Archive for February, 2008

Breath-taking Torres

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

Torres del Paine 045 If you like nature, especially hiking and geology, you’ll love Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile.  It’s not easy to get to (one of its redeeming features), but it’s just an amazing place to be.  The views are stunning, the mountain peaks superb, and the glaciers breath-taking, and the guanacos ubiquitous (too ubiquitous?!?!).

Torres del Paine 015 We flew into Puerto Natales on a small plane, landing in winds gusting up to 60 mph.  It’s the first time I’ve ever hit my head on the ceiling of an airplane, despite having my seatbelt on.   We landed safe and sound, though, and were off to the Explora (great place to stay) in Torres del Paine.   On the way, though, we stopped at a cave where paleontologists had discovered milodon fossils less than 100 years ago.  The milodon is a large (3 meters high) sloth-like creature that is almost as frightening as the four more modern creatures recently sited at this cave.  Apparently, Patagonia was quite a hotbed of dinosaur activity millions of years ago.

Torres del Paine 125 I had been to this park in 1991, and still recall the great hikes.  The interior of the park hasn’t changed much since then, although there are many more lodges here (including where we stayed), more developed roads, and more guanacos (smaller versions of a llama, and a relative of the camel).  In 1991, there were about 250 guanacos in the park, and the current population is more than 4,000.  The natural predator of the guanaco is the puma, which must be enjoying the guanaco surge, although we failed to spot this elusive cat.

Torres del Paine 088 We spent three+ full days here, full of hiking and, for the girls, horse-back riding.  The best hikes were to Gray Lake, with great views of the Gray Glacier, and several large icebergs that had broken off.  We also went on a hike to get a great look at the three towers that from the Torres.  BTW, Torres del Paine is a multi-language amalgam, with “torres” meaning towers in Spanish, and “paine” meaning blue in the native language here.  And while the towers didn’t strike us as particularly blue, the glaciers certainly were.

Torres del Paine 224 We got some great views of a Gray Fox while out hiking., along with some nice views of Andean Condors flying not too far overhead.  We had some other nice animal sightings (no snakes or other reptiles, to the chagrin of our kids!), but the real appeal of Torres del Paine is the spectacular geology.  The Andes are the world’s youngest and most active mountain range, and the southern tip of them occurs where there are layers of granite and shale quite visible in the peaks.  They just rise straight up from their bases, and tower over the glacial lakes in the valleys.  The glacier activity here was fierce historically, and several large glaciers remain active in the area.

Torres del Paine 235 Make no mistake about it, Patagonia is the land of the wind.  Several of the vans driving around the park had broken windows — not from rocks or vandalism, but from gusts powerful enough to shatter the glass.  We had times when the wind was blowing so hard that it would knock us off our feet.  And all of us had fun at times leaning against the wind, which was so strong that we couldn’t fall down even if we wanted to.  The wind was often blowing 50 mph and the gusts could go up to 80 mph.  Torres del Paine is at the same southern latitude as London is in the northern hemisphere, but the climates couldn’t be more different.  Of course, being located at a latitude where no other land masses exist, and having a current running by directly from Antarctica, can create unusual circumstances.

Torres del Paine 028 There’s something of a selection process that affects the people who come here.  It’s not an easy place to get to, and you have to really value an outdoors experience to make the trek down here.  We found the people staying at the Explora (photo of the lodge on the right) to be fascinating, and had almost as much fun in the restaurant area or on vans chatting with the other guests as we had when we were out hiking around.  If you go to Torres del Paine, stay at the Explora; it’s such a great place, it’s worth planning your visit around its availability.

Torres del Paine 023 On our last day, Sterling went for a swim in the river running by the Explora,  This river is fed directly from glacial melt.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have a camera to record this swim for posterity, but the rest of us were reminded of two summers ago, when she went swimming in a glacial lake in Alaska, complete with icebergs.  Somehow, she inherited some polar bear genes!

All in all, an awesome destination, and our last stop in Chile, a country we’ll be very sad to say good-bye to.  But we’ll definitely be back, since it has so much to offer.  Click here for more photos.

Watch Out For That Tree!

