Thursday, February 25, 2010

Following in the footsteps of Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and Salvador Dali

alternate title: Chile is for Lovers.

This blog situation is out of control.

It's partly a good sign that I haven't been posting as regularly-- I've been with great people and having a great time. But I am gutted that I have lost reflections and thoughts that have certainly slipped through the cracks by now. Especially since the last couple of weeks have been completely golden. I have had thoughts and feelings I've never had before, my mind raced, almost like some natural high. I don't know if it was just the atmosphere of Valparaiso, or if I've just hit a new plane in my solo travels, but it has been exhilerating.

More on that later. I am going to gloss over the activities I didn't write about.

Uyuni, in southern Bolivia? Another shithole town. Only good for getting into a 4-wheel-drive to hit the road on a 3 day road trip through the salt flats, desert, and lagunas. Nikki and I ended up in a car full of Aussies. I love Aussies, but when you're the only one not an Aussie? There were plenty of conversations I completely missed out on. Oh well, the views were pretty stellar. When you are in the salt flats, you can't see an end to them. It's just this endless expanse of flat white. I wished I could have seen them in the sunset, because then the water and white would have been reflecting a colorful sky. I witness this once at the Spiral Jetty in Utah-- unbelievable.

I am not a desert person. I like green, growing things. Period. But this was the most expansive desert I've been through, and I certainly have a lot of respect for it, and the huge variety of landscape it presented me in its very desert-ness. The landscape in general was pretty surreal, so it makes sense that Salvador Dali was inspired by them and used them in his surrealist paintings. It also very much felt like Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid territory. So funny how you go to other lands to see foreign things, and end up thinking, "Hey, this looks like Utah." Except for the flamingoes.

The original plan was to end up back in Uyuni, as this road trip was a circuit. But we had (the responsible, foreseeing travelers we are) looked into possible tickets down to Argentina after the trip. We knew we didn't want to be staying in Uyuni for a second longer than necessary. To our great dismay, it appeared we wouldn't be able to get out of there for 3 days after we got back! Unacceptable. But there was nothing else we could do, so we started out for the Salt Flats hoping a 'maybe' bus would turn into a 'definitely' bus.

Well, it turned out the driver was going to drop the other Aussies off at the Chilean border, where they were going to San Pedro de Atacama, and then across the Argentinian border to Salta. MUCH better option. So, surprisingly, Chile it is! I had already sacrificed Chile in the name of No Money, but a quick in and out never hurt anyone right? Wrong, because once I was there I just couldn't leave! San Pedro was so charming. It is a desert town, but is a bit of an oasis, and during the sunset it is just gorgeous. Great main street, plaza, so sociable. Great empanadas.

Northern Chile is one of the best places in the world to go stargazing, because out in the desert there is less light polution, and there are clear skies 360 days of the year. So I went out to this professors house in the middle of the desert, and he taught me about constellations and how to stargaze on my own and I looked througth a bunch of telescopes at stars, planets, nebulas, etc. It was pretty damn beautiful. Saturn and some nebula were my favorite. Really gorgeous. I think Nikki and I were the only non-couple. I think you can infer what I thought about that.

At this point I was hooked on Chile and couldn't resist getting a bus to Valparaiso, and then on to the island of Chiloe. I had a feeling. I get pretty good gut feelings. I tend to follow them, and I tend to be glad I did. So I split up with Nikki and followed my own road down south.

The drive was long, but beautiful I was sad I wasn't stopping more places in Chile. Luckily, I know I have to come back anyway. It's breaking my heart not going through Patagonia, and on down to the bottom of the world. But I want to do that trip camping. And I therefore want to do it with someone else. So I know I'll be back, and hopefully I can stop by some towns I didn't get to on this round.

This 24 hour bus ride would have been just fine. You know, I should write a whole seperate post dedicated to the bus. I am a champion bus-rider at this point. I CANNOT BELIEVE I only have one more bus ride on my trip, the 20-hour one to B.A. It is inconceivable. I cannot begin to estimate how many hours, how many days, I have spent on a bus. I have it down to a well-oiled routine, down to the pre-departure grocery store visit, packing, safety precautions, etc. I have a playlist that eases me into sleep every time. There was a point when I was completely sick of buses, didn't want to see a bus for the rest of my life. But I've come back around. The wonderful thing about buses is how the landscapes slide past the windows, this lovely panoramic window into a country. I sit there with my iPod on shuffle, and let the thoughts slide through my brain as the mountains, lakes, towns slide past my window. I am also lucky enough to be able to read on a bus without getting carsick. Since I've gotten into Chile, where the roads are a dream, the bus situation hasn't been a drag at all. The bus from Oruro to Uyuni, however, rivaled that bustrip from hell back in Colombia to San Agustin.

