How to sneak into Brazil

In case the NSA is reading this: the title is click bait! I didn’t actually sneak into Brazil. Don’t arrest me!

As mentioned in my previous post about Iguazu, my travel fam wanted to visit the Brazilian side of the falls on our third day in the area. Santiago and I, with our Columbian and Hong Kong passports respectively, did not need visas to hop over the border. Unfortunately, Andres and Zoe, the Americans, needed $160USD visas to visit Brazil. However, many people both online and at the hostel, told us that the visa was not actually necessary. Several people said that immigration would just wave you through if you told them that you were only going to visit the falls.

And so, the four of us piled onto a bus to go across the border. We all crossed our fingers hoping for the best. Exiting Argentina was no problem. Our bus driver simply asked foreigners to get off the bus and line-up for immigration. We got our passports stamped, hopped back on the bus, and headed into no man’s land. When we got to Brazil, our bus driver again asked foreigners to get off the bus and go through immigration. Santi and I got through no problem but poor Zoe and Andres were turned away. Crestfallen, they had to wait for the next bus next to Argentina. The thing is though, no one checks the buses so they could have just stayed on. That being said, that would be actually really illegal and none of us really liked the idea of spending the night in a Brazilian prison.

Anyways, Santi and I ended up continuing on to see the falls from Brazil. This may be my personal bias, but I gotta say, the view might be grander on the Brazilian side, but the grass is still greener in Argentina. The Argentina side is more interactive what with it’s hikes that go in and amongst the falls. The Brazil side is more about the big picture view from a far.

That being said, the Brazilian side features many adorable little coatis, ring tailed possum-like creatures that are super cute but also secretly vicious. The observation decks on the Brazilian side also took us right up to some of the bigger falls and was a wonderful compliment to our experience the day before.

After seeing the falls, we decided to head into town to have lunch. Foz do Iguaçu is the closest city to the falls. We searched the streets looking for a good steakhouse to treat ourselves after a long day of border-hopping and waterfall admiring. We somehow found ourselves in a really nice restaurant. It wasn’t quite a steakhouse, but it was definitely quite something in its own right. We had unknowingly stumbled upon an unlimited pasta and risotto joint – carb heaven (or hell if you’re on a diet). Despite being right across the border, we quickly learned that no one here speaks Spanish. It’s Portuguese all the way. No matter though – the language of noodles is universal. Waiters walked around with pans straight of the stove of fresh, beautiful, and handmade pasta, with several different sauces. They would just stop by tables, and ask if you wanted some, before scooping a healthy portion of pappardelle with ragout, creamy mushroom risotto, cacio e pepe linguini, ricotta tortellini, etc. etc. on to your plate. I had to take a break after a couple rounds, but Santi, being the champ that he is, kept going and going – to the point where the waiters wouldn’t even really ask him if he wanted anymore when they walked by, they’d just scoop.

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What a champ

Approximately 8 pounds heavier, we headed back the the bus stop to get back to the falls where we would catch the last bus back to Argentina. We stopped at a little store to bring a couple Brazilian snacks back for Zo and Andres.

That night, back in Argentina, the four of us heading to Las Tres Fronteras, a viewing point where you can see the border of Paraguay and Brazil. Staring out at the border towards Brazil, I felt a little weird. I was just there, a stone’s throw a way, and yet it was a totally different world with a different language and culture. Feeling contemplative, a quote from Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera, one of my favorite books, came to mind: “Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar”.

Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks.

What happens when three nerds go to Croatia?

April is sort of a shitty time in Cambridge, MA. The spring equinox has come and gone and yet the ground remains slushy, the air feels grossly damp, and the promise of warmth still seems far away. People’s allergies start acting up and everyone is somewhat lost underneath a pile of papers and assignments that grows ever larger. So yea, April sucks. But for the last couple of years, there’s always been a shining light – a weekly ritual that makes the four weeks of this miserable month exciting. Yes, I’m talking about the Sunday ritual that is Game of Thrones. Of course, I’m also talking about the Monday-after ritual in which the phrase “oh my god did you watch GoT” replaces “hey, how are you” as the standard greeting. Needless to say, I was shook when it was announced that GoT would not be returning in April 2017. Instead, we would have to wait until July in order for the annual pop cultural phenomenon to take over our collective imagination.

Well folks. We made it. We’ve hit the middle of summer just in time for winter in Westeros. In honour of today’s triumphant return of GoT, I’d like to write about one of the my favourite family trips: spring break in Croatia.

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The OG squad take the Dalmatian Coast!