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

Puerto Varas 462 We had a wonderful time in the Lake District of Chile, which is emerging as my favorite country on the trip to date.  The Lake District is mid-way down the country, in an area featuring the stunning Mt. Osorno volcano.  This volcano really is as spectacular as the photographs suggest, and we were lucky to get some clear views while in the Puerto Varas area.

Puerto Varas 018 A highlight for us was something with no educational and cultural merit.  We spent a morning on what the Chileans call a “canopy,” and which we’d call a zipline in the U.S.  None of us had ever done a canopy before, but we had a blast.  I have to admit to having some questions about the engineering skills of the designer as they hitched me to a 600 foot long cable stretching across a very wide, and very deep (about 200 feet from line to bottom) canyon.  Well, all of us survived, none of us slammed too hard into the trees at the end of each line (thoughtfully padded), and we enjoyed the heck out of it.

Puerto Varas 150 We stayed at one of the nicest places on our trip, El Quincho Lodge, in Puerto Varas.  The people there was just unbelievably nice, and helped us with our stay.  The lodge had a spacious backyard, rooms with views of the volcano, and some of the most spectacular sunsets we’ve seen all trip.  We also went exploring near the Osorno Volcano, as well as visiting a local farm.  And we spent a day exploring nearby Chiloe, the second largest island in South America (find out below what is the largest!).

Puerto Varas 352 Chiloe sits right in the Pacific Ocean, and seems far more European than South American, having been settled originally largely by Germans.  We had to cross a fun ferry to get there (including having the sea lion on the right swim up to us), but had some great spots we visited while on the island.  It was terrific for some very scenic beaches, and gave us some great birding spots. 

Puerto Varas 423 While on Chiloe, we drove to explore a local penguin colony.  Although we’re about a week away from setting off to Antarctica, where we’ll see tons of penguins, we thought it would be fun to see some warm weather penguins.  These mid-sized penguins nest on a small island about 100 meters off the Chiloe shore, and are interesting since the dig holes in the dirt with their wings and nest high up on a hill.  Their nests look like a penguin version of a high-rise apartment complex (see left).  The Magellenic and Humbolt’s Penguin were both there, and it was a fun spot to see on many fronts. 

Puerto Varas 371In all, we had a blast in Chiloe and the Lake District, and it was one of many highlights from our stay in the great country of Chile. For more on the Lake District, feel free to check out our photos.

Then and Now

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

I traveled to Argentina and Chile years ago (1987 and 1991) and return now.  There have been changes in these countries, to be sure.  But there have been far more dramatic changes in my life as a traveler.

Twenty years ago, the only electronics I traveled with was a cassette-playing Walkman, with a stack of music tapes.  I was out of the U.S. for three weeks on two separate trips, and had almost no contact with back home.   Even hotel or pay phones were quite difficult to use, so I was almost entirely isolated from circumstances back home.

In 1987, I was in Argentina during the stock-market crash in October.  I only heard about it days later, and that was in a hotel lobby in Buenos Aires where there were newspapers available — all in Spanish.  But anyone could read the stock tables, and see the drastic declines.  I recall seeing this sea of Americans (mostly older tourists) taking in the news with looks of shock and fear on their faces.  Since my only stock position at the time was a sizable short position, the crash didn’t ruin my trip :-) , but it clearly was traumatic for most Americans with their retirements tied up in a plummeting stock market.

In 1991, I spent three weeks in Chile in late January and early February.  I was back-packing in Torres del Paine, a national park in the bottom of Chile (where we are again right now!), and met some fellow Americans who had a short-wave radio.  On a Sunday night, we were able to listen to the Super Bowl (New York Giants against the Buffalo Bills) for most of the game.  But we lost reception with about five minutes to go, and I didn’t find out who won the game for another two weeks when I returned to the U.S. (and it was a very close game that the Giants ultimately won). 

On this 2008 trip, I’m in constant, easy contact with the U.S.  I’m traveling with a blackberry, a laptop, and an iPod.  Most places have great blackberry coverage, and I often respond to e-mails in real time.  I have been able to get internet access almost everywhere for my laptop, so I’m current on developments in the U.S. and abroad.  And my blackberry gets internet access regularly, so we stay up-to-speed on events in real time (including following Red Sox games during the season) even when we’re out hiking or touring a city. 