Some words dedicated to good bus etiquette:
-Don't leave your cell phone ringer on LOUD.
-Try to talk on your cell as little as possible. I have no interest in overhearing every loudtalking word you say to your mom. Especially when I am trying to sleep.
-Don't lean your chair back unless it is necessary (when you are sleeping).
-I think a good general rule would be that you don't lean your chair back unless the person in front of you has leaned their chair back. Except, of course, when it's sleep time. Even then, I am nice, and I never lean my seat all the way back.
-When leaning your seat back, take a glance behind you and make sure that person isn't leaning forward for some reason.
-Lean your seat back slowly.
-If your baby is crying, try to stop them. A good method for stopping your baby crying is not slapping it on the forehead. That didn't work the last 15 times you did it, what makes you think it will work if you try one more time?
-No PDA on the bus. Period. You would not believe what I have unwillingly witnessed. Really, whatever you're thinking right now, advance it by a base or two. I don't care if it is a night bus. Not acceptable.
-Don't offer your bus driver a beer. It wouldn't hurt to offer him a Red Bull.
-Smell good. And not like headache-inducing bad floral perfume.
-When retrieving your luggage from under the bus, don't cut in line. Latin America does not feel the same way I do about how well-functioning a line can be.
-Don't rush the poor bus attendant when retrieving your luggage. It's not going anywhere.
-Clean up after yourself. I get really pissed off when I see someone drop their trash on the floor, or worse, OUT THE WINDOW!!! I have wanted to take more than one Latin American child by the ear and give them a lecture on being a litterbug.

Word of advice: the front row of the bus is the best row of the bus. More leg room, no one leaning back into your space, first off the bus when you arrive or at a break stop, and far from the bathroom and possible unpleasant stenches emanating therefrom.

Yes, this 24 hour bus ride would have been just fine. If the bus hadn't smelled like poo. Literally. They did, at least, give me snacks. That was an unexpected pleasure. I felt so pampered.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Look what I finally found in great Valparaiso used bookstore!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Thursday, February 18, 2010


The next La Paz day was spent with Emma, reunited after her trip through southern Bolivia. She, Nikki, and I caught up over breakfast, sorted out business and plans, and then shopped. La Paz has fantastic markets, and if you pass through them without buying something, I don't think you're human. Beautiful crafts, and so cheap I almost felt guilty. There were also several guitar shops, and you better believe it was difficult for me to resist that. I kept visualizing another month of carrying a guitar along with my turtle shell of backpacks.

When I get back to NYC, I have several goals in mind for immediate action. Traveling gives you so much time to think and reflect, I've had these goals in mind for a couple of months already. One of them is to learn how to play the guitar so I can accompany myself for open-mic nights. I have a great voice, but no current friends available to play for me. I love singing so much, it should definitely be a greater part of my life. Not only would this add another element of fun and beauty in my day-to-day life, but the performance skills I would learn doing open-mic, the comfort and ease with which I would learn to sing in front of people, would be superb preparation for grad school auditions. And the rest of my life.

But I will just have to find a second-hand one in NYC when I get back!

In addition to the regular artisinal markets, La Paz also hosts a legendary Witchdoctor market, featuring women of the Aymara people. I've been looking forward to this since before I left the States. Markets are never quite as I imagine them, but the dried llama fetuses didn't disappoint. And an Aymara love charm for 15 cents? Done and done.

That night Emma and I piled into yet another night bus, this one bound for Sucre.

Sucre is a lovely town. There's not necessarily that much to do there, but good company is perfectly suited to a lovely town. We ate some good (cheap) food, strolled the streets (before Carnaval-madness struck), bought and ate so much fruit, so many vegetables, from the amazing produce market across the street from our hostel, and met a fantastic Argentinian boy. Quinoa is now my official replacement for rice, I LOVE it.

Nikki joined us early the next day, and the girls went off to see some dinosaur footprints. Having visited a certain town named Vernal in the American west, which prides itself on it's dinosaur heritage, I didn't feel the need. So I spent a morning in a Bolivian cafe, writing postcards and catching up on emails. It was a really fantastic morning. I have been overwhelmed, in the last month or two especially, with how lucky I am. I know that is it more than luck, my own hard work and guts and got me here, but I am so lucky nevertheless. Mornings spent strolling around golden South American towns slay me, always endowing me with a euphoric glow that clings to me through the rest of the day. I have plenty of challenging or difficult situations, which inevitably dissolve into funny memories or good stories. I am completely in love with this life of mine.

