Saturday, March 10, 2007

Crossing the border

When it comes to landscapes, Argentina is a lot like America. The plains of the Pampas might as well be the Midwest, Tierra del Fuego could easily be the Rockies or even the Pacific Northwest, and even the small tropical corner near Iguazu is mirrored in Hawaii. I headed out from Buenos Aires to the north, around Salta and Jujuy, and felt like I might well be in New Mexico or Arizona. Painted deserts, sparse cactus-filled landscapes - the only real differences are the alpacas and llamas every once in a while.

I also got the chance to do my first bungee jump. It was fairly sketchy - they only had velcro bands around the ankles with no other security - but the fact that it was only about 50 feet or so over a river meant that I most probably would have been perfectly fine if the velcro around my ankles gave way. It was pretty fun - you got dunked into the river at the bottom, then bounced right back out. They also had a great zip line over the river.

After that it was time to head over to Bolivia. A short bus ride, and I encountered the most relaxed border crossing I've ever been to. I was the only gringo. There was a small bridge over a dry creek, with a passport office on the side. Despite it saying "Passport Office" in 6 languages (including Hebrew), I was the only person who actually used the passport office - everyone else just passed back and forth over the bridge, often pushing wagons covered in blankets, completely ignoring the armed border guards.

Once in the passport office a disinterested Bolivian civil servant manning a dusty typewriter stamped my passport with a 30 day visa without even looking at me. I'm not saying this from experience, but if you ever find yourself on the run from the law in Argentina, definitely consider the La Quiaca/Villazon border crossing for making your escape.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

The White Whale Lives

Like captain Ahab, we all have our particular White Whales we chase. Mine is an abandoned bridge in Buenos Aires. I can’t explain it. You’re either one of the small subset of people who see this and drool at the thought of climbing it, or you’re not.

I first encountered the Puente Transbordador (also known as the Puente Avellaneda Antigua) during my first trip to Buenos Aires. It didn’t turn out so great. I don’t really know when I first got it in my head I had to climb this thing - maybe because it was the first interesting structure I ran into in Buenos Aires. As is evidenced from the link above, it’s in a not-so-great part of town, but that’s not why I didn’t want to go at night. I really wanted the views - the Bombanera (the Boca Junior soccer club's stadium), downtown, the port. It’s also definitely not so structurally sound anymore, but I wasn’t really worried about how to climb it or falling - I was worried about getting arrested. More specifically, I was worried about getting arrested in a foreign country.

Knowing the local culture is a big, and underrated, part of going interesting places. In Paris or New York, I wouldn’t have thought twice about climbing the thing. Not because I wouldn’t get caught, but because I would know what to do it I was. In Argentina, I had no clue. Local gossip had it that the police were all lazy and corrupt, but what that meant in practicality I didn’t know. That they’d just let me go? That I should try to bribe them? That they’d haul me down to the station and throw me in jail where I’d quickly be forgotten about? That I’d end up being hustled for thousands of dollars by various bureaucrats and officials to get out of the situation? I never felt comfortable enough doing it during my stay in 2005, but I had resolved that one day, I would. After rolling back into town I had 24 hours to figure it out before I left for Northern Argentina. And in addition to the bridge, I wanted some good views I hadn’t been able to find last time. Luckily, I met an adorable Swedish tourist, and we decided to spend some time seeing what rooftops we could get onto.

When in a strange city (or a familiar one for that matter) hotels are almost always your best bet for easily accessible rooftops. After a couple of false starts, we decided to hit the Sheraton near the Retiro train station north of downtown. In most non-English speaking countries, no matter how you’re dressed, no matter how fancy the hotel, if you walk in speaking English you’re almost always left alone. Here was no exception - we made out way out onto the roof with no problems at all.

Now, when you have a evening in Buenos Aires with the company of a lovely lady, you don’t spend it climbing abandoned bridges. We spent the night dancing the tango in San Telmo, and after my companion had left early the next morning, I resolved to give the bridge one last shot before I had to leave. Unfortunately, sometimes these adventures are anti-climactic. Stationed right out front were these guys: not even cops, but naval officers.

I had one small hope though, which was that maybe this town, like Paris, was sufficiently Latin enough to just let me do whatever I wanted. After all, this is a town where a cabby’s favorite move while stopped at a red light is to pull into the oncoming traffic lane, pull around the cars in front of him, and blow right through the light - cops around or no. I went right up to the naval officers and told them I was climbing up the bridge to take pictures. I wasn’t really surprised when, despite my self-assurance, I was met with a resounding “no you aren’t.”

I still kind of regret not just doing it. Forget about beautiful Swedes, angry naval officers, cultural uncertainly - there's a bridge to climb! Still, during moments like these - and they come for all of us - it’s always good to remember that the White Whale did end up killing Ahab.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Tightrope on top of Sao Paulo

On my last day in Sao Paulo I decide to head up one more observation deck, the Edificio Italia downtown. The Edificio Italia was erected by Sao Paulo’s Italian community (hence the name), and has both a restaurant and an observation deck at the top. Contrary to what a lot of guidebooks say, you don’t need to go to the restaurant in order to go to the observation deck if you go at certain times of the day. I head up there for the view, but end up encountering Gabriel, one of my companions from PreservaSP, and his friend Guto.

The Edificio Italia used to be the tallest building not just in Sao Paulo, but all of Brazil. That honor now belongs to the Mirante do Vale, a residential building a little ways away. Downtown Sao Paulo is somewhat hilly, and despite being the tallest building it actually ends up being lower than some others due to do it being constructed in a valley. Still, we decided to see if they’d let us up on the roof.

Sao Paulo is kind of schitzophrenic when it comes to residential security. Middle-class people tend to live in 30-40 story high-rises surrounded by fences, sometime topped with barbed or even electrified wires, and staffed 24-7 by security guards. You might think this would make for difficult access to the roofs of residential buildings. But no, we simply go up to reception and ask, and 5 minutes later a janitor is escorting us up. The elevators have an interesting transport philosophy - they stop halfway between two floors, with either a half-flight walk up or down stairs to get to the floor. This leads to half as many potential stops, and at least theoretically, less transportation time.

We go to the top floor, walk up a flight of stairs, and the janitor unlocks the door. But we aren't on the roof yet. It turns out the top five stories don’t exist. Not empty floors, but non-existent floors. No floors, no ceilings, no walls. Just five-foot wide ledges surrounding nothing. We get up to the roof, half of which is actually a Helicopter Landing pad. The view is spectacular.

Top 5 stories of the Mirante do Vale

Helicopter landing pad on the roof

View northeast of the Edificios BANESPA and Banco do Brasil

View South - you can see the antennas of Avenida Paulista off in the distance

Looking down on the Viaduto Santa Ifigenia

The janitor hangs out while we go trampsing onto the other half - the aforementioned five-foot wide ledge. No guardrails, no nothing, with a 50-foot drop on one side, and 500-foot drop on the other. I cannot imagine anywhere in the United States letting us do this - for free no less.

No liability insurance - no problem!

Guto checking the camera

Guto and Gabriel

We hang out for a while, tip the janitor 10 Reals (about 4 dollars), and head back down. One more reason to love Brazil.