I spend a fair amount of time on e-mail each day (probably way too much).  We watch television rarely (although English-speaking broadcasts are generally available), but have been able to catch sports or news broadcasts (primary returns) of interest.  I have a set of daily podcasts that I listen to regularly.  And occasionally, friends will call me, or I’ll check in with them.  Oh, and I make sure to call my mom from every country we visit!

I took pictures when I traveled here two decades ago, but doubt if I could ever find them.  And, while I can’t recall exactly how many photos I took (long before digital cameras), it was probably 100 or so over the course of a three week trip.  I can’t remember a whole lot about those trips, let alone where I stayed or what specifically I did.  I know which areas I visited, have some recollection of what I enjoyed, and kind of run out of gas beyond that.  And I couldn’t retrieve that information now, no matter how hard I tried looking.

On this trip, we have a family website and individual blogs, and keep them current.  My friends and family can follow where we are visiting, ask questions and give us reactions and suggestions.  The four of us take a large number of pictures daily (easily 100-200 per day), save most, store them on-line (we use Phanfare, a service we’ve been very happy with), and add the best ones on our screen-saver rotation every few days.  After dinner, (and, believe me, I know how weird this sounds), we’ll often watch the screen-saver on our laptop and race each other to identify where the picture was taken!?!?

Now, for the hard part.  Which trip experience do I prefer??  Well, if this weren’t an election year, and if I didn’t still have business responsibilities back home, the no-contact trips of the past have a certain appeal on some days.  But for the most part, the 2008-style trip is great.  We’ll save our memories for decades for our kids (and maybe even their kids) as they grow up.  We stay in touch with family and friends.  And we can still contribute to the election process, as well as follow it closely.

Boring-Loche

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

Bariloche 115 This posting will be brief, as there’s precious little to report on from Bariloche.  Bariloche is a ski town in western Argentina, nestled at the foot of the Andes.  I can imagine the draw of being here in winter for skiing, but February is summer in the Southern Hemisphere, and unlike ski towns in the U.S. (e.g., Aspen) with lots going on in the summer, we didn’t find much to do in Bariloche of interest.  It’s beautiful, but a dull summer venue.

Bariloche 097 We did have one fabulous day when we drove a couple of hours to go on a whitewater rafting trip down the Mansa River.  The landscape here is beautiful, and there’s no better way to see it than from a raft.  The river this time of year is a Class 2+, which meant we had a few good rips through current, but were never at any risk of falling out of the boat.  The kids did manage to find and catch a Mountain Slope Lizard (picture below a few paragraphs), and we got in a great swim. 

Bariloche Other than the rafting trip, our four days in Bariloche were largely restful and uneventful.  We got a lot of homework done and had a lot of relaxed family fun.   At dinner on Friday night, though, we ran into good friends from Charleston — Wally and Bev Sensheimer — and it was great to catch up with them.  They were spending a couple of weeks in Argentina on a business/fun trip involving the YPO organization.  It was only the second time on our trip we had run into people by coincidence that we knew already. 

Picture 317 We did follow the primary returns on Tuesday night from my native state of Virginia, as well as DC and Maryland — more exciting results.  For good luck on Tuesday, I wore my Barack Obama tee-shirt, and had many strangers approach me (mostly from South America) telling me how much they hope the United States elects him President.  Amen!!

We’ve loved South America, but our trip has — perhaps in keeping with Latin America — run hot and cold.  We’ve spent time in places we’ve loved, but we’ve also visited places that combine being a) hard to get to, and b) not that interesting for us.  As I type this, we’re on our way back to Chile, confident that our next destination (Punta Arenas and Puerto Montt, Chile) will be more engaging than Bariloche. 

Bariloche 087 Our stay in Bariloche was not enhanced by our hotel.  We stayed at the Llao Llao, a sprawling hotel, with beautiful views and horrible service.  Our room was ten minutes and three elevators away from the lobby and restaurant — so at least we got our exercise.  The best example I can provide of the service here is when a hotel staff person knocked on our door after midnight to deliver a non-urgent message.  As they say, the elevator didn’t go to the top floor frequently at this hotel.