By midday on Friday, Carnaval madness had a good hold on this quiet town. Carnaval is another one of those holidays that has its roots in pagan festivities, twisted and pinned down to some sort of Christian occasion. This one happens 40 days before Easter, and is supposed to be a grand farewell to 'bad things' in a season of religious discipline. Somehow it's turned into the opposite, a celebration of debauchery. Which can be great fun. I loved the section of my university Critical Theory class when we discussed Carnaval themes in literature-- how people feel that they can become completely different characters, or let out aspects of their true selves that they usually hide from decent society, just by putting on a simple mask. It's fascinating what the the carnaval atmosphere can bring out in a society, and also what it can accomplish when rigid rules or personalities are relaxed.

Sucre's Carnaval began with a general town-wide water fight. Anyone and everyone could lob a water balloon at you, or lambast you with a water pistol, for the sole reason that you walked past. The juvenile and adolesecent boys of Bolivia have a complete hey-day during Carnaval and become absolute little devils. The main plaza of Sucre became a war zone, we would try to strategize how to get through it, back to our hostel, unscathed. And inevitably failed. In this land of caramel skin I undeniably stand out as a tourist, and though it may be my imagination, I am pretty sure I was especially targeted due to this circumstance. Spraying foam was another favorite past time, and I had to constantly hold back my dirty looks for the women selling cans of foam on every corner, arming the boys of the town with their irritating artillery.

There were crowds of people, trooping around the square and the town, often including a band blasting away some tune, wreaking general water and foam havoc. It was a little surreal.

This trio of mine boarded a night bus to Oruro, the epicenter of Bolivian Carnaval. Oruro is a shithole of a town. There is absolutely no reason to go there except for once a year, for Carnaval. And even then, I was not a fan.

Our ultimate plan of action for Operation Carnaval was to roll in at 5 AM, walked around the FREEZING dark town in the sketchy morning hours looking for a hotel or hostel willing to hold on to our luggage and valuables for the day (took way longer than expected, why don't the hotels of Oruro want to make an extra buck for keeping our stuff for a day?), book tickets for another night bus leaving town that night, and nab seats in the grand stands for the parade. Accomplished, not without some irritability after our restless night on a bus. But we were finally seated, watching elaborate and gaudy costumes pass us by.

SO MUCH BLACKFACE IN CARNAVAL! WHYYYYY?! After a few hours of the parade I realized you see almost everything in one hour, and then it's repeated over and over and over for the rest of the day. There are specific characters who recur, with slightly different colors or baubles, but obviously the same. The first pack that passed was particularly puzzling: a bunch of large men, with huge ruffly sleeves, huge hats, heavy boots, Dionysus-like grapes draping his shoulders, a pipe, and blackface. He held a whip and everyone portraying him (all the way down to a mini two-year-old, particularly cheered for), used the same heavy, staggering, drunken step as he lurched down the street. Once in a while he was accompanied with a couple of skinny, stooped men, completely covered in blackface from head to toe, wearing chains and with red whip-marks on the back. WHAT IS THE STORY BEHIND THIS ONE?

The blackface theme continued throughout the day. It was also a little surreal.

Another character was the saucy mistress of course. Scanty clothing, loads of makeup, loads of fake hair. Some pretty beautiful costumes.

Another wore slightly more matronly apparel, and wore a mask which I found rather frightening, though I wonder if it's supposed to look beautiful? It features a small nose, pursed lips, and HUGE eyes fringed with dark lashes. To me it looked to be portraying a commedia-like character of the snooping, busy-body woman. But I really have no idea.

Plenty of manly young men dancing

My ABSOLUTE FAVORITE CHARACTER IN THE WHOLE PARADE (of whom I did not see enough of), was a bear-beast creature. Huge fat hairy suit. I left my camera at the hostel, figuring Carnaval crowds are the prime time for stealing, but HOW I WISH I had a picture of these furry creatures. There were a few mini ones played by children as well, and they were beyond adorable.

Water and foam fighting were even more increased, if possible. Though I've got to say, in Oruro, it was pretty exclusively enjoyed by the small and medium-sized boys. During Carnaval, they have an excuse to be complete terrors, and they play that up to full effect.

The stands filled up and after a few hours I was unbelievably uncomfortable on my little board perched high in the air. The parade seemed to be on repeat, so Emma and I left for a small intermission (well, I never actually had the intention of going back). I've never been so squished into a crowd in my entire life. To be honest, all I wanted was to get away from the crowds and noise for a half hour. Emma and I inevitably got seperated, so I wandered away for a break on my own.