My parents and I are very close. This is probably a result of me being the spoiled only child (we do have a dog though who happens to be the most handsome member of our family, but I digress). The past two spring breaks, instead of getting black out in Cancun or Florida, my parents and I have met up somewhere in the world for a spring getaway. This past year, our chosen location was Croatia, a country with rich history, beautiful churches, incredible landscapes, and where a lot of GoT happened to be filmed (but, I mean, this wasn’t the primary reason we decided to go… psh… that would be silly…).

So, what happens when three nerds go to Croatia? They go on a GoT filming locations tour of course!

A quick disclaimer. Although all three of us have watched every episode of GoT, we all watched them separately and at different times. (Wasn’t about to watch all those sex-position scenes with the rents). But though we each experienced the show itself separately, I’m glad that we experienced Croatia together!

The most recognisable GoT filming location is the stunning city of Dubrovnik. The old city is entirely contained behind great stone walls that dwarfed me and my parents. Inside the town, the cobblestoned streets form narrow alleyways that just begged to be explored. Though the main boulevard is lined with tourist shops and gelato joints, the back alleys still retain their rustic charm. Stray cats rule the quiet side streets and it’s not hard to imagine Arya hiding around the corner with needle in hand. The busier parts of town feature ornate churches but also hidden courtyards rich in history and character.

However, as stunning as Dubrovnik is at ground level, the city really shines from above. King’s Landing comes to life when admiring the city from its great wall. From the walls, we looked out over a sea of red roofs each lovingly baked by the Adriatic sun. The actual sea was no less stunning. It was a shimmery blue that stood out in contrast to the white limestone walls. While I wouldn’t wish King’s Landing on my worst enemy, I do think I could spend hours staring out upon its real world double.

Damn you are so fine Dubrovnik

In addition to Dubrovnik, we visited the fortress of Klis, which served as the skeleton for the set of Mereen. Several scenes were also filmed in the Catacombs of Diocletian’s old palace in Split which we also paid pilgrimage to. We also walked around the botanical garden which was dressed up for the Purple Wedding, my favourite of the GoT nuptials. And while we were careful not to crash any weddings, for fear of being caught in a Westerosian bloodbath, we did enjoy plenty of gelato, a lovely classical concert, and a historical tour of the area.

Photos from Split and from the Klis Fortress

Anyways, welcome back GoT! I’ve seen you in real life now, but damn have I missed seeing you on my screen as well!

That one time we invented wine yoga… Mendoza Pt. 2

After a wonderful day touring the bodegas of Mendoza, Nat and I decided that it was time to explore the more nature-y side of Mendoza. After all, it would be a huge shame to come all the way here and not see the Andes. After some quick googling, we decided to head to the town of Potrerillos to spend a lovely day amongst the mountains.

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With a backpack full of dulce de leche and wine, we headed to the bus station to being our journey. After buying our tickets, we had some time to kill so we marvelled at more tree porn on the other side of the city. Mendoza is small but it certainly doesn’t lack in character! This particular underpass is probably the coolest bridge I’ve ever been too.

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In what seems to be a recurring theme during my time in Mendoza, I immediately passed out once we finally got on the bus. Next thing I know, I’m suddenly being urgently tapped on my head by Nat. Groggily, I turned to her in my best impression of: 

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But before I could angrily reprimand her, I took a look outside the window. My god. The mountains were even more majestic than I thought they would be. Chiseled and angular, the white peaks stood out distinctly against the greyish sky. Turns out a nice Venezuelan couple had seen me sleeping and had told Nat to wake me up lest I miss out on the view. I’m so glad they did. Don’t you just love the kindness of strangers some times? As Nat and I sat there watching the snow-capped peaks roll by. I had a good feeling about how the rest of our day would turn out.

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Once we got to Potrerillos, we stumbled around until we found the tourism center, a little hut near the base of a series of rusty hills. With map in hand, we headed off to hike around the lake. The clouds had cleared to reveal a brilliantly blue sky that served as the perfect backdrop for the red earth. I felt so calm and so at ease as we trekked along the Mars like terrain keeping the Andes to our right and the peaceful lake to our left. How lucky we are to have this planet, I thought to myself.

After about an hour of walking, we found the perfect spot to plop down and finally crack open our wine. With mugs full of chardonnay Nat and I sat and just took it all in. On paper, we didn’t really do much. Really, we were just sitting on the edge of a lake. But the beauty of travelling with good company (and aided by good wine) is that sometimes doing nothing leads to memories that feel like everything.