I suspect that anyone else visiting here could come up with a more interesting set of things to do than we came up with.  Apart from the rafting, we chewed up most of a day on  a long drive to a short hike around a lagoon.  We took a short hike by the hotel on a road and a crowded trail.  And that was pretty much it for four days in Bariloche.  And, on the morning of our departure, we got a call at 10:00 a.m. that our noon flight would be delayed by five+ hours.  Oh well.  All part of life on the road.

And, although you won’t find much of interest, feel free to check out our Bariloche photos.  There are some nice shots of the lake and mountains here.

Hotel Design School

Saturday, February 16th, 2008

After five months, I now have come to realize that all hotel architects have attended the same school of hotel design.  This school is cloaked in a veil of secrecy that would be the envy of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.  But, after staying in some seventy hotels in recent months, and doing some behind-the-scenes digging, I am now able to report on the courses offered by this mysterious school, which insiders refer to as the Hotel California Training School :-) .

Light Switch Chaos 101:  While most people grow accustomed to the logical placement of light switches in their homes, hotels have a chance to broaden a guest’s experience through clever light switch placement.  Learn the latest in light switch obfuscation, including how to hide switches behind curtains and doors, clustering way too many switches in one long bank of switches, putting switches in rooms far from the light they control, and ensuring that a guest can never find a light in the middle of the night.

Advanced Light Switch Chaos 201:  Added chaos can be injected into the life of hotel guests by using the “master switch over-ride” technique.  Hide in the room a single switch that cuts off all the room’s power.  Make sure the people who clean the room turn off all power whenever the guests are gone and have electronic devices plugged in that desperately need recharging.  And put the switch in a spot where young children can find it, cut off all power to the room at night, and let the parents crawl around in total darkness looking for a way to turn the power back on. 

Sadistic Shower Design 104:  You’ll find many guests expecting to be able to readily turn on the water for a shower, adjust the temperature, and take a comfortable shower.  Why settle for this!  This course will educate hotel architects on creative ways to design bathroom showers to inflict pain on hotel guests.  Learn how to place faucets where guests will inadvertently bump them while their eyes are covered in shampoo, resulting in a surge of boiling or ice-cold water.  Put faucets in locations so they can only be accessed by standing directly under the shower head as the water is turned on!  Connect the shower’s flow of water to the toilet system, so that a showering guest gets an unexpected change in water temperature whenever a family member flushes – guaranteed to promote family harmony!!

Slippery Surfaces 201:  There are many opportunities, often unexploited, to expose hotel guests to treacherous surfaces during their stay.  Learn how to make the surface near a bathtub or shower as slippery as black ice.  Learn how to position throw rugs on slick floors so that an unsuspecting guest has their feet slip out from under them when they least expect it.  And learn how to extend such surfaces to hotel common areas, treacher-izing pools and jacuzzis.

Advanced Rat’s Nest Techniques 35285294:  Many hotels make the mistake of assuming that their guests want to be able to find their rooms readily, and to comfortably make their way to the lobby, restaurants, and other amenities.  But the truly inspired hotel architect will realize that the ultimate guest experience comes by making guests wander all over the hotel, futilely hunting for their destination.  Learn how to design hotel lay-outs with no underlying logic.  Learn how to make hall signs as confusing as possible.  Learn how to use hotel room numbering systems that baffle instead of clarify.  Learn how to maximize the distance from the lobby to rooms.   And master the subtleties of throwing in some doors that you can leave from, but lock behind you!

Voice Mail Torture 911:  As guests get more and more literate on computer technology, it gets harder to waste their time with indecipherable voice mail systems.  Learn the latest in how to make it impossible for guests to access voice mails.  Learn how to start their stay off on the wrong note with a “welcome voice mail” that they spend tens of minutes to retrieve, and then tells them nothing.  Learn how to bury urgent or important voice mail messages in a maze of confusion so guests miss them entirely!

Fireplace Deception 000:  It’s easy to design a fireplace that is simple and works reliably.  Learn the most advanced techniques in building fireplaces – fireplaces that lure the guest in to lighting a fire then spew smoke into the room with no clear remedy.   Fireplace flues need to appear to be open, but then be completely baffling to a family trying to combat the outpouring of smoke.

