport, we see people with their luggage wrapped in green plastic wrap.  Thinking there might be a theft problem, we decide to do the same, despite our misgivings of being totally unecological.  We fly out  on LAN airlines at 11:45am and land in Bariloche at 2 in the afternoon to winds at 30 knots and foreboding looking clouds.

Hertz, you can't possibly be serious!  If we opt to use our credit card's collision insurance, the we have to guarantee the full cost of the car $16,000US on our credit card?!  If we buy your insurance, the deductible is $1,000US and we void our credit card's coverage?  Bad deal all around.
On top of that, the cars are so low end, no auto lock, all stick., and basically a metal box on wheels.

Ray drives very cautiously to avoid dings, crashes or rollovers.  We head to Bariloche, the gateway to the scenic splendors of the northern Lake District and headquarters for the 2M acre Nahuei Huapi National Park.  The wind is so strong the whitecaps on Nahuei Huapi lake, a glacial remnant, are huge.  Most of the town sits within a block of the waterfront with soaring peaks separating Argentina from Chile in the background.  We drive around the west side of the lake to the Peninsula Petit Hotel, which sits at the northern end of the peninsula not far from the famous Lao Lao hotel.  It is a beautiful lodge constructed of huge logs; the big picture window looks out over the lake.  Our room also has a lake view. We drop off our bags and head out to an overlook but the skies are cloudy and visibility is poor, plus it is gusty.  From the overlook, you can see over 3 huge lakes and the Lao Lao Hotel below.

Our hotel is located on a less traveled road and there are few restaurants in the area.  We go to a nearby restaurant where we are the only diners.  We have thin pizza and head back.

Friday, March 08, 2013

A full day

First order of the day was to buy a pair of gym shoes. My blistered feet are much happier after that. Next we opted for a taxi today down to Plaza del Mayo, the setting for Argentina's most politically turbulent moments.  It is a site for ceremonies, rallies and protests, and was the setting in the movie Evita, where crowds cheered for the Perons, who were standing on the balcony of the Presidential Palace, the Casa Rosada, which sits at one end of the Plaza; it was originally whitewashed with oxblood, and today is still a pink color.   The plaza has a strong police presence and is filled with people enjoying the out of doors.  Government buildings surround the square and the side streets.  We walk up and down several of them, admiring the architecture.  
We duck into the cathedral to read our guidebook.  Mass is in session and we are later to learn that people will throng here after the new pope, from Argentina, is announced. 

          We walk south to San Thelmo, to get a flavor of the area.  As we walk, we notice that the  
          neighborhood becomes more run down, and automobile repair and machine shops line the
          streets.  Grafitti is everywhere, some of which we admire for the great artistry and colors, others
          are merely words that destroy the historical brick and architecture.  The streets fill up in the late
          afternoon and we mingle with Spanish tourists, local residents and workers.

          Our return walk takes us past the Theatre Colon and in the direction of the Plaza San Martin.
          Huge Banyan trees are in the park, their branches propped by stands of varying heights.  Dogs 
          are everywhere, some strays, some with owners, none on leash.  The only leashed dogs are those 
          being walked in groups of as many as 10 or more by dog walkers!  I must say, this is a land of 
          Bichons as I have seen more white fluffy dogs than anywhere else.

          We are vigilent about where we read our map-it is unrealistic to think you can get by without
          looking at one, though we have seen so few Asians that I'm sure we stand out as tourists. We
          have not used the atms in the city, using the pesos we brought.  Even though the rate at Travelex
          was poor, we are convinced that was a good move.  We carry some cash in zippered pockets and
          my purse has only a guidebook, water and my old shoes.  We are careful where we walk and
          keep our belongings to ourselves, but neither did we see any bird poop scams nor any purse
          snatchings, even in this crowded area. So far so good!
         We had made another reservation at Las Pizarros and again enjoy a fine meal of duck breast and
         rabbit.  We felt sad that we would not be returning there any time soon.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Fine dining

We find Buenos Aires to be very walkable and the streets are busy in the morning and late afternoon.  Many of the stores and restaurants are closed between 2 - 5pm and at 5 or so, traffic picks up.  Argentinians are like the Spanish, and enjoy their late nights with dinner at 9pm.