In an ode to Argentine wine, Nat and I somehow invented wine yoga and ended up taking these hilarious pictures. We sat on the shore for hours trying laughing, chatting, and otherwise making fools of ourselves. It felt like the entire lake was ours and that the Andes were for our eyes only (this is probably why we both felt comfortable relieving ourselves behind bushes – pro-tip, always pee downhill). But after a blissful couple of hours, the sun started to set and we realised that we had to catch the bus home. Wistfully, we packed up our wine and cookies and said goodbye to the lake. However, Potrerillos still had one more surprise in store for us: a fiery sunset over the Andes.

As we walked to the bus stop, we constantly found ourselves stopping to stare at what seemed to be a neon glow from behind the snowy mountains. Shades of purple, pink, and orange, danced like flames behind the white peaks. We were speechless.

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As we boarded the bus back to Mendoza, I took a moment to look back on the past 48 hours of my life. I had pulled an all-nighter to fly here, stayed at my first hostel, had more wine than I should have, reaffirmed my mural obsession, invented lake-side wine yoga, and had seen the sun set over the Andes. How spoiled am I, I thought, before I closed my eyes, and in classic Rachel-in-Mendoza fashion, passed out on the bus. 

Photo credits to the lovely Nat Yang. Follow her on Instagram @nat_yang_

Chasing cataratas…

I had heard legends about this place: It makes Niagara Falls look like a little water fountain. It’s one to the seven wonders of the world! I’ve never seen anything like it in my life! Double rainbows, ALL the way!

The Cataratas del Iguazu (Iguazu Falls) are world famous for being breathtaking. I put it on my Argentina bucket list as soon as I found out I would be spending my summer here. Having seen it now, I can confirm the hype and can say that it really should be on everyone’s bucket list!

I travelled to the falls with three friends from my program, Santiago, Zoe, and Andres, this past weekend. As the designated “mom” of the group, I was in my type A element. After all briefly freaking out at my children for showing up hungover and late to our meeting point, we all finally boarded the plane and managed to make it to Puerto Iguazu in one piece. In town, we stayed at a lovely hostel appropriately called Nomads. Though rather shack-like from the outside, it was a great hostel with plenty of perks – namely, lots and lots of avocado at the free breakfast. After eating our weight’s worth in palta (what the Argentine’s call the wickedly delicious green stuff), we headed straight to the falls.

The park was empty when we got there and we had the whole trail to ourselves as we hiked towards the distant gurgling that we could hear beyond the dense vegetation. It’s ridiculously silly in hindsight but I remember being slightly nervous while approaching the falls. What if it’s all just hype? What if they’re not as amazing as everyone says they are?

How foolish was I? The first view of the falls took my breath away…

The word “wow” is laughably inadequate but it was really the only word that any of us could utter. Except Zoe. She managed to more accurately articulate our awe by jumping around and squealing (really squealing, like “eck! ahhh! AHCKKKK!”) up and down the hiking paths. The boys and I decided that Zoe would be the adopted one in our little makeshift family (of three latinos and me, the token Asian). I’m just kidding Zo! Hold on to your wonder!

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As we hiked along the upper and lower circuits, we were treated to view after view of lush greenery, blue skies, flickering rainbows, and, of course, torrentially powerful curtains of water. It was a blatant display of the sheer force of nature. We couldn’t help but morbidly think about whether or not anyone would be able to survive a dip in the falls (pienso que no!).

Andres said something that rather struck me as we walked along the lower trail.

“Isn’t it a little strange that we pay to go see nature?”

Hm. It is a little strange. But perhaps a more accurate statement is that we pay to preserve nature. Human beings used to exist in spite of nature. Hunter gatherers weathered the elements, braved storms, and took only what they needed to survive. Now, pockets of nature exist in spite of human beings. The way I see it, we were paying for the maintenance of trails and of the park infrastructure, but we were also paying to keep the falls relatively untouched.

I thought about this as we leaped down to the river plate to catch a boat that would literally take us underneath the falls. Our planet is incredible. How can we keep it that way?

This boat ride though pretty much wiped all pensive thoughts out of my mind. I was so frickin’ excited to get utterly drenched! We strapped on our life jackets and placed all our belongings in dry-bags. Then our driver began to steer the speedboat right towards the white torrents of water. Our “oohs and ahhs” from our peaceful morning hike morphed in to screams of sheer delights: “AHHH!! WOOOO!! YAS!!” as the boat repeatedly ducked in and amongst the curtains of water. This wasn’t some Disneyland jungle cruise where you get slightly wet. We were soaked all the way through to the bone. It was exhilarating!

