Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Back in the USA (and Ben's new job)

August 22, 2012
We're back in the U.S.!

We stopped for a few days in south Florida to visit my grandfather and cousins. Florida in the summer is HOT! Everyone goes from air-conditioned car to home to office to restaurant, so just when the kids are out of school, no one is actually outdoors. Our first impressions getting from the Miami airport to Delray Beach via the TriRail train (other than the poor signage) was that people there are really rude. No one smiled, people whose jobs entailed some kind of help offered it only grudgingly or mockingly, and when they were bothered people tended to go off on tirades at the world. (One fat guy with his Hawaiian shirt open [apparently that's sexy in S.Florida] got wrong directions from someone and went on a rant about it for fifteen minutes.)

Once we got to the Delray-Boca area, however, some of the people got friendlier. I tried to teach my cousins (ages 10 and 13) how to ride a bicycle, with mixed success (the younger one lost interest very quickly and the older one doesn't have a bike). We went to a nature preserve and a park for remote-control cars, boats, helicopters, and airplanes; it was a weekday so it was mostly empty, but we did see a model WW2 fighter plane make a few laps around the airfield. We went to a farmer's market called The Boys, with aisle after aisle of beautiful fresh produce. (In Argentina we had a verduleria next door, but the sheer variety in this country is mind-blowing. Mangoes, romaine lettuce, goat cheese, green beans, half-pound avocados, all cheap, delicious and under the same roof!)

And we ate Mexican food. Before the main courses were served, we had gone through 2 bowls of tortilla chips and salsa. Oh, how we missed good Mexican food in Argentina.

Now we're back in the Boston area, staying with Steph's family. The next big move is to San Francisco. We have a bunch of logistics to figure out for the move, which will probably be around September 5th. We're not sure yet if we want to drive our stuff west or pay a shipping company to do it.   (We've had our stuff from here in a storage unit all year.) We're also considering buying a car (I've been thinking about a Jeep Wrangler, but it's unfortunately not very practical for moving cross-country or the city), or maybe a motorcycle, but it probably makes more sense to wait til we're in CA to do that.

Also big news for me, I'll be starting a new job soon in San Francisco! Some background first: I've been freelancing since 2010 (under the company name New Leaf Digital), and had a very good run with that for a while. I worked on interesting projects, had the flexibility to set my own schedule, learn new technologies, go sailing in the middle of the day, and of course live in Argentina for a year (!), all while earning a pretty good living. But the technology I was specializing in for the first few years (Drupal) has gotten old and bloated and uninteresting, so I shifted my focus to a more promising up-and-coming technology (Node.js) last year. But the nature of that framework and its relative newness make freelancing with it not a viable option. I've also been a partner in a startup, Antiques Near Me, for the last few years, but that never gained traction and I finally decided to stop pouring time down a sinkhole.

So a few months ago, after much deliberation, I decided to put my freelance/entrepreneur hat aside and go back to a regular job, working with Node.js, with a great team in a promising company that made a genuinely useful product. I applied for a bunch of jobs in San Francisco that fit those criteria, and was invited to phone and video interviews (while still in Argentina). That process culminated in the new job I'll be starting on September 24th, as a software developer for DocuSign. They facilitate digital signing of documents: Instead of emailing a PDF, printing, signing, scanning, and emailing back (a very 20th-century workflow), you use DocuSign's products to handle everything digitally. It's the kind of product everyone will be using in a few more years (when old habits finally die), they're the market leader, the team is great, they're working with a great technology, in downtown San Francisco, and I'm really excited!

- Ben

Adios, Argentina

August 14, 2012
I thought this video would be a fitting post for our last day in Argentina. I made it for Ben last summer, when our knowledge of Argentina didn't extend much beyond wine and steak. He was unsure what he was getting into with this adventure of ours, so this animated flipbook was my attempt to represent our year in Argentina. Turns out, I wasn't so far off.

Adios, Argentina. Te vamos a extrañar.

- Steph

Our ski trip to Las Leñas

August 11, 2012
For our last adventure in Argentina, we traveled west to ski at Las Leñas. In the Andes, across from Portillo in Chile, it's supposed to be the best ski resort in Argentina.

The resort offers only extremely expensive lodging, so we stayed in Malargue, about an hour's drive from the mountain. To get there, we took a 16-hour overnight sleeper bus from Buenos Aires to San Rafael (like the one we took to Mendoza in May, and a fraction of the cost of flying), and a second bus to Malargue. The buses were stopped several times by the police: at 1a.m. we had to disembark in the middle of nowhere and run all our luggage through a mobile X-Ray machine. We had learned the lesson from the Mendoza buses and opted to skip their awful food, bringing our own instead. Entertainment on the buses consisted of bad movies dubbed in Spanish, played on screens and over the loudspeakers; we brought Steph's laptop and (trying to block out the loudspeakers) passed the waking time by watching Deadwood, reading Kindle books, and listening to podcasts.