We walk 10 miles today starting with one of the world's greatest necropolises, Cementerio de Recoleto  14 acres of wide leafy avenues, narrow streets and small alleys. Among the 6,400 tombs and mausoleums, 70 are National Historic Monuments. The architecture is eclectic. It is like a city neighborhood.  Some crypts have 2 floors of basements holding up to 18 caskets each.   They stay in a family for generations but if they are sold, the caskets must be removed.  The crypts are airtight; occasionally one will leak and the bodies will decay giving off an odor.  We see how elaborate some of them are.

Eva Peron's tomb is a part of the Duarte family's tomb and no doubt the most visited since the movie Evita came out. After the cemetery tour, we walk through the Evita Peron museum dedicated to her history and then through the Musee de Belle Arts, the fine arts museum.  We sample Argentinian gelato, helado, which is more syrupy and custard like than Italian gelato,  and try to get wifi at Starbucks.  The weather report says 89 degrees but the breeze and clouds keep the air comfortable.  Recoleta has different feel than Palermo Soho where we are staying.  Void of graffiti, the area is upscale with modern hotels, touristy cafes and high end shopping. The streets are pretty empty and there are very few tourists, so the sidewalks are quiet, compared to the local daily activity of our hotel.  We see no evidence of "bird poop scam" or pick pocketing and begin to feel more at ease.  Day 2 with everything we own still intact!

Our greatest find of the day is a Fodors choice Las Pizarros Bistro on Thames and Charcas is around the corner and a few blocks from Esplendor Palermo Soho where we are staying.  Walking up to the building, you would never guess it was a restaurant.  When closed, the bars on the windows, no sign, and black heavy doors make it seem like a shuttered building.  It is by reservation only-doors are locked behind each guest that enters.  Many of the guests seem to know the chef and eachother. The menu appears on chalkboards hanging on the walls, and is always changing. Described as eclectic, the food is superbly prepared and delicious.  Small and intimate, the local chef visits and describes his preparation with us.  We start with rabbit, slow cooked for 7 hours then pan fried and shredded with leeks and zucchini. My pork loin sits on a bed of risotto and is accompanied by a nutty paste and an apricot chutney.  Ray's rib eye is a good cut and served on a bed if potatoes with beets and mushrooms.  The pear crumble tastes fresh and light.  Guests linger over wine and dessert, and we find this to be simply delightful.  We make plans to return the following day.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Arrival Argentina

Argentina - it's a place we have talked for years about visiting.  I'm not sure if it is the name "Patagonia"and its association with adventure clothing, the fly fishing opportunities, or the photos we've seen that have made it so attractive to us.  We've never been south of the US and don't speak more than a few words of Spanish.  Planning this trip, the hotels/flights/car rentals has been challenging as there is much less advice on the forums regarding traveling independently  in South America than for Europe and most of the people we know have gone with tour groups. Originally, this trip was scheduled for April but after talking with people, realized that it might snow in the mountains by then, and the fishing will be very poor.  We are going with a sense of adventure but also apprehension at all the unknowns.  We're not sure what to expect other than the fact that there seems to be a lot of petty thefts!  I spend the entire evening changing purses and bags, trying to decide on the most secure way to carry my camera equipment, and finally decide to leave the good camera and ipad at home.

The biggest barrier to our departure is an hour delay at sfo for what is described as "we are waiting for maintenance to sign off", but what is later revealed as a mechanical problem. United certainly packs their planes to the gills these days.  I wonder why the overhead bins are designed such that luggage does not fit. We watch as countless fliers and attendants move bags back and forth much like solving a puzzle to making it all fit. Free movies for all was the consolation gift for our delay; people are easy to please-- cheers go up with this announcement- how quickly people forget that movies used to all be free as were meals. Soon they will be charging us for seat cushions and for the privilege of using the bathroom!  Our trip takes over 20 hours with a layover in Houston.