I found myself in a street full of vendors of food, makeup, bits and pieces for repairing costumes. I was in the 'green room' of Carnaval. I felt far more comfortable among the show-folk, and I really enjoyed walking around people-watching as Bolivians polished their shoes one last time, refueled after the exhausting parade through town. Women were constantly retouching their makeup throughout the entire day, from sunrise to sunset. I think my favorite moment of Carnaval was when I passed one of those bear-creatures, sitting on a bench, head removed and sitting to the side, eating a bowl of soup.

This was my birthday, and though it's pretty fantastic that all of South America was celebrating with me, I missed my family and friends. So when I passed an internet cafe I checked into my email account for a few minutes and refueled with the well wishes of friends and family. I love those times.

I headed back to the grandstands to see if I could meet back up with Nikki and Emma. To no avail, they had vacated our positions. The rest of the day I spent wandering that one long street of fair and show-folk, people-watching to the max. I babysat a beautiful Bolivian baby girl for a while, ate some street food. The second half of the day, as I was wandering, unprotected, in Oruro streets, I adorned my awesome green poncho. And by awesome I mean that it is, literally, a tarp and poncho in one. So I look particularly stylish when I wear it. Luckily, everyone in their right mind was wearing a poncho due to the cahoots of the town boys. Unfortunately, they have become pretty skilled at aiming the foam directly in your face and eyes, the only area of your body unprotected.

I stationed myself by a street vendor selling bits and bobs to repair or improve costumes. I had been wondering, are these costumes owned by the city? But it seems that everyone creates or owns their own costume, and they care for it and improve it year by year. Since American adolescents are pretty anti-everything, I found it particularly amusing to be seeing so many (especially the boys), carefully selecting the exact right fringe or bell for their sleeve. Boys paraded about, happily dressed in pink and purple, jingling and twinkling.

I wonder about the alternative lives of all these people. Am I seeing the town dentist cavorting by, boots full of bells, dancing a jig? Is that the quiet laundress prancing by with her butt cheeks hanging out?

As the sun set I meandered back to the hostel, reunited with Nikki and Emma, and we all headed to board out respective buses. Emma to Potosi, Nikki and myself to Uyuni to book a tour of the Bolivian salt flats, desert, and lagunas.

As we rolled away from that crazy shithole of a town, I'm glad I did Carnaval my way. Not by getting completely wasted, but by observing the details of a town on holiday.

You see those beautiful butterflies? Don't look at them, they want you to die.

Sorata days kind of merged into each other. There was plenty of relaxation, book reading, and getting to know a couple of fantastic boys. I made the vertical hike up to town a couple of times, and did an 18km hike to Las Grutas de San Pedro. Great hike, can't wait to post pictures.

As is always the case, it came time to leave. I can't stay anyplace longer than 4 or 5 days. La Paz called. I arrived and immediately booked a bike for 'The World's Most Dangerous Road'.
El Camino de la Muerte, or Road of Death, is so called because 200-300 travellers used to die on this road yearly. Bolivia has since put a lot of money into opening a new road to Coroico, so these days far less cars travel on the Road of Death, and there are therefore far fewer deaths. But the road earned its infamous title because of extreme dropoffs of at least 2000 ft, single lane width, lack of guard rails, frequent rain, fog, and dust making visibility extremely poor, and since the road is unpaved mud, loose rocks, landslides, etc. are too frequent. The road begins at 4,650 meters and descends to 1,200 meters at the town of Coroico. As you ride down it, you ride through the end of the Andes into the Amazon Basin.
The landscapes you see as you go down? One of the most beautiful roads I've ever been on.

These aren't my photos. I was riding a bike on the Road of Death, so I left my camera at the hostel. But I sure wish I could go back and walk down this road because it was stunning.

I am so impressed that I can still use words like stunning, gorgeous, jaw-dropping, absolutely genuinely after all that I have seen. I am so glad that one country's beauty doesn't seem to diminish another's.

I was a little apprehensive about El Camino. Not only because of its moniker, but because I haven't ridden a bike in years. And I have never ridden a bike on anything but pavement. And I can't say that there was any practice time really. We got on our bikes, adjusted our seats, and then our guide said 'Let's Ride!'. And we did. We began on pavement, which is something. We road for possibly 20 minutes, whipping around corners, along with traffic, our tires singing on the pavement. I loved the views during this part. It was bleak, foggy, freezing. We were so high, it was a little difficult to breathe. Llamas dotted the fields unfolding around us. All I could hear were the tires, the occasional llama or bird, traffic veering by, my breath, and the wind.