After the boat ride, we spent the rest of the day with the falls, visiting a little island in the middle as well as paying pilgrimage to La Garganta del Diablo (The Devil’s Throat). What a sight to behold.

Tired, damp, but thoroughly content, we headed back to our hostel to cook up a nice family dinner. We schemed about how we would sneak Zoe and Andres into Brazil the next day over a delicious bottle of $4 champagne, but more on that story some other time!

Sunsets are better in Uruguay

I’ve done my best in this blog to try and describe some of the amazing sunsets that I have seen so far on this trip. However, I seem to always fall short. I guess the cliche, “a picture is worth a thousand words” exists for a reason. Therefore I present my seven thousand word essay on why sunsets are better in Colonia, Uruguay.

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Done already? You must be a fast reader!

In all seriousness though, this little weekend getaway to Colonia, about an one and a half hours outside of Buenos Aires, was very special. Colonia is a beautiful little town filled with flowers, sun soaked streets, and friendly people. I’m already itching to return.

Let’s talk about… books: Coffee and Commutes Edition

I just got back from an incredible weekend trip to see Puerto Iguazu to see the breathtaking Iguazu Falls. They really do make you feel quite sorry for Niagra Falls… I’m currently working through a backlog of blog posts that I want to write about all my little excursions. More on Mendoza, Uruguay, and of course, Iguazu, to come! For now though, I’d like to write a little about something that I have recently welcomed back into my life with open arms: leisure reading.

I regret how little extra-curricular reading I do during the semester. It’s a damn shame that I only find the time to read for fun during breaks and the summer. That said, due to my lack of regular leisure reading, a good book has always been associated with travelling. In fact, I never travel without a handy paperback tucked into my carry-on. Now that I’m in Buenos Aires, reading has come to be associated with two other things: caffeine and commuting. I’ve loved finding a seat on a packed subway and hunkering down to read. And does anything really beat the tranquillity of settling down in a beautiful cafe with a rich cup of coffee and an even richer story?

Here’s what I’ve been reading so far:

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ft. An amazing crostini de salmon at El Gato Negro, one of the cities historic barres notables

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I picked this up because it was light and lying around my house the day I flew out. I’m glad that I wasn’t forced to read this in high school. Being forced to read anything sometimes has the adverse effect of making the material seem dry and arduous. My experience reading this classic was the opposite! I really liked how unlikeable Holden was and found it very relaxing to read about one boy’s experience of one great city while zipping around another. It may sound phoney but this is one of the best books I’ve read in recent memory. 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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ft. Colombian coffee and banana bread from Catoti, one of my favourite cafes

I bought this while browsing a beautiful bookstore in my neighbourhood. I knew I wanted an autobiography for my commute – something that I could easily pick up and put down in between subway stops. I was mistaken in thinking that this particular autobiography would be something easy to start and stop. Angelou’s raw account of her  difficult childhood growing up as a black girl in the deep south was incredibly powerful and engrossing. This is a fearless book. I know it will stay with me for a really long time.

Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal by JK Rowling

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ft. An incredible breakfast at Petit Colon, another bar notable in the heart of the theatre district.

Reading in a non-native language is always effortful… unless you happen to know the source material word for word. As exposed in this post, I am a huge Harry Potter nerd. I’ve always wished that I could experience reading the books for the first time again and reading them in Spanish is probably the closest I’m ever going to get to that experience! It’s so magical seeing the iconic lines from the first book in a new language. What’s even more magical is the degree to which I’ve surprised myself with how much I’m able to understand. Check out this video on the story behind Harry Potter translations. Interesting stuff!

The Pelican Brief by John Grisham

I found this gem lying around my host mom’s house. Having binge-watched Suits and The Good Wife, I knew I would enjoy this legal thriller. I devoured it on the plane rides to and from Iguazu. 10/10 would recommend.

Aside from what I’ve been reading, I’ve loved living in what is obviously a literary city. After all, Buenos Aires is the city of Cortázar and Borges. Avenida Corrientes, a road right next to my office, is famous for its many used book stores.

Speaking of book stores, no trip to Buenos Aires would be complete without a visit to El Grand Splendid Ateneo, hands down my favourite bookstore in the world. This old theatre turned libreria is a true paradise for book lovers. I could spend hours amongst the bookshelves dividing my time between staring at the titles and at the beautiful ceiling.

The undeniable truth, at least in Hong Kong and in the States, is that bookstore culture is slowly dying. I’ve slowly seen my favourite bookstores back home, bookstores in which I used to spend hours sitting on the floor reading, slowly get replaced by H&Ms and the like. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeonly old man, I sincerely think that there is still something so special about going to an actual store and weighing beautiful stacks of paper and ink in your hands.