It is early afternoon when we arrive to sunny skies and temperatures in the 80's in Buenos Aires. From the air Buenos Aires reassembles Chicago-- trees, green parks, sprawling, flat and with waterways snaking and winding across the land. The very brown Rio de la Plata frames the eastern side of the city.  As we waited for customs, I couldn't help looking at people's jewelry and clothing, trying to make sense of travel forum warnings of jewelry theft and the importance of making oneself look like a native. What does a native look like? I soon realized that natives look just like middle class Americans walking through the shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon. Jeans, gym shoes, t shirts etc are the norm. I had pictured Argentinian women well dressed in heels but that is not the case.

Taxis are prepaid for at the very prominent and official taxi desk; it costs 220 pesos to go to Palermo Soho, and we are led out to a very organized taxi line. It takes about 40 min to get to Palermo Soho. We drive through an area that is old and run down, clearly a poorer section of town.  The majority of walls are covered with graffiti. As we approach the city center, we see a few high rises and I again am reminded of Chicago along the lakefront.  This is not a wealthy city and is a distinct contrast to central Beijing and other European cities like Paris, Rome, London etc. Our hotel, the Esplendor Palermo Soho is very well located, just a few blocks from the botanic garden and zoo, a small boutique hotel in a residential neighborhood that feels safe, and with police presence at night.  Rooms are spartanly furnished but quite clean and service is wonderful. but we feel safe walking the area.

The city is divided into sections - Palermo, Palermo Soho, Belgrano, and Recoleta are higher end tourist areas.  Palermo has more green space and parks; Recoleta has the larger hotels. The Centro area is the banking and trading district. San Thelmo is a residential area for the working class with auto and industrial shops.  La Boca is described as colorful but we were warned about walking in this area and so avoided going there. We wander out for the afternoon walking to Recoleta. The streets are lined with small shops-pharmacies, clothing stores, restaurants, etc. much like the smaller streets of China and there are very few big department stores. I am reminded of the fact that walking in these cities as in China, is hard on the feet and quite unlike walking around in the US. The sloping sidewalks, broken pavement, uneven tiles, holes etc put stress on my feet and I long for the comfort of gym shoes.

Fodors recommends Don Julio, a parillo, for its grilled meats. Since it is only 4 blocks from our hotel, we opt to go there on our first night as we gradually build our confidence in walking the streets here.  Ray's sirloin is buttery tender but my rib eye is tougher and our plain boiled vegetables are not too impressive.  We high five at not having been pickpocketed.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Death Valley

Death Valley, as I discovered, has a diverse topography and a beauty unique to itself. Many Californians have never ventured to this park, picturing it as barren desert landscape. The winter months are ideal for visiting as the skies are blue, temperatures cool, and with fewer visitors, the dunes are free of footprints. There is a special magic on the quiet dunes as the color changes by the minute from the glow of the morning sun to cool whites of afternoon and browns with the setting sun. Shadows give softness to the waves of sand that form dips and undulations. Captured on camera, they appear as shapes and curves unrecognizable as sand. The distant mountains and layers of rock reveal an artistic combination of colors and patterns. One finds solitude - time stands still.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


North of the town of Lone Pine, is Manzanar, site of the historical first relocation center. In 1942, this was home to over 10,000 Japanese American internees after WWII. Comprised of 26 blocks on 6,200 acres, residents lived communally behind barbed wire fences and endured harsh desert conditions on this barren landscape. Not much remains on the site but standing in the middle of the open field, one can almost hear the voices of children and the clattering of dishes in the mess hall. I am struck by the resilience of the human spirit to endure, and the gentleness of the Japanese in accepting their fate.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Grand Junction