Our equipment was superb. Great bikes, great protective gear. I may have looked a fool, but wearing all that padding made me feel pretty badass.

Soon we came to the actual Road of Death. The pavement ended, and all I could see was a rocky, dirt road disappearing into fog as it curved out of sight. It felt eerie and dangerous. There is constantly fog shrouding the highest half of El Camino because the Andes' cool air is clashing with the very humid air of the Amazon Basin.

Again, no practice time, just straight into riding. And you know what? I did great. I was always near the head, I never wiped out, and I only skidded twice. We rode for about 4 hours through the mountains. We passed countless white crosses dotting the right hand side of the road, and iridescent butterflies luring us to our death over the dropoffs on our left. Our guide was great. The Andes gave way to the Yungas, which is extremely fertile ground perfectly suited to the growing of coca.

We finally rolled into Coroico, where a beautiful hotel complete with lunch, hot shower, and a pool waited for us. That second picture? That was our view.

When we piled into a couple of vans (there were 10 of us), the drivers asked if we wanted to drive back to La Paz on the new (safe) road, or go back up El Camino de la Muerte. Back up the road of death, of course! So I got to drool over the view once again, giving it more of my attention this time.

A few times we passed other cars or BUSES coming down. I'm not going to lie, there may have been some white knuckles in our van.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Isla del Sol

I liked Copacabana as soon as I arrived. Very small town, safe, with LOADS of vegetarian food. I think I have the very large hippie population to thank for that. Lots of crafts, and everything cheap. This was my first exposure to Bolivian prices and I was beyond thrilled.

It turns out that when you take the money stress off of traveling, it is 10 times more fun.

I immediately saw approximately 21 things I would like to purchase, but after our exhausting bus journeys of the past few days, Emma and I got down to business. Figured out how to do what we wanted the next day, the day after that, ate a great vegetarian dinner, hit our email accounts up, and got to bed.

The alarm clock went off far too early the next day. It was raining. But Isla del Sol (SUN!) was calling. The ferry takes a couple of hours to get to the top of the island, and the rain didn't let up the entire way. Nevertheless, there's a different beauty about a rainy day, so I wasn't too upset. We loaded up on food (the local flatbread, local cheese, tomato, mango, and banana. GREAT lunch). There was also a large hippie population on the island. Some serious campers in the cold.

Isla del Sol is in a stunning location right smack in the middle of Lake Titicaca, the highest, largest body of water in the world. It's so high up that the clouds feel really close to you. The northern end of the island harbors most of the ruins. Trying to avoid the large tour group, Emma and I explored the Incan ruins. I was especially excited to arrive at the rock where the sun and moon were created according to Incan lore. They let you touch it. Not only that, they let you sit on it. Stand on it. Do whatever you want on it. I love Bolivia. Touching ancient ruins would never fly in certain other countries. There was also a labrynthine Incan structure over a crest, which I was very taken with. Especially when the sun came out. One of those spots I could have just spent some time with, you know?

But we had the whole island to explore before the sun went down, and the walk from the north to the south end was supposed to take around 4 hours, so off we went.

SUCH a beautiful island in such a beautiful location. I was thrillingly content this entire day. The trail leads you along the crests of the hills that make up the island, so you get gorgeous panoramic views to both the Peruvian and the Bolivian sides of the lake. After the sun came out, the water was SO BLUE. There were wildflowers everywhere.

Note to self: traveling in the rainy season is not a bad idea, after all. Yes, your Inca Trail trip may be cancelled due to flooding and landslides, but most of the time it is not, in fact, raining. It just means that the earth is all well-watered and fertile, so everything is green, and everything is blooming. I am a big fan of the rainy season.

There were a bunch of true-to-life shepherds on Isla del Sol. I was pretty enchanted. After trying to sneak in a picture of a sheep a bunch of shepherding kids instantly ganged around me demanding money. I gave them a sip of my diet coke instead.

At the southern end of the island we came by a hostel with a stunning view of the impending sunset. Done and done. Tried matte for the first time with a bunch of Argentinians also staying there. As soon as the sun went down, it was instantly freezing. Emma and I shot straight under the covers of our bed and stayed there.

In the morning we walked down steps remaining from Incan times (I am such a nerd, I loved it), and caught the morning ferry back to Copa. Within an hour we were back on a bus, and my journey to Sorata began, which you already know all about.