False Negative Fire Alarms 111000111:  In our increasingly regulated environment, hotel designers need to master the intricacies of fire alarm design.  Naturally, it’s important to have in place alarms that detect the presence of smoke or fire, sound off loudly, and help guests safely evacuate the premises.  But why stop there?  How about fire alarms that go off randomly in the middle of the night?  How about a sensor to determine when guests are particularly exhausted, and pick that night to go off every 45 minutes?  How about sprinkling other alarms around hotel rooms that have nothing to do with dangers, but go off in the middle of the night for no clear or explainable reason.

Alarm Clock Harassment Techniques 445:  The seemingly-innocuous alarm clock can be a valuable weapon in ensuring a miserable stay for your hotel’s guests.  Learn why a room should never have a simple, reliable alarm clock.  Train hotel staff to set room alarms for 4:45 a.m.  Make it next to impossible for guests to change the alarm’s setting.  Better yet, have the clock set to the wrong time entirely, and crank the confusion level up a notch.  Complement vexing alarm clock design with a wake-up call system that rarely works when needed, and makes errant early morning wake-up calls on days when guests desperately need extra sleep.

Noise Management 101:  Hotels can ensure that noise from a range of sources impacts its guests.  Learn how to design a hotel so that every room in near noisy vehicles or elevators.   Learn how to make sure that construction takes place at the worst possible time.  Figure out how walls between rooms can be paper thin when the adjacent room is booked by a screaming mimi.  And design hotel acousticsso that music from groups or DJ systems will penetrate every crevice of a room anytime that sane people are asleep.  All this and more!

Unleashing the Lock-Ness Monster 101:  Every hotel room has locks.  This course teaches hotel designers all the tricks of the trade in lock design.  Course attendees will master the art of magnetic locks that stop working when the guest is in most urgent need of getting into his/her room.   Only the finest lock designs can detect when the guest is checking in late at night, when the guest has far too much to carry, or when the guest has an urgent need to use the bathroom, or when the guest has an important phone call ringing inside the room — and pick that exact time for the magnetic strip to fail! 

Advanced Lock-Ness Techniques 201:  Many families book two adjacent rooms, and there are powerful techniques that can be applied to the locks of doors between adjoining rooms.  Learn how to make it exceptionally difficult to unlock these doors, especially when the guest checks in late at night with very sleepy children.   Gain expertise in getting these doors to lock whenever parents urgently need to get to a crying baby alone in the next room.  And figure out how to make these doors spring wide open when parents want a bit of privacy from younger kids in the next room!  All this and more in this important advanced course!!

 

If you have other course suggestions, add your comments to this blog!!

Beautiful Buenos Aires

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

We had a fabulous time in world-class Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital.  BA is a strikingly-beautiful city, with lots to offer.  We were there for four days, with lots of highlights, and one clear “lowlight.”  Elizabeth came down with something pretty nasty while we were in BA, meaning she got to spend lots of time in our hotel room.  She eventually recovered in time to enjoy some of the sights and fun of this city, but two days on her back, unable to eat anything, won’t go down as a trip highlight. 

Buenos Aires 344 Our clear highlight in Argentina was getting a chance to see long-time friends Barbie Van Buskirk deJesus and her fabulous husband Marcelo.  They now have three really cute children, ages 8, 4, and not quite 3.  We were able to spend Sunday afternoon with them, and then Barbie and her oldest son, Nicholas, spent the day touring the city on Monday.  They’re doing really well, and it was terrific to catch up with them.  Barbie deserves partial credit for Elizabeth and my meeting, since she was a close mutual friend of both of ours while we were in Boston. 

Baseball in BA 599 We started our time in Buenos Aires with another really fun baseball outing.  To our surprise, a senior reporter for www.mlb.com covered the get together, and wrote a terrific article about our baseball activities during our travel year.  We actually got to spend a fair amount of time with our hosts here, as well as with the MLB.com reporter, which was a lot of fun.

Buenos Aires 358 A real highlight of our stay in BA was a visit to the Recoleta Cemetery right downtown.  Evita Peron is buried there, so we took in this mandatory tomb.  But some of the others were remarkable.  It’s an unusual cemetery, built from farmland in 1820, and reserved for BA’s blue blood.   The cemetery has no grassy areas, just sidewalks and elaborate stone graves.   Many were elegant and impeccably maintained, others were in various stages of disrepair.  It was a great place to spend a couple of hours, and learn a lot about Argentina’s history.