We spend the night at comfort inn and find the Pufferbelly for breakfast. According to Yelp, it is the best breakfast place in town. That is a sad statement as we find it not so good. We head for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a national park, but it starts to snow and the mountain road is quickly getting an accumulation of new snow, so we descent and head out to the Umcompagres River. We then drive in to Grand Junction where I had reserved a room at the Los Altos B&B.
It us a lovely place high on a hill overlooking Bookcliffs. We follow the innkeeper's recommendation and have a wonderful meal at Il Bistro Italiano.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Bryce Canyon

The hoodoos at dawn are spectacular and I spend hours shooting photos of the canyon. The only other person out there is a man from Australia, who greets me with, "Weren't you on the road yesterday?" I responded with, "You were the only car that went by, other than the FedEx car!"
It is crazy cold at that hour, but totally worth it. Ray then takes me down in to the canyon, I hand on to him with dear life as it is difficult traversing the trail due to snow and ice. The drop off is steep! We make our way down to the bottom and hike across the narrow canyon floor on snowy trails, looking up at the blue skies and red hoodoos. The sight is unbelievable and the weather perfect. There is no wind. We hike several hours, alone in the canyon and make our way to the Queen's Garden and a horse trail that takes us up the canyon walls. It is our 33rd anniversary and we are adding up the 33 kisses today. The 3 mile trail gets steep as it ascends, and the view is interesting looking up at the hoodoos, then seeing them at eye level. Some of the columns are so tall and have such interesting shapes, eroded by weathering. There are holes in some, which I later learn are not fully carved hoodoos. In the distance, we can see Utah and its mesas. Some parts of the trail are quite muddy, others ice covered. It is a spectacular time of year to see the canyon as the patches of snow provide an interesting contrast to the sandstone. Besides, the lack of visitors creates a very peaceful setting.

After a lunch of crackers, cheese and lunchmeat, we drive to the other points of interest and view the canyon from many different perspectives. I like Inspiration Point and return for a few shots at sunset.

Ray sees that the weather is changing and a winter storm warning appears for Grand Junction. This has us worried and we decide it might be smarter to leave tonight and get out of the canyon before the wind and snow arrives. We go back to the motel and check out early. They agree to give me a refund for the evening, minus a $30 cleaning fee, and we are off on our way. It is dark as we drive and alas, we cannot see the scenery, which we believe must be interesting and beautiful. It takes us 5 hours to reach Grand Junction, when alas, the weather report changes drastically, and now only light rain is predicted for tomorrow. Oh well, we have a full day to explore!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Route 12

The guidebooks highly recommend Route 12 from Green River to Bryce, as one of the most scenic routes in the US, especially between the town of Boulder, Utah and Escalante. They weren't kidding! The road meanders up to the summit which in Jan, is covered in snow, the aspens are leafless but grey lacy branched and intermixed with pines. It descends into the canyons high above the Fremont River. Off in the distance are mesas and plains. There are photo ops at every turn and we make multiple stops. The mountains in the distance are snow capped and we know that the scene is unique to this time of year.

We end up in the town of Tropic late in the afternoon, which exists only to provide lodging and food for visitors of Bryce Canyon We get to the canyon at sunset and as I walk up to the canyon overlook, it takes my breath away. I had seen many photos of Bryce but seeing it up close is magnificent. The scale and depth of the canyon is something that cannot be conveyed in a photo. We watch the sun dip behind the clouds and as the evening falls, we drive to Tropic for dinner.

To our surprise, the only restaurant is closed for the winter and the only option is Ruby's Restaurant which has only 1 stars on yelp. I have never read such bad reviews for any restaurant before and people suggest eating anything except going there. We decide to purchase frozen food at the general store and microwave it in the motel room. I choose lasagna, a chicken tv dinner and frozen veggies. The motel next door is "fully booked" which when I questioned incredulously, learned that only a few rooms are open. We go to the Best Western Ruby's Inn, rated well, unlike it's restaurant. The lasagna is actually quite good, we discover. Obviously, winter is not a time when one has lots of options!