Fun Stuff

November 17, 2014

Serendipity at the End of the World

Ushuaia 1

By: Noemi Gamel

I have previously posted that many of our most amazing experiences during this round the world trip have happened serendipitously. Well, we had another such moment when visiting Ushuaia, Argentina, the southern-most city in the world.

We did the usual tourist attractions in Ushuaia such as exploring the beautiful forests of the Tierra del Fuego National Park. We visited the Prison Museum (Ushuaia started as a penal colony) and read the gruesome tale of the “Big-Eared Short Man” of Argentina, who committed his first act of violence at age 8 and his first murder at age 13. The kids drank “submarinos”, which are hot glasses of milk dunked with a chocolate bar, at a local coffee shop. Argentines know chocolate, that is for sure!

During our walk through town, we saw a sign on the window of a travel agency that said, “Last Minute Antarctica Deals – Boat Leaves November 7”. Chris and I looked at each other, smiled, and walked in. By the end of the day, we had decided we were going to Antarctica on the expedition ship Ushuaia.

Our next few posts will feature details and pictures of our Antarctica trip. I am very excited, because I am actually writing this article the day before we depart. Keep tuned to Thomson Family Adventures for more!

Ushuaia 3Ushuaia 2




November 13, 2014

Glaciers: Impressive, Dynamic, Blue Giants

By: Noemi Gamel

Glacier 2I remember learning about glaciers in my fourth grade science class. I thought it was cool that they were so big and crushed mountains. Unfortunately, glaciers are hard to find in Texas, so I was never able to fully appreciate their majesty.

Fast forward a few decades. I find myself in El Calafate at the base of Perito Moreno Glacier. The Perito Moreno Glacier is an imposing river of solid ice where the Patagonian forests meets the mountains and the Canal de los Tempanos (the channel between Lago Argentino and Brazo Rico). The glacier is 5 km across and reaches heights of 74 meters (that’s 242 feet for my fellow American). It is impossible to stand before this wonder of the world and not feel somewhat insignificant.

I expected the glacier to be white, but it turns out that blue is one of the most prominent colors. Blue has the highest energy photons in the color spectrum. When sunlight hits the glacier, blue penetrates the deepest into the ice. Perhaps the feature of the glacier that struck me the most was its constant activity. As glaciers advance, the “ablation zone” ruptures and recedes. We witnessed massive chunks of ice larger then a house break off from the wall and fall into the water, causing impressive sounds to ring out over the silence of nature. The splash into the water was terrifying and beautiful at the same time.

Over the years, the glacier has advanced across the channel enough to form an ice bridge upon making contact with the Peninsula Magellanes. This causes the level of the Lago Argentino to rise and its waters churn against the bridge, leading to awe inspiring ruptures. We will have to come back some day to witness this spectacular event.

 

Glacier 4Glacier 1



November 3, 2014

Whales: Spectacular Giants of the Sea

By: Noemi GamelWhale 1

Why do whales fascinate us? Is it their immense size? Is it their ability to live in a world so foreign to us land dwellers? Or, could it just be their simple, raw, power and beauty?

If you ever find yourself in Argentina, be sure to visit the town of Puerto Madryn to go whale watching. I had been on a couple whale and dolphin excursions in Vancouver Island and Mexico, but this one blew them all out of the water…literally and figuratively. The tour started with a stop at a beach to watch right whales from the shore. I was highly skeptical of this setup at first. How many whales could we possibly watch from the beach and how close could we get? I wasn’t expecting much.

I was wrong! The whales were hanging out just offshore. We saw them without the need for binoculars. I did not count the number of whales, but a minute did not pass where one was in our direct line of sight. After this, our driver took us to the town of Puerto Piramides, where we took a whale watching boat around Peninsula Valdes.

Wow! We were all at a loss for words. We saw our first right whale less than fifteen minutes into the boat ride, and pretty much had one in our sight the entire time, often more then one. They swam very close to the boat. We were able to see exquisite displays of behavior such as breaching. We were fortunate enough to witness a mother with a baby.  She even brought the baby up to the boat to check us out. Kara and Tristan were speechless, which if you know our kids, is a huge deal.