Buenos Aires 013 While in BA, we went to a neighborhood called La Boca, which is unique in the world.  Elizabeth was sick all weekend, so we didn’t go on Saturday or Sunday when I’m sure it’s really hopping.  But even on a Monday afternoon, it was fascinating.  Many of the houses are sided by corrugated metal, painted in fanciful colors.  The streets are full of life, including couples dancing Argentina’s famous tango.  Elizabeth and I also tried our skills at the tango while in La Boca.  Elizabeth, as you can see (photo on right), was dressed perfectly for the dance, and I held my own.  She didn’t seem to show any ill effects from the bug she had, and looked terrific in this lovely red dress :-)

Buenos Aires 393 As we spent time with our friends here, it made us realize how much our lives have changed in the past fifteen years, and how quickly our kids are growing up.  Somehow, this photo in a park in Buenos Aires was somehow symbolic of what’s happened to each of us over the past several years.  As our kids go from toddlers to young adults, we’re hoping they resemble sturdy oak trees, able to stand strong against the many strong winds they’ll face in the future.    But for now, on a sunny day in a lovely park in Buenos Aires, it was great to spend time with friends and enjoy life.

BA, like Santiago, is filled with great park areas, which we took full advantage of.  We made a quick visit to a Museum dedicated to Evita Peron (not that exciting), and did a fair amount of walking around the city.  The city has all sorts of interesting neighborhoods, and looks like a great place to live. 

For more on Buenos Aires, check out our photos.

Baseball in BA!

Saturday, February 9th, 2008

Baseball in BA 540 Normally, baseball people think of “BA” as Batting Average.  From now on, though, we’ll think of it as Buenos Aires!  We played ball today with two great teams in the capital of Argentina, and had an outstanding time.  Our point of contact was Jorge Marcelo Ramia, who heads Little League Baseball for Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay.  He and a wonderful woman named Lucia Garcia Labat pulled together the get together, and did a great job of setting everything up.  Not only did we have two teams, a field, and a light lunch, but we ended up with some great surprises at the end of the game.

 

Baseball in BA 618 The two teams that played were the Nichia Gakvin team (a team from an interesting school here that focuses on Japanese culture) and the Club Independiente.  The players ranged in age from eight years old to fourteen, and included both boys (mostly) and girls.  The clouds threatened rain at one point during the morning (we started at 10:00 a.m.), but cleared to give us a beautiful day.  We couldn’t play on their normal field, which is in the same park as the tennis stadium that was the site of the Argentina-England Davis Cup match that same day.  But we managed to turn a nice soccer field into a decent baseball venue.

Baseball in BA 491The game got off to an exciting start as Nichia’s first batter hit the very first pitch over everyone’s head for a four bagger.  It was clear these kids understood the game.  Things settled down after that, and we ended up playing a five inning action-packed game.  They were kind enough to let Gibson pitch the last two innings.  He hasn’t pitched in a game since an inning in New Zealand in November, so I was hoping he wouldn’t plunk one of their batters with a hard inside pitch!  But he pitched really well, including striking out the side in the last inning.  His team, though, got the short end of the bat, in a game that no one seemed to care about the score, and everyone seemed to care about having fun. 

Baseball in BA 629 We’ve found over and over that these programs really take off once there are some expert, enthusiastic coaches (entrenadors, in Espanol), and the BA program had such coaches.   Marcelo, our host, has a complete passion for the game, even though he only began playing five years ago.  And Coach Walter was terrific with the kids, and gave Gibson some great advice.  The Nichia coach was also very on top of things. Baseball in BA 532 Argentina has a number of very good younger players, but my bet is that their baseball program takes off as soon as one makes it into the major leagues (a la Manu Ginobili in the NBA).  It’s a very athletic country, with world-class athletes in many sports, and baseball may be next in line.

Baseball in BA 555 At the end of the game, Marcelo was incredibly kind.  He presented several of us with framed certificates of thanks for helping their program (including the team’s coach Walter, in red shirt at right).  Mine will have a special place on my desk (assuming at some future point I have a desk again!).  And he gave Gibson, Sterling, and me hats.  We presented each of the players with Red Sox hats (ones commemorating their 2004 epic World Series win over the St. Louis Cardinals). 