When we looked for lodging, we found only two locations in Malargue with an online presence. One was an apartment-style place that didn't answer its phone and replied to every email with a 10-page form letter. (Once in Malargue we realized it was also very far out of the town, not feasible to stay at without a car.) The other place, which we chose instead, was the Microtel, part of a big chain that seemed to be a better option. Interestingly, there were a dozen or more other motels in town, but none exist online: I guess some people still use brick-and-mortar travel agencies to vacation.

We arrived in Malargue mid-afternoon on Saturday, and everything was closed for siesta, even the supermarket. So we ate ice cream for lunch. We rented ski equipment, then ate dinner at the hotel's restaurant, which had a very creative menu but only mediocre food.

Sunday morning, we took a shuttle van to the mountain. The weather was sunny and not too cold, but the mountain and resort themselves, from the beginning, were disappointing. First, it wasn't nearly as big or as unique as I imagined the Andes would be. (The pretty pictures are of the mountains around the slopes, not where you actually ski, and putting aside that the base elevation is extremely high, the mountains aren't that high even by New England standards.) There was no lodge, only cafes and private clubs, so we had to put on our gear outside. No free coin-operated lockers either, only expensive ones. There wasn't much snow.

(Read more here on why we think Las Leñas is overrated.)

Despite all that, skiing the first day was very nice. Steph's an advanced skier, and it didn't take long to learn that rental skies have no edges, so she skied more conservatively after wiping out on a turn. I'm an intermediate skier, used to turning more by skidding than by edging, so I worked on my technique. In the afternoon we took the Marte, a steep lift up to the mountain's highest point (with the mountain's only advanced trails) and did a few runs on that. There were dangerous beginners everywhere, all decked out in fancy gear but not knowing what they were doing, making a lot of the runs very dangerous. There were as many snowboarders as skiers, and they especially hard to predict, making very wide and erratic zigzags. One guy crashed into Steph coming off a slope onto a lift line. The lifts were all very slow, but at least the lines were short.

An hour back to Malargue, then dinner at a restaurant called Bodegón de Maria, with very good homemade ravioli, and early sleep.

Aside: Argentine food is way too heavy on ham and cheese. At the mountain cafes, pretty much every sandwich was some variation of ham and cheese. At the restaurant, even the lasagna had ham and cheese. I realized on this trip that as much I like Buenos Aires' best restaurants, I really won't miss Argentine cuisine.

Up the Marte
Monday was cloudy and cold. The slow ascent up the Marte was too cold and windy to be worth the runs. We had brought our own lunch, but without a lodge, we had to eat outside on a bench. Afterwards we were freezing so we went inside the cafe for a hot chocolate. As we sat there, Steph realized she had left her helmet, filled with a bunch of gear, on the bench. We went outside and it was gone. Someone had stolen her helmet, goggles, gloves, and balaclava! We kept trying the lost & found, and looking for skiers wearing her helmet, but it was gone.

We managed to reshuffle our gear and keep skiing. But by this point we were both feeling sick: Steph had been fighting a cold for a week, I had managed to hold it off but my immune system gave in. The slopes by this point were all ice. We went in early, and killed time before the shuttle with another overpriced hot chocolate. Back in town, we had the buffet dinner at the hotel, which was worse than the on-menu items, and were glad the day was over.

Tuesday was our last skiing day. With our spares, we substituted most of Steph's stolen gear enough to ski, but she still didn't have goggles, and we traded off my mittens to go over our liner gloves. The sky was gray and the trails were still frozen. To avoid the boring and cold chair lifts, we did runs off the faster pulley lifts. We braved the Marte and it wasn't so bad. Halfway down one run, we went in for a hot chocolate, and it started to snow. Pretty soon it was nearly a blizzard, with snow falling sideways. But finally the trails had powder again! So we did the Marte a few more times, not able to see the ground (especially Steph with only glasses), navigating by the trail markers. (That we could do this is a testament to the mountain's lack of expert trails.) Despite the weather, we managed to get in a bunch of good runs by the end of the day.

On the shuttle back, a bunch of Argentines who had never seen snow before were enthralled. One woman took dozens of photos out the van's front windshield of nothing but snow and slush on the road. The driver and passengers offered us maté (in which everyone traditionally shares the same straw), we declined so as not to share our germs and they probably thought we were snobby foreigners. I was feeling really sick by this point and took a long nap when we returned. We had dinner again at Bodegón but it wasn't as good as the previous time. We went to sleep early, woke up late on Wednesday, and it was a beautiful sunny day. No doubt the mountain was now covered in fresh powder, but we got on a 16-hour bus instead, back to Buenos Aires.

- Ben

Las Leñas: an overrated ski resort

Note to friends/family: If you want to read about our trip specifically, skip to the next post

We knew since we arrived in Argentina that we didn't want to leave without skiing the Andes. When we started researching for our trip, we were seduced by the descriptions of Las Leñas with its light fluffy powder and rugged terrain. Skiworld calls it "the South American resort to visit."