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A staircase of books in Palermo.

Called me old fashioned but I am thankful that Buenos Aires has helped my reconnect with my love of reading and of bookstores. Here’s to more slow mornings spent in the company of a good book and a cafe con leche.

Mendoza, where wine is cheaper than water

“When in Mendoza, you really only need to know two words in Spanish: vino, y más. ‘Wine’, and ‘more’. Put them together, and you’re all set: más vino!”

This little phrase, courtesy of our wine tasting tour guide, pretty much sums up our trip to the wine capital of South America. Nat and I spent a whirlwind 48 hours in Mendoza and we made the most of every minute and every drop of wine.

We flew out of Buenos Aires at the ungodly hour of 4:00am. This resulted in pretty much no sleep the night before since we got to the airport at around 2:00am. Luckily, Dionysus (or someone up there) smiled upon us and blessed both of us with completely empty rows in an otherwise jam-packed plane. It seemed too good to be true and it would be just my luck to have been scammed into buy three seats after misinterpreting the Spanish ticketing website. But no matter, the two of us were immediately horizontal and slept during the hour-long flight to Mendoza.

Upon arriving, we cabbed through town to the Chill Inn Hostel in the city center. It was the first time staying in a hostel for both of us and we didn’t really know what to expect. We were greeted by a shaggy night manager who showed us to our dorm. We were pleasantly surprised to see a little alcove with a bunkbed just for the two of us. After a quick power nap, we were ready to take on Mendoza. Overall 10/10 would recommend the hostel vibes.

Mendoza is an autumn city with plazas lined with beautiful trees and boulevards covered by canopies of fall colors. We walked around the city centre for a couple of hours admiring what Nat dubbed “tree porn” in anticipation of the main event: our wine tour.

In Argentina, and several other wine obsessed countries, wine can literally be cheaper than bottled water. For just 400 pesos each (25USD), we had managed to book ourselves a tour of three bodegas (wineries) with an olive oil factory thrown in as well. As we sat on the bus with people from other hostels around the city, we saw the landscape change from urban to rural with vast fields of grapes on all sides. Unfortunately, everything was rather skeletal due to the time of year. I can only imagine what the vines looked like at the peak of bloom.

At every bodega, we were given the option of going on the tour in Spanish or English. Never ones to back down from a challenge, Nat and I opted for the Spanish tour. After all, the language of wine is universal, no? At the first tasting, we were given generous douses of intense and full-bodied Malbec, oaky cabernet sauvignon, and smooth shiraz. Nat, being the champ that she is, pretty much neglected the little bucket they provided for excess wine. I however did not, seeing as we still had two more bodegas to go!

At the second winery, we were treated to a selection of desert wines. There were a couple of sparkling varieties, a particularly feisty moscato, and a couple of rosés. I honestly couldn’t tell you too much about each variety. We had persisted with the Spanish tour and I struggled with comprehension what with the wine buzz and the sleep deprivation.

Luckily, our third stop was an extremely strategically timed visit to an olive oil and balsamic vinegar factory. God! I think I could survive off of good bread, oil, and vinegar for the rest of my life. I shamelessly scarfed down our samples and single-handedly demolished a plate of olive oil soaked sun-dried tomatoes. Carbo loaded, I was ready for our fourth and final stop.

At our last stop, we were treated to some white Torrontés in addition to the standard Malbec. It was the perfect dry and fruity wine to round of our Mendoza wine experience. Now, I’m typing all this as though I actually know quite a bit about wine and as though I haven’t been chugging bagged sauvignon blanc out of cardboard boxes for the past two years of college. But this isn’t all BS. Our guides did do a very good job explaining the different types of wine to us and I do have a better understand of what makes a wine dry instead of light, oaky instead of fruity.

Regardless of taste though, a red wine, be it bagged sangria or high-end Malbec, is enough to put me to sleep. I KO’d on the bus back to the hostel and had a profound siesta before Nat and I went out into the city in search of tacos (we wanted Mexican, ok?!). As we sat there shovelling down guacamole, we reflected on how much we had managed to accomplish in just our first day here: we did a full city tour, took a couple of power naps, ate my weight in olive oil and sun-dried tomatoes, and sipped on countless glasses of wine.

“¡Salud!” we said as we clinked our glasses together. Alas, they were filled with overpriced water since we wisely determined that we were wine-ed out for the day. Not only were we completely satisfied with our day, we were also proud of the fact that we had gotten through it mishap free. Here’s to doing Mendoza right!