Baseball in BA 657 We had an unexpected surprise set of visitors at our game.  Justice B. Hill (left, between two brothers on the team), a senior writer for MLB.com, came to learn about baseball in Argentina and about our little Baseball Ambassadors program.  And he was joined by Bob Payne of the Seattle Times (below).   Both were really interesting people, and it was great to get to know them.  Justice was in Argentina for four weeks attendingBaseball in BA 464 an intensive course on Spanish, and Bob comes to Argentina  every winter for a couple of weeks to take a break from Seattle’s cold and rain in the winter.  These gentlemen know their baseball inside out, and really added a lot to our experience here.  And watch for a story on the day in MLB.com!

For more on baseball in BA, check out our photos!

The Cordoba Countryside

Saturday, February 9th, 2008

Colibri 098 We left Chile, temporarily, to head to Argentina, and we started our stay in this fabulous country with a visit to the Argentinian countryside.  We flew to Cordoba and stayed at a ranch called El Colibri.  We’ve had some great experiences on our trip staying at ranches in the middle of nowhere (Bullo River in Australia being a real trip highlight), and El Colibri was a blast.  The food was terrific, there were great hiking trails, some great birds, and lots, and lots, and lots of toads!

Santiago 233 On our first hike, alongside a the local river, Sterling found a toad hidden on the riverbank, which we were thrilled to discover.  We thought, naively, that we might not see any more toads during our stay.  Ha!!  I’ll come back to the toads later.  But we also saw some great birds, including the Guira Cuckoo, the Burrowing Owl, the Brown Cacholote, and the Double-Collared Seedeater.  It was reminiscent of Australia to be in the countryside where amazing birds were whisking by every second. 

Baseball in BA 010 We got a great tour of the ranch’s farm area by one of the farmhands.  He spoke not a word of English, though, so my paltry Spanish skills were put to the test.  We at least didn’t end up locked in the pen with the sheep, so my grade in Spanish avoided the embarrassing “F.”  But we got a surprise when Mauro, the farmhand, presented our kids with “un regalo” (a present) — a young Monk Parakeet hBaseball in BA 009e had caught by hand.  Even though the bird couldn’t  accompany us further on the trip, our kids were all over the idea of having a pet, even for just two days.  They named the bird “Feathers Loro Dintersmith” (above), and she was soon parked safely in an elegant home-made cage (right) and fed every piece of fruit and vegetable that our kids could turn up at El Colibri.

Colibri 320 Gibson continued his assault on the Guinness Book of World Records in El Colibri, losing yet another tooth.  He has now lost teeth in four different continents — North America, Australia (the outback), Asia (the Taj Mahal), and South America (El Colibri).  And, best of all, he has two or three loose teeth now.  In coming weeks, we will have a few days in Antarctica, a few hours touching down in Europe, and almost three months in Africa on the remainder of the trip.  How many continents can he cover?  Four down, three to go!!!

One night, our kids snuck off to an area in the front of the hotel, andSantiago 121  seemed to be having a blast.  Elizabeth and I could hear lots of laughing and giggling, and just smiled at each other, knowing the joy our little, devoted children were having as they explored the countryside of Argentina.  Little did we know that they had found a place on the grounds that seemed to specialize in the mass production of something Colibri 262that we believe is a Cane Toad.  After seeing these toads, I can only think that “Cane” must be a word in some language meaning “hideous beyond belief.”  And, best of all, our lovely, well-behaved children were catching these toads, sneaking them into the hotel, and hiding them in our bathtub, eagerly awaiting our surprise upon discovering a tubful of 17 big, ugly Cane Toads!!!  Well, you can imagine how thrilled we were to be on the receiving end of such creativity and thoughtfulness :-) !!  At that point, we approached the owners of El Colibri and asked if they’d consider an arrangement where we’d leave the kids with them, and take the toads!!