P.S. I hate this catchup game. You get the main action, but who knows the profound (?) thoughts going through my head during these days? They just can't be recaptured at this point. Which is sad, since traveling gives you so much time to ponder, that's a big part of the charm and self-discovery inherent in travel. Guuuh, I'm trying, I'm trying.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Is there anyone out there 'cause it's getting harder and harder to breathe

Back to Peru.

I wasn't too torn up about leaving Cusco because I know I'll be back. It's such a lovely town and I will be happy to return at some future date to successfully complete the Inca Trail up to Machu Picchu. So Emma, Nikki and I began our arduous journey to Arequippe and the Colca Canyon. Emma and I took 3 different buses, maybe 20 hours of travel to a very small town by the name of Cabanaconde. It's perched on the edge of the canyon and is a tiny, dusty, dry mountain town. No internet, no ATMs. That bus trek was... not the most pleasant. I had a couple of people threaten me with calling the tourist police because I wouldn't buy a tourist ticket that I didn't need. Seriously, 25 minutes of intense discussion-argument over this ticket. I've never felt so berated in my life. A Peruvian woman sitting next to me eventually stuck up for me, and I was ever so grateful.

We stayed at a nice hostel that had a very...interesting... receptionist. The guy could certainly 'waffle on' as Emma aptly put it. The pizza was GREAT. I was exhausted after our buses, and it was pretty cold after the sun went down, so I headed straight to bed after some chamomile tea.

The next day Emma was up and raring to go. I was not quite so perky. But we walked 20 minutes from the town to get to this canyon. It's bigger than the Grand Canyon, and I've got to say, quite impressive. The Andes here are desert Andes, they remindeded me of Utah, though bigger. Desert mountain isn't my favorite kind of mountain, but it's mountain nonetheless, right? There is tons of ancient terracing around the area from the Incas as well. It's pretty impressive how fertile the ground can be in such an arid climate. And how LONG those terraces have lasted! They are everywhere in Peru and Bolivia. Emma is a champion trekker. I am not so much. I headed into the 3 hour hike to the bottom of the mountain, the 'Oasis', with little trepidation. I should have been much more wary. It was 3 hours of constant downhill, concentrating on where you put your feet so you don't cause a small avalanche and land on your bum. It was a beautiful view, but a never-ending trail! By the time I FINALLY got to the bottom I was completely pooped, and could barely imagine the ascent up this mountain I was supposed to undertake within 2 hours. I was hot, hungry, exhausted, and was being bitten by flies. I was not a happy camper. Emma, however, was quite happily perched on a log underneath some trees enjoying her lunch. (Local flatbread, avocado, tomato, peppina- a melon-like local fruit, delicious). I jumped staright into one of the spring-fed pools in the Oasis, hoping to ease the exhaustion in my legs as quickly as possible.

Too soon we started the hike back up the mountain. It was going to take me approximately 5 hours to get to the top. 5 hours of unrelenting incline. And let's not forget the altitude here, it's very high, meaning it's more difficult to breathe. Emma marched straight up. I made it halfway up in 2 and a half hours, and gave up and jumped on a mule for the rest of the way. The views from atop that mule were delicious. I definitely wouldn't have appreciated them as much if I were struggling on foot. And no, of course I didn't take any pictures. I was too busy being miserable, or holding onto the mule, egging it on. Awesome.

What really was awesome were the people I met coming up that mountain. Tons of locals going down who paused to chat for a moment. Always asking me why in the world I wasn't going the other direction to attend a fiesta that was happening that night... one old man, who was completely unintelligible around his mouthful of coca leaves, (OH, maybe that's what I needed to get up the mountain!) even forcefully pulled me a few feet down the mountain. I was pretty surprised by how strong he was, and how seriously he tried to get me to go to that fiesta. All the old women could talk about was the dancing! What a friendly mountain and crew of locals.

Will I miss it when I go back to NYC and stop greeting everyone I pass? Maybe.

FINALLY made it to the top. Gorgeous sunset. Collapsed on couch in hostel for a few hours, ate more pizza, and back on yet another overnight bus, this time headed for Puno and the border with Bolivia!

Puno is like how the name sounds. Kind of poo. We hung out at Lake Titicaca for a couple of hours while waiting for our next bus. Pretty, but it was about to get so much better!