I didn't find Las Leñas to be a world-class ski resort, but instead an overpriced and overrated mountain, with horribly slow lifts, not enough trails, and little challenging terrain unless you go off-piste. With a few exceptions that I'll get into below, I would encourage travelers looking for a South American ski vacation to go elsewhere.

My complaints break down into two main categories: the quality of the skiing and the quality of the services.

Skiing: A beginner-intermediate mountain

Here's a trail map to make it easier to follow my description of the available skiing. (Click to see a larger version.)

las lenas trail map

The mountain is divided into two main areas, which I'll refer to as the "base" and the "Marte trails" (accessible via the Marte lift, in the upper left quadrant of the map).

Most skiers stay on the trails in the base area, which is served by several chair lifts and several pulley lifts. At first glance, the base area seems to offer a number of trails for skiers of all levels. There are the green trails for beginners, some blues, and even a fair number of "reds", equivalent to single black diamonds in the U.S. The problem is this: the greens are entirely flat, meant only for those just learning to ski; the blues aren't real runs for the most part, simply connecting trails between different parts of the mountain; the reds don't even offer much in the way of difficulty and are overcrowded because of the lack of other trails. The vertical in this part of the mountain is only about 300 meters, the runs are short, and the chair lifts very long. The single-person pulley lifts are actually the fastest lifts on the whole mountain. When we were there, the general skill level of most of the skiers/boarders wasn't that good, meaning this area was crowded, boring, and quickly got skied off.

The only on-piste trails worth skiing in my mind were those off the Marte (I'm an expert skier, but not one with much off-piste or powder experience, having grown up skiing in New England). The Marte lift is seriously steep, traversing several crevasses, and you ski down the backside of the mountain, rather than under the lift, making the runs much longer and more worthwhile. When the sun is out and the snow is good, the Marte runs are thoroughly enjoyable (though again, not overly challenging — Ben is an intermediate skier and could handle them easily). But there are still several problems. First, there are only a few trails off the Marte, not enough to keep you busy for a whole week, or even several days. Second, getting to the top of the mountain involves taking three lifts (Venus, Neptune, and the Marte), which takes up 40 minutes total. That's a long time sitting on very slow lifts, especially when it's cold. Finally, the sun doesn't reach that area of the mountain until the afternoon. When we were there, the snow was too hard and icy in the morning until the sun hit it, essentially negating the value of this part of the mountain for the first half of the day.

Caveat: The mountain was seriously lacking snow while we were there, meaning no one was skiing off-piste. If you are a good enough skier to go off-piste and there's plenty of snow, then many of my complaints won't apply. But the vast majority of the skiers/boarders there last week weren't good enough to venture off the marked trails, and so the availability of off-piste skiing wouldn't significantly change the experience.

Services: Unwelcoming to day-trippers

My complaint here basically boils down to this: there is no lodge or other corresponding services for day-trippers.

Las Leñas largely caters to guests who stay on the mountain, usually via their "skiweek" packages, which start at US$2200 per person for the week (that doesn't include lunch, lessons, rental equipment, or transport to the mountain). This was outrageously expensive for us, so we chose to stay in Malargüe, about an hour away. There were hundreds of other day-trippers like us, arriving via bus or car, and skiing at a cost of US$75 for a single-day lift ticket.

But despite the fact that Las Leñas welcomes these day-trippers and takes their money, it provides none of the basic services offered by every other ski resort I've ever visited. When we arrived the first morning, we kept asking, "Where is the lodge?". Except we didn't know how to say this in Spanish so we tried to explain what we were looking for: "A place to sit down without having to buy food, take on and off your gear, use the bathroom, and store your belongings." Instead, we were directed to outside bathrooms, a restaurant, and a locker-room that charged US$15 per day, and was the only available place to store your belongings (bringing the total cost of a one-day lift ticket to US$90). Las Leñas has no base area for its day-trippers — it provides them with no comfortable space to put on their gear and no place to sit down for a break without paying for food. It is, overall, inhospitable and unwelcoming to those who don't have on-mountain accommodation.

Again, if you are staying on the mountain, this complaint won't apply (except beware, the restaurants are expensive and the food is terrible). And if Las Leñas wanted to limit its guests to those staying on the mountain, it would be well within its rights to do so (which in turn might reduce the crowding on the mountain). But it doesn't do this. It encourages day-trippers and takes their money, giving them little in return.

I skied at Portillo six years back and came away loving skiing in the Andes. The snow was fantastic, the trails were steep, the services were luxurious. I could only hope for the same experience at Las Leñas and came away severely disappointed. Setting aside the off-piste options, it is at best a beginner-intermediate mountain desperately in need of infrastructure improvements. I would never return, and would encourage others to consider whether Las Leñas really deserves its reputation.

- Steph