Colibri 121 On one afternoon, Elizabeth and Sterling went horseback riding, and had a great time.  Meanwhile, Gibson and I went for a great hike, including a great bird spot he made, where he saw two fabulous birds at once — the Scimiter-billed Woodcreeper and the Spot-backed Puffbird.  Either one of these birds would be a treat, but to see both in the same tree at the same time was terrific.   El Colibri was just this kind of place — not a lot of structured stuff to do, but some great areas to explore and terrific food and accommodations.

Feel free to get a better sense of this great region of Argentina from our photos.

Laying Low in Santiago

Saturday, February 9th, 2008

Santiago 087 We had a relaxing couple of days in Santiago, Chile.  In addition to playing baseball, we explored some of Santiago’s downtown, got a lot of errands done, had lunch with a nice family (dad a chef) with an eleven-month old, and drove up into the mountains on a fun excursion from downtown.  We also took in Santiago’s top museum, the Chilean Museum of Pre-Colombian Art.  We weren’t expecting to like Santiago, but found this city of six million people to be remarkably agreeable, full of lots and lots of well-maintained city parks.

Santiago 078 The downtown area has a lot of nicely-architected buildings.  We didn’t spend a lot of time touring the city’s sights, but did manage to swing by most of the important buildings in Chile’s capital.  We were struck by how clean and livable the city appeared to be.  It helped to be visiting on a weekend, when none of the commuter traffic was an issue. 

Santiago 061 One thing we did in Santiago, though, was to take a fairly relaxed approach to exploring the city.  We’re having a great time on our trip, but the pace in the first four weeks was fairly intense, and we decided to re-structure our itinerary for the rest of our time in South America, reducing our number of destinations and spending more time in each.  So instead of one packed day in Santiago, we had two leisurely days, caught up on errands, did lots of homework, and just hung out as a family, all of which were fabulous.

Santiago 106 Santiago is wedged between the Andes and the Coastal Mountain Ranges.  We wound our way up the Andes side one afternoon.  We knew we were in for some twists and turns when, after a half hour, we asked our driver how close we were to the top?  He then told us we were on curve 9 out of 45!  Ouch!  But we climbed slowly, got some great views, and even got a decent view of  the Andean Condor!!  As we got higher, though, it got colder and started to rain, so it was great to return to the sunshine of Santiago.

For more on an interesting South American city, Santiago, feel free to check out our photos.

Three Cups of Tea

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

For several years, I overlapped on the Board of the National Venture Capital Association with Jim Breyer of Accel.  And Jim has been kind enough to send me a book each year that bears on the world.  This year he sent me Three Cups of Tea, about one man’s mission to fight terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, one school at a time.

Three Cups of Tea is a phenomenal book, and something I’d recommend each of you read.  I’ve been reading over the past couple of weeks as we travel, and then I summarize and re-tell it to our family each morning over breakfast.  Every morning, my children say, “Daddy, what’s happened to Greg?”  Greg is Greg Mortenson, the entrepreneur who started the Central Asia Institute, whose mission is to provide schools and educational supplies to poor children in Pakistan and Afghanistan, who are so hungry for knowledge. 

I would love to see this book be mandatory reading for any U.S. citizen prior to voting, or any U.S. Senator, Congressman, or executive branch member.  Anyone who has read this will better appreciate the magnitude of the U.S. errors in Iraq, and question the judgment of any U.S. politician who supported this ill-conceived initiative.   Our continued disgrace in Afghanistan is a mistake we’ll regret for decades to come. 

Among many favorite sections of the book, I particularly liked a quote of Greg Mortenson’s about Afghanistan.  He said, “But as best I can tell, we’ve launched 114 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan so far [2002]. Now take the cost of one of those missiles tipped with Raytheon guidance systems, which I think is about $840,000.  For that much money, you could build dozens of schools that could provide tens of thousands of students with a balanced nonextremist education over the course of a generation.  Which do you think will make us more secure?”  Other than his conservative math ($12K per school means each missile is equivalent to 70 schools, and 114 missiles is about 10,000 schools!!), he couldn’t be more correct.

We have spent billions of dollars in Iraq to create millions of people who hate us far more than when we started the folly of Iraq.  The architects of this initiative (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others) will carry the responsibility for this fiasco to their graves, which will be long past the time tens of thousands of innocent people paid with their lives for the Bush Administration’s mistakes.