What has been your favorite whale or dolphin watching experience? Let us know in the comments below.

 

Whale 2Whale 3



October 27, 2014

Futbol in Argentina

Futbol 2By: Noemi Gamel

While we were in Buenos Aires, we decided to go to a futbol (aka soccer to you Americans) match. Tristan loves futbol but had never been to a live game before.

Argentina has the reputation for having some of the most devout and passionate futbol fans in the world. In fact, that might be an understatement. When we posted on FaceBook that we were attending a game, our futbol-fanatic Salvadorian friend commented, “I bow down to your courage.”

To avoid the complex ticket buying process, we went with a tour group whose sole purpose is to buy tickets and escort tourists to futbol matches. Our guide, Santiago, confirmed that Argentinian fans have a checkered past: due to violent outbursts during games, the government no longer allows “away” fans in the stadiums. Imagine attending a sporting event in the states and only the home team was allowed to have fans in the stands. Needless to say things were a little different. Also, no alcohol is permitted inside the futbol stadiums.

Without the fear of fistfights or lynchings (though we were advised which team to cheer for), we attended the game with cautious optimism. Santiago reassured us constantly, but also insisted on the group (made up of non-BA Argentinians, Australians, and us) sticking close to him. We had a blast! The kids enjoyed their snacks of sugared peanuts and “gaseosa”, which is essentially soda. We were up in the “cheap seats” but the energy of the stadium permeated all the way up to our stands.

The enthusiasm emanating from the crowed was unrivaled. This was a rival match between two of Argentina’s top teams and the fans sang and cheered non-stop during the entire game. Like a unified choir, they sang out and danced coordinated chants. It was impossible not to be infected by their energy.

The fans, though energetic, were polite and well behaved. Of course, the armed police may have done a lot to quell passions. In the end, we had a great time and Tristan is eagerly awaiting his next game.

Futbol 3

Futbol 1



October 20, 2014

Iguazu Falls

By: Noemi Gamel

Kara and Tristan by the falls

Kara and Tristan by the falls

There is something magical about waterfalls. Perhaps it is the power they convey, the crystalline beauty of the curtain of water, or the deafening roar they produce.  You can imagine our delight to witnessing arguably the most spectacular waterfalls in the world, in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina.

When we first entered Iguazu National Park, I felt like we were in an Argentinian version of Disney World. The place felt commercial, very well organized and clean. There was even a little train to take us around the park. All concerns that we were going to be met by a mechanical band of bears melted when I turned the corner and caught my first glimpse of Iguazu Falls.

Words cannot describe the majesty and beauty of this wonder of nature, but Chris’s photos sure do. Almost 300 individual waterfalls merge together to create Iguazu Falls, resulting is a waterfall that is taller and twice as wide as Niagara Falls, with 3,300,000 gallons of water flowing over the falls every second!

Kara and Tristan loved getting as close as possible to the falls in the lower paths to get drenched by its mist. I have to admit we were coming up with some pretty gruesome speculations of what would happen to the human body if one were to fall on the rocks below.  It is no wonder there is a strict rule forbidding parents from carry their children piggy back on the paths near the falls.

The view from the upper paths was equally stunning, but more crowded. The tour buses arrived around 10 am, so we were very glad we had arrived early to enjoy the views with some semblance of solitude.

Iguazu Falls 4

The falls from above

Iguazu Falls 2

Iguazu Falls



October 13, 2014

Tips for More Pleasant Bus Travel

By Noemi Gamel

Bus Ride

Kara and Tristan – 12 hours into a 13 hour bus ride in Argentina

Growing up in the United States, we tend to view bus rides with trepidation. They are uncomfortable, slow, and rarely seem to run at  the time or along the route we need. We knew that buses would be part of our around the world trip, but it wasn’t a form of  transportation we were looking forward too.

Imagine our surprise when we boarded our first extended bus ride in Peru (20 hours).  Many of the buses in South America are  amazing. Huge, comfortable seats that recline a full 180 degrees (think first class on a plane and you get the picture of what a “cama”  seat is like). They even provide decent food service.