Had a little bit of an experience at the border. I was the only American on board the bus, and as it so happened I got the special seat at the very front of the bus because they'd overbooked the vehicle. So I was sitting in that little seat made for the busdriver's assistant. Interesting to be right at the front. I could see every single pothole (I think Peru wins for worst roads), before we hit it, and got such a view all around me. So anyway, I made special friends with the driver. Now, Americans have to pay an exorbitant fee to get into Bolivia (because the US charges the same of Bolivians), and we require some special paperwork, photos, copies, etc. So, as this driver was concerned with getting to La Paz ASAP, he hurried me off the bus and to the right offices immediately. Where I had everything I needed, I was very well prepared, of course. BUT when I handed over my $135, my $100 bill, which I had extracted from an HSBC ATM in Lima, was deemed unacceptable by this Bolivian official. It had a serial number on it, a series that Bolivia does not accept. I look at this man kind of blankly, saying I'm sorry, that's all I have. 'Bolivia doesn't accept this.' Blank look, 'Well, how was I to know that before I got here? This is all I have.' He sent me to the Peruvian side to exchange the bill for Bolivianos. Back to Peru I go! Past the dogs and kids and vendors. Peru doesn't accept that bill either. Back to Bolivia I go! The driver pops up, very concerned that I have not finished yet, it is time to be moving on! He tells the driver I will just have to go to Copacabana, take out more money, and return with another 100 in the morning. The Bolivian official doesn't exactly answer this proposal with an affirmative or a negative, which the busdriver takes as a yes. 'Excellent! Let's go!' and he rushes out to the bus.

Now, I have been an illegal alien in South America before, and it didn't go over so well, so I am not thrilled with this option. Though it is better than driving 3 hours back to Puno and staying in Poo-no for a night. I also feel more than a little nervous about leaving my passport with this Bolivian official. So I ask him if he is sure. He studies me silently for about 30 seconds, then says 'Give me your 100'. 'This one? With the serial number?' 'Yes, give me your 100. It could create problems for me.' So I happily hand over my bill, get shorted by $5 on the change, but don't complain, and get the rest of my stamps taken care of while the driver unrelentlessly honks for me.


On to Copacabana, beautiful, breathless lake town at the top of the world.

Monday, February 8, 2010

An insuffiient taste of Sorata

Religion is in your face down here. This is the giant Jesus looming above Cusco. Good hike.

Colca Canyon (love you Andes!)

What I've had with breakfast every morning since entering Peru: coca tea.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Poll Time

There is a popular tourist destination in Bolivia, a once-silver-now-tin mine in Potosi. The main tourist activity in this formerly rich, colonial town is a tour of the mines. The mine's working conditions are deplorable, they haven't changed for decades. The people working there are extremely poor. The visiting tourists bring gifts of tobacco, coca, chicha, rum, etc.

When I first heard of this activity, I felt pretty uncomfortable. It strikes me as not a little morally ambiguous to make a tourist attraction out of people's degrading and back-breaking reality. For tourists to spectate, heading into the mines, removing their ray-bans and watching out for their bright shiny converse sneakers and turn these people into something on the other side. Like a zoo. And then to leave and spend the equivalent of a week's wages on their alcohol consumption that night.

I also can see why it became a tourist attraction-- Che Guevara did the same thing 50 years ago, just on his own. He wanted to see how these people lived, what their lives were like. It is, in a way, educational, if you do something with this knowledge. And it's certainly not something you could experience at home.

But can you imagine trooping in, part of a line of tourists with their cameras at the ready?

I really want to know, would you do it?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Some great reading for the valley...

I have finally stumbled upon the quintessential book for traveling South America.

The quintessential book for traveling Bolivia.

We interrupt this program for the following message...

Picture me on a dusty road, a road going straight through a very small town in western Bolivia. My bus has just driven away. I have my big backpack on my back, my daypack on my front, turtle-style. Before me, across the road, I can see Lake Titicaca in the near distance, so blue, with hills and mountains surrounding it. Behind me is a small, dark, tienda, or store, with a plot of productive land beside it. Behind the road sign on my left is a large pig, rooting through the grass. Scattered over the rolling land surrounding me are more plots of land, planted with some produce that is all in bloom now, so there are blue, purple, and golden flowers bobbing their heads in the breeze as far as I can see. Mountains rear up behind me into the achingly deep blue sky. I feel like I am in a Maxfield Parrish painting. When the sun is shining, it's quite warm, and my slightly-sun burned cheeks flare up, but as soon as the sun goes behind one of the many cumulus clouds, I'm glad I have on my fleece, and look forward to when the sun re-emerges. It smells like the country.

I feel pretty alone, despite the kid turning tight circles on his bike down the road to my right.