After three months of using buses in South America, we have some tips to make bus travel more comfortable. These will be especially useful if you have kids.

Use a backpack instead of a suitcase. A backpack is easier to maneuver around bus stations that may not have elevators or ramps. It is also easier to carry in case you can’t use the luggage compartment under the bus, which sometimes you can’t do if your final destination is not that route’s end of the line.

Pack entertainment. Chris and I have a “carry-on” bag where we make sure to keep materials to keep the kids (and us) entertained on the bus, especially the long ones such as our 20 hour bus ride to Cusco, Peru or our 12 hour ride to Puerto Iguazu, Argentina. We carry Uno cards, a standard deck of cards, and yes, their iPADs (loaded with books, movies, and games). Make sure those electronics are fully charged before you get on the bus, as most of them do not have plugs.

Pack snacks. Many of the longer, upscale buses will provide meals, but options are limited and they can be unappealing to kids. Other times, you will not have time to buy food at the bus stops or your options may not be good. Pack snacks like fruit, crackers, or empanadas to prevent hunger-related meltdowns.

Bring antibacterial gel and toilet paper. In countries outside the United States, sometimes you will not find soap or toilet paper in public bathrooms such as the ones in bus stations. One time, in Bolivia, the bus stopped at a remote rest area and when I asked where the toilet was, I was directed to an open field with grazing llamas. It helps to have a sense of humor.

What useful tips do you have for using public transportation in Latin America? Share your advise, tips, and tricks in the comments!



September 2, 2014

Why We Loved Salar de Uyuni

By: Noemi Gamel

We spent four glorious days traveling through the Bolivian Altiplano and the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats). Six weeks into our yearlong round the world trip, we all agree that the Salar de Uyuni is our favorite part so far. Interestingly, we all have different reasons why we enjoyed traveling through Uyuni and we want to share them with you.

Chris

As a wildlife photographer, Chris loved the biscachas (squirrel-like bunnies) of the Inca corridor, zorros (fox) near our rock hotel, and flamingoes in the Red lake. No other place we have visited so far had as much wildlife as this highland desert. Since we were on a private tour, he was able to ask the driver to stop whenever we had a good wildlife sighting. At one point, I told Raul, our driver, and Carla, our guide, that we had to pull him back in the car or he would stay shooting biscachas all day long.

Noemi

I loved learning about the history, archeology, and geological intricacies of the area. The tour was also a culturally eye-opening experience because we learned how the Andean people live in this harsh environment. Next time I feel like complaining about slow Wi-Fi, I will remember the huts with no running water or electricity in the Altiplano desert. I also enjoyed getting to know our guide and driver, Carla and Raul. They were wonderful.

Kara

Kara’s favorite part of the Salar Uyuni trip was taking the “crazy pictures” in the middle of the salt flat. Because there is no way to gage distance, you can come up with some funky images with your camera. We took a picture of a gorilla eating us, Tommy the Frog chasing us, driving inside a boot, and Chris stepping on us with his shoe.

Tristan

Tristan’s favorite thing to do in the world is to climb trees. While there are no trees in the Bolivian highland desert, we encountered many rock formations that he wasted no time in climbing, including the Army of Corals, the Stone Tree area, Valle de las Rocas, and Pia Pia Island.
Whenever you are afraid to travel to a remote and harsh place such as the Altiplano with the whole family, set your fears aside. The whole family can have fun and extract different joys from the experience.

Kara and Tristan playing with perspective at Salar de Uyuni

Kara and Tristan playing with perspective at Salar de Uyuni

The striking landscape at Salar de Uyuni

The striking landscape at Salar de Uyuni



August 25, 2014

Welcome to the Witches’ Market

This week’s post from the Gamel family’s yearlong journey around the world, written by Noemi Gamel, with photography by Chris Gamel:

Dried llama fetuses

Dried llama fetuses

We spent two nights in La Paz, Boliva to break up the traveling between Copacabana/Isla del Sol and Salar de Uyuni. We meant to use those days to catch up on work and rest. On arriving, we learned that our hotel was just one block away from the Mercado de Brujas, or Witches’ Market. So shortly after breakfast, we took the opportunity to visit this offbeat and wickedly delightful shopping area.

The Mercado de Brujas is not a typical market. It is a single street lined with shops dedicated to meeting your supernatural needs as well as materials to participate in the worship of the traditional Inca gods. You will find mummified llamas to burn as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and stone toad effigies to pray for good fortune. You will find all sorts of oils to alleviate any ailment imaginable or to enhance, ahem, your performance in the bedroom.

As I was walking down the Mercado de Brujas with Chris and the kids, a woman presented a dried llama fetus to me…twice! The llama fetus is supposed to bring you fertility, an important feature in a culture where the more children a person has, the more their blessings from the old gods (Pachamama and company) and the new (Catholicism). Apparently, she thought two children were not enough to bring me a blessed life. I declined to purchase this souvenir, as I did not know how customs agents would react to a llama fetus in my backpack, and I did not want to contribute to the llama fetus market.

For those who are faint of heart, you can also purchase scarfs, handbags, and clothes at the Mercado de Brujas that have nothing to do with the supernatural. If you are ever in La Paz, make sure to visit this place!

What is the strangest souvenir you have purchased or encountered on your travels?



August 19, 2014

Wait! I Thought I Spoke Spanish!

This week’s post from the Gamel family’s yearlong journey around the world, written by Noemi Gamel, with photography by Chris Gamel:

Practicing local Spanish at the market

Practicing local Spanish at the market

While traveling through Peru and Bolivia, I have experienced some comical results using my native Mexican Spanish in South America. Just as my British friends look at me quizzically when I say “y’all” and I do not understand them when they say “lorry” instead of truck, I am finding that different colloquialisms can cause confusion in Spanish.

When we first arrived in Lima, Peru to start our Round the World trip, I went to a small Mercado (market) to find dinner items. I found tomatoes, bananas, bread, and cheese. In Spanish, I asked the woman if she had “aguacates” or avocados. She looked at me as if I had asked for chilled monkey brains. I described the avocado as a black vegetable with a “hueso” (which literally translates to bone) or large seed inside. She said she did not know what I was talking about.

I panicked at the notion that we would not eat avocadoes for 5 weeks while in Peru. My panic struck further when I thought that maybe there were no avocadoes in South America! The horror!

At a restaurant the next day, I found out that avocados are called “paltas” in South America and that they are green, not black. I also found out that the large seed inside is called a “pepa” or “semilla.” I can only imagine what that poor woman at the market in Lima thought about the crazy Mexican-American asking about a black vegetable with a bone inside!

I also found out that “ya” means “yes” or “certainly”. In my native Mexican Spanish, “ya” translates to “be quiet” or “stop it”. It is not a nice phrase. I was jarred by how often Peruvians and Bolivians say “ya” until I realized it was a positive, friendly term.

The lesson learned? Not all Spanish is created equal. And don’t punch the waiter when he says “ya” in Peru or Bolivia.
In future blog posts, I will list some useful Spanish phrases to know when traveling through Latin America, except Brazil of course, where they try to confuse you by speaking Portuguese.

Have you ever had a comical experience due to a misunderstanding withregional language? Share it with us in the comments below!



August 12, 2014

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Another post from the Gamel family’s year around the world:

Why would anyone wake up at 4:30 in the morning? There are only three
good reasons I can come up with:

1) Your  child is sick.

2) A job-related emergency.

3) To watch the sun rise over the majestic scenery of Machu Picchu.

The enigmatic ruins came into view as our bus wound up the
mountains. With that first glance, I understood why Machu Picchu is one
of the seven wonders of the world. Not only are the ruins an architectural
masterpiece, but the city still has a mystical quality that is palpable.

If you go to Peru, you must see Machu Picchu. If you do not hike the Inca
Trail to get there, take the earliest bus available at 5:30 am to get there
in time for sunrise. Take a boxed lunch so you are not in a hurry to get
back. Stroll through the ruins, sit facing Wayna Picchu while the sun
hits your face, and feel the energy in the rocks. Book your train out of
Aguas Calientes in the late afternoon so you can spend as much time as
possible in this wondrous place.