I am waiting for a mini-bus (van) to speed by, with the letters 'SORATA' up in the windshield. I have no idea when it might be coming. After a few minutes, I head towards the store. A very old man emerges from the dark doorway, with so many wrinkles and sun-darkened skin. I ask about buses to Sorata, but he has so many coca leaves in his mouth that he is mumbling around that his reply is fairly unintelligible. He is nodding, though, and gestures toward the road I was waiting on, so I feel fairly confident that I am in the right place, at least, if not the right time. I look hopefully at every vehicle that speeds by. I can see them coming from far away. But reading their destinations in their front window in time to flag them down before they pass me by is a little bit more of a challenge. 20 minutes slowly pass as I wonder if I am going to have to resort to hitchhiking. Finally a van heads my way with the right destination, and I successfully flag it down. My pack is thrown on top, as I am wedged into the full vehicle. I am lucky, I've got the last possible seat, without which the driver would not have stopped for me. I don't know if there would be any more vans that day.

There are 3 small children chattering in Spanish behind me, beside their mother and someone else. My bench is a fellow traveler to the left, a native of South America, though I don't know where. And a bent old woman in traditional dress to my right. She has a bunch of bananas in her colorfully-striped bolsa. 3 men in front of me. 3 men in front of them. And 2 men in addition to the driver in front.

We drive over relatively-flat land. By relatively-flat I mean rolling. Breathtaking mountains plunge upwards into the sky, peaks covered in snow. They may be the tallest mountains I've ever seen. Some of them tower so high, they re-emerge from above the clouds that are shrouding their sisters. Soon we are driving through clouds. That's how high our altitude is-- we are not driving up steep inclines here, we are driving at relatively one altitude, and we are driving through CLOUDS.

We stop in a town, our van surrounded by vendors shouting 'Empanadas!' 'Platanos Platanos Platanos!' Someone has a bucket full of bags of amber-colored liquid with straws poking out. There's something large floating at the bottom. This is the most popular purchase in my van. Somehow 2 more men and one more bent old woman are packed into the van. I think I am witnessing a spacial miracle as these people are standing where the door slides shut, bent over the heads of other passengers. They only ride with us for 20 minutes or so.

The van starts to climb and we round a mountain into the most beautiful place I think I've ever been. I know I am risking hyperbole here, but I genuinely think I've reached a new height of beauty. This valley is what my imagination has most wildly visualized when looking forward to the Andes. It is a part of the Cordillera Real in Bolivia. Words cannot do this valley justice. There are clouds, mist, plummeting depths rivaled by soaring, snowcapped peaks. Vibrant greens, patchworked slopes of farms, that same produce, in bloom here as well. I have never seen such mountains with my own eyes. I can't believe what's before me. The van is careening around the corners of a zigzag road, inches away from sheer, deadly drops into the valley below. For the first time on my journey I imagine the van tipping over the edge, sailing through the air for endless seconds before crashing into pieces at the bottom. The kids behind me are a chorus of 'whoooooas' as everyone in the van is heaved against one side and then, quickly, the other. The children are vocalizing what everyone else in the van is thinking, though without the doubt of fear that would be included in my voice.

I don't want this trip to end.

But, eventually, we roll into the small mountain town of Sorata. Now, as you may have noticed, I am a sucker for a small mountain town. This is no exception. I pay my $2 for a 3 hour journey, and enquire about Altai Oasis, the hostel my Rough Guide overwhelmingly recommends. I am assured I should take a taxi, so I hop in. After 10 minutes of steep, muddy roads, I am glad I opted for a vehicle to get to my hostel.

This may be my favorite hostel so far. I have experienced quite a few, but this hostel is gorgeous. It has several different buildings or cabins sprinkled throughout a valley, beside a rushing, noisy river. It's also a farm, and includes many animals (cows, llamas, rabbits, cats, dogs, macaws, etc.) Simon greets me, an American-tinged-with-Spanish-accent. When asked for the cheapest bed available, instead of a dorm bed he gives me a private room for the same price. I am in the 'penthouse', overlooking the rest of the valley. The bed is the most comfortable I've felt for months. There is a pool, hammocks, camp ground, friendly dogs and kittens, delicious restaurant, bar, acres of land to be explored, forest, river, a hot shower. Breakfast is included for my $6-a-night, and when enjoying my bread, homemade preserves, coffee, and freshly-squeezed orange juice this morning, I looked up to see the truly impressive peak of the 2nd tallest mountain in South America above me.

The Spanish explorers claimed they'd found Eden in this valley. I would have to agree.

Regular programming